Global, technology, and socially based world requires students to develop higher-order creative critical thinking skills, innovative problem solving skills, and academic self-concept.   Scholars have noted that student success in acquiring higher order life skills requires both discovery of multiple disciplines as well as application of disciplinary modes of inquiry to grapple with major issues.    Although having knowledge about multiple disciplines helps students critically think from diverse perspectives, it is also an impediment during problem solving because converting critical thinking to an actual solution requires disciplinary mentor, support and mode of inquiry.   Thus, a multidisciplinary formative education offers both an opportunity structure for discovering new problems as well as an action problem, because the dispersed, unconnected perspectives found around multiple disciplines are inherently more difficult to integrate, especially for designing coherent solutions.

This ‘self-concept paradox’ is usually addressed by recognizing that multidisciplinary and disciplinary knowledge are useful for different types of life skills.  Through multidisciplinary general education courses, students are able to develop their innovative critical thinking skills by learning a wide range of creative ways of recognizing and framing problems.  Through deep learning about the modes of inquiry of their major’s discipline, students are able to develop their innovative problem-solving skills in terms of taking a novel idea from another discipline and integrating it into their major discipline’s mode of inquiry.          

Recognizing that the multi disciplinary courses are beneficial for creative critical thinking skills, while the courses in the major discipline become critical for innovative problem solving skills, is not enough to produce a conclusive answer to the question: which sequence and proportion of courses is most conducive to an individual student’s academic self concept?

Here, I found the recent research of Carnabuci and Dioszegi (2015)[1] using the principle of ‘complementary fit’ quite insightful.  The ideas in this blog are inspired and guided by their research, although their research context is different, and all the references cited here are from their published article.  Instead of taking the structural assumption of a single optimal course sequencing and proportion – starting with primarily general education for the lowerclassman  and primarily courses in the major for the upperclassman, the complementary fit approach takes into consideration an individual-level, cognitive perspective as well.    Thus, whether the development of creative critical thinking skills through multi disciplinary education, or the development of innovative problem solving skills through disciplinary inquiry in a single major, is more important for the academic self-concept of a student is contingent on that student’s unique cognitive style.       

In general, a student who takes courses from a wide range of disciplines Is more likely to have a more positive self-concept.    This can be summed up as:

Proposition 1: The more multidisciplinary (single disciplinary) a student’s early educational base, the higher (lower) his or her academic self-concept.    

However, this is a structuralist worldview.   Psychological research evidence suggests that cognitive styles are a fundamental factor shaping individual behavior, including how individuals conceive of and deal with problems.   Kirton’s (1989) adaptation-innovation theory posits that individuals differ in terms of how they make decisions, solve problems, and construe change.    Such differences in cognitive style develop early in life, and shape how the individual deals with all stages of the problem-solving process, including how problems are framed, the range of solutions considered, and the implementation of chosen solutions (Kirton, 1989).  

Adaptors use alternative or new knowledge to find solutions that fit within established frameworks, and are more adept at ‘doing things better’.    Their focus on established frameworks inhibits them from challenging and tinkering too much with the current ways of thinking.    This approach helps them solve “problems by proceeding at a disciplined pace in a predictable direction” (Kirton, 1994: 13), but also makes divergent thinking less likely.   

Innovators process alternative or new knowledge in a very different manner, their cognitive focus being on finding new ways in which to conceptualize and frame the problem (Kirton, 1976), and not on immediate solutions.   They typically approach problems from original and unusual perspectives, “breaking the customary starting point” for their solution (Kirton & De Ciantis, 1986: 141).   They solve problems by systematically turning around the knowledge accruing to them through repeated cognitive reframings, allowing them to see new ways of linking apparently unrelated ideas (Hayes & Allinson, 1998).    This approach helps them come up with creative ideas and initiatives that often break away from conventional process, facilitating the creative critical thinking process.

These differences in cognitive style describe an individual’s preferred way of processing and organizing knowledge, and are conceptually different from cognitive level or ability (Goldsmith, 1985).   Nevertheless, innovators are likely to demonstrate a higher-level academic self-concept in contexts where creative critical thinking is of greater importance than innovative problem solving, while the opposite is true for the adaptors (Pounds & Bailey, 2001).

Proposition 2: The more innovative (adaptive) a student’s cognitive style, the higher (lower) his or her academic self-concept.

