restricted access Integrative Thinking, Synthesis, and Creativity in Interdisciplinary Studies
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The Journal of General Education 50.4 (2001) 288-311

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Integrative Thinking, Synthesis, and Creativity in Interdisciplinary Studies

David J. Sill (1996). Vol. 45, No. 2, 129-151.


I. Statement of the Problem: The Miracle Happens Here

One of the stated goals shared by interdisciplinary studies and liberal education in general is the development of students' integrative thinking skills, including the skill of synthesis. Elsewhere in this issue, Richards explores the limitations and possibilities of disciplinary synthesis within interdisciplinary studies. Using the word "synthesis," in a different sense, this article concentrates on synthesis as an integrative thinking skill. While the development of students' integrative thinking skills may be valued in undergraduate education, at the same time the means of teaching integrative thinking are unclear and mysterious.

There is a cartoon that shows two scientists or engineers who have filled a chalkboard with mathematical symbols forming the shape of an hourglass turned on its side. The left and right sides of the board are covered from top to bottom with formulae and numbers. The scrawls on the chalkboard narrow from both sides to an isthmus where there is the note: "And a miracle happens here." The answer as to how interdisciplinary studies teaches integrative thought is like that cartoon. While we trust that, with the proper environment, students will synthesize information, the nagging doubt remains that it will only happen if there is a miracle because much of the process of teaching integrative thought remains hidden in mystery. This is due, at least in part, to the general lack of a model for interdisciplinary thinking, as pointed out by St. Germain (1993). This paper develops a model for integrative thinking by using existing models for creativity, an approach suggested by Klein (1990) when stating that future tasks for understanding interdisciplinarity include "exploring the connections among creativity, [End Page 288] problem solving, and the interdisciplinary process" (p. 196).

Toward that end, this paper begins by exploring definitions of interdisciplinarity and creativity; it then develops a model of creativity that serves as a model for synthesis and integrative thought, discusses its implications for interdisciplinary studies, and concludes by identifying areas for further work. Throughout this paper, the terms synthesis, integrative thought, and creativity will be considered as slightly different aspects of the same thought process, and in some contexts the terms will be considered synonymous. This equivalency is valid only if we consider synthesis as a process, not a product, and if we limit the discussion to the type of creativity the involves synthesis in thought.

II. Interdisciplinary Studies Defined

Before developing a creativity model for integrative and interdisciplinary thinking, we must first wrestle with definitions of interdisciplinarity, integrative studies, and interdisciplinary studies (terms which we will consider synonymous). Interdisciplinary studies holds multiple meanings, and those working in the field disagree among themselves over what they mean by it. The problem is, first, that the meanings differ depending on whether the reference is to programs, courses, research areas, modes of teaching and learning, or administrative structures. Then, within each of those areas, there is disagreement regarding what is and what is not included in the definition. Klein (1990) identifies four separate varieties of definitions for interdisciplinarity: (1) by example through the form that it takes, (2) by motivation examining why it takes place, (3) by principles of interaction concerning how disciplines interact, and (4) by hierarchical terminology. While concentrating on the modes of teaching and learning within courses, this paper will define interdisciplinary studies based on the principles of disciplinary interaction, Klein's third variety of definition, by looking at the dynamics between disciplines in interdisciplinary studies. As will be developed in the creativity [End Page 289] model for integrative thought, it is the tension between interacting, discrete disciplines that provides the impetus for synthesis.

There is considerable range in interdisciplinary dynamics for courses, programs, and research areas, some of which will fall outside the working definition assumed for here. For example, one type of program that is labeled interdisciplinary exists under such headings as Women's Studies, Environmental Studies...