The two baseline propositions so far derive from the well-established premise that the ability to generate original, out-of-the-box ideas is a defining aspect of individual learning that has a direct positive impact on the academic self-concept of the students (Baer et al, 2003).    However, management research also suggests that the extent to which the process of this creative critical thinking converts to a student’s overall academic self-concept depends on his or her efficacy in turning creative reframing of problems into design of innovative solutions.   Carnabuci and Dioszegi (2015) show how the principle of ‘complementary fit’ operates in this regard.   This principle holds that an individual’s performance will be highest when “the weaknesses or needs of the environment are offset by the strength of the individual, and vice versa” (Muchinsky & Monahan, 1987: 271).   

Thus, formative education anchored in a single major’s discipline may effectively complement the weaknesses of innovators, while broad-based multidisciplinary general education may best complement those of adaptors.    Because innovators frequently come up with creative critical ideas, but often struggle in pulling those ideas together in design of implementable solutions, they should benefit most from a cohesive disciplinary peer cohort and community of mentors and advisors.    A disciplinary community will confer the kind of support necessary to develop full potential of innovators’ characteristic inclination to focus on critical problem reframing.    A disciplinary community is valuable insofar as it facilitates narrowing the range of solutions using disciplinary modes of inquiry, and in selection and design of appropriate solutions based on proof of evidence as well as accepted disciplinary models.    A disciplinary community, however, offers little support in generating creative critical thinking, as thinking within such a community is bounded by the disciplinary conventions and gatekeeping practices.    Therefore, although disciplinary community may aid adaptors in selecting and designing solutions to problems, these solutions will most likely not be novel.    Disciplinary communities tend to cut individuals off from novel ideas flowing outside of their immediate discipline, which is likely to amplify adaptors’ inherent preference for established framing of problems, as well as their reluctance to consider solutions that break away from current practice.    Thus, when their formative learning is within a single disciplinary community, adaptors’ inclination to solve problems using commonly accepted frameworks is likely to intensify, and their academic self-concept is likely to be very low.

Adaptor’s academic self-concept should instead benefit from a formative education based on multiple disciplines.   Because adaptors’ information processing style discourages cognitive reframing, adaptors generally find it hard to envision creative and critical ways of construing problems, which reduces both the number and novelty of the perspectives they generate.    A formative education based on multiple disciplines would provide them the kind of learning needed to offset this weakness.    By broadening the diversity of perspectives that individuals must discuss and try to reconcile while addressing major problems or issues, a multidisciplinary formative education would make it necessary for adaptors to frame and reframe problems from multiple perspectives, stimulating them to envision innovative connections between previously unrelated ideas and thereby achieving higher academic self-concept.

Based on this, we can put forward the following core proposition:

Proposition 3: The more innovative (adaptive) a student’s cognitive style, the more a formative education centered around single (multi) disciplinary community will enhance his or her academic self-concept.

What we can conclude from the above is that a student’s cognitive style may be an important contingency factor in the development of his or her academic self-concept, and thereby academic persistence, progression, and graduation, as well as subsequent lifelong success.   Even more importantly, sequencing and proportion of disciplinary vs. multidisciplinary courses may be an important tool in this development process.   For students with an adaptive style, frontloading of general education courses that encourages exploratory engagement with multiple disciplines is likely to be more effective in the development of academic self-concept.   Adaptive cognitive style is likely to predominate among the students from the dominant social groups, such as those from socio-economically privileged classes.   Among the socio-economically dominant communities, the emphasis is on valuing particular ways of solving problems, the ways that are perceived to be the foundations for social success.        

Conversely, for students with an innovative style, integration within cohesive disciplinary communities of interest, complemented by specialized support from disciplinary cohort of peers, mentors, and advisors, is likely to be more effective for the development of academic self-concept.   Innovative cognitive style is likely to predominate among the students from diverse and unprivileged social groups, such as those from more limited socio-economic classes.   Among the socio-economically constrained communities, the emphasis is on exploring alternative approaches of framing problems, in an effort towards finding creative ways to release constraints and enable progress, even if full-proof immediate solutions may not be in sight. 

In the US, the colleges and universities have traditionally distinguished themselves based on their liberal education model, where students are exposed to a wide range of disciplines during their formative years.    This broad exposure helps students explore a wide range of possible majors, and then make a decision to make a deep dive into one specific discipline based on their discovered passion and interests.        

This traditional liberal model of higher education has come under significant stress over the recent years.    Two types of stresses are notable.   

First, on account of globalization, democratization and technological growth, the socio-economically dominant communities have experienced challenges in sustaining their privilege.   This under challenge lived experience has raised the saliency of innovation for the students from these communities.   There is an increased interest in developing an academic self-concept based on more than one core disciplinary identity.   Leading research-intensive and liberal arts colleges and universities have responded by offering space for either double majors or highly interdisciplinary integrated majors, within the normal duration and length of the undergraduate academic degree.

Second, on account of the broadening access to social opportunities, the socio-economically constrained communities are becoming more integrated with the higher education eco-system.    Here is where the higher education is experiencing its major challenge.   The educational system of the open access public universities, such as the California State University System, is designed based on the mainstream general education frontloading model.    Belief in the formative value of general education is deeply entrenched.    At CSUSB, first time freshmen are advised in a way that leads them to take 73% of their first year courses in general education.  This is despite the National Clearinghouse data showing that nearly a third of the students joining such institutions fail to persist and attain their four-year undergraduate degree, even after accounting for those who transfer to other institutions and then complete their degree.    Additionally, only a very small proportion of students are able to earn their degree in four years, with most taking five to six years to graduate, if they do.    

The research and inferences noted in this blog suggest that frontloading general education may be counterproductive to the development of academic self-concept of many students from diverse and socio-economically constrained contexts.   Note that not all general education courses are oriented towards offering alternative disciplinary ways of framing the world.   At CSUSB, the general education courses most common during the first year are oral communication, writing, math, and kinesiology.   The first three of these are fundamental skills for success in any discipline.     However, the struggles of a non-significant group of students for persisting through the first year, and for many others to develop a robust academic self-concept for sustaining their progression towards timely completion, may be connected with how students take these courses and are supported.    Specifically, instead of being embedded in cohesive cohorts, supported with specialized advisors and mentors, students are left free to explore courses with any other student on campus, join any section, and get support from a general group of advisors and mentors, not necessarily linked with any particular disciplinary community or major.    Proposition 3 suggests that such conditions are likely to hinder the development of academic self-concept of students with innovative cognitive style, who are likely to predominate at open access comprehensive public universities.  

During my American Council of Education (ACE) fellowship at Arizona State University (ASU), I observed the intense focus on strengthening the disciplinary identities of the students from their first day on campus, with fresh ongoing efforts to extend this integration even before while the aspiring students are still in their high school.    Critics typically criticize this approach as constraining the choices of the students at a very early age and stage of education when they lack capacity to make appropriate decisions.  Unfortunately, the critics miss the real intent of this focus.    The intent is not to constrain the choices of the students or to force them to commit to a decision that may be costly to reverse or change in future.    Instead, the intent is to offer these students a welcoming social place and space, that is supported with a vibrant and energetic community of interest and peer cohort, mentors, and advisors.    This social place and space is a warm personalized invitation to each of the students to be engaged – to fuse their individual innovative cognitive style with the specific solutions that the members of that community are designing collaboratively.   Students are guided through aligning of their exploratory interests with exploratory set of majors through intensely personalized support, including technological tools and expert mentors.   Using a funnel approach common among the innovation practitioners, the students then gradually narrow their interests until they find what engages their passion most.   The general education courses are intentionally integrated throughout the four years of College, alongside the courses in the discipline and in the major.   A predominant proportion of the courses taken during the first year is with the peer cohort who is in the same exploratory major; where this is not feasible, orientations, first year experience, and co-curricular experiences are designed to offer this disciplinary social identity.    Students of course find additional areas of passion as they take courses in different disciplines and with different communities of interest over time.    At ASU, many majors offer space for the students to add a secondary credential, such as a complementary major or certificate from another college, without exceeding the credits or duration required for earning the degree and to graduate.  

The ASU model has been highly controversial, although very effective from the perspective of both the students as well as well as the employers, based on the evidence till date.    There is therefore an urgent need to empirically investigate the propositions and inferences noted in this blog, using rigorous scientific methods proven and accepted across a range of academic disciplines..    

Categories: Blog / Published On: August 16th, 2017 /