Disciplines as lenses

Our Director of Learning & Research, Andrew Baylis, explains the benefits of studying a wide range of disciplines.

An artist and an engineer are both looking at the Melbourne City landscape. While they see the same image, they notice quite different things and interpret what they see quite differently. What we notice, what we value and how we interpret situations is a function of our thinking. We know that others may look at the world differently but truly understanding someone else’s perspective is rare.

In the latter part of secondary education, most schools split the curriculum into separate disciplines. One of the purposes of this is to help categorise knowledge and skills into domains that are internally consistent – the skills and knowledge support each other in making sense of the world. A consequence of this is that each discipline provides a particular perspective or ‘lens’ upon the world. Just as a concave lens will focus an image, a discipline lens will concentrate the gaze on particular parts of an issue.

To take an example from medicine - a new cancer drug is being made available. The Science ‘lens’ is focussed on the efficacy of the drug, the factors that are required for successful treatment such as dosage, interactions with other chemicals in the body, risks of side effects and long-term changes. The Ethical ‘lens’ is focussed on the benefit vs. harm, emotional impacts, dignity and other cultural values. The Financial ‘lens’ looks at the cost of developing the drug, the price and return on investment, constraints due to government policy and funding, patent rights and other commercial factors. No single lens provides all the answers or even the ‘right’ set of answers. All should be considered and part of sound decision making is being able to understand and think within each of these domains.

Students skilled in multiple disciplines can use the lenses provide by each to provide a rich understanding of complex issues. Formally moving through each lens can be a useful approach in defining and solving problems.

One of the risks in being too focussed on vocational training or studying just the perceived pre-requisites for a tertiary course is that we can lose sight of the other possible perspectives. A good, liberal, education challenges students to look at the world in many different ways, giving them the tools to understand other people and also make the best possible decisions.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it: “The mind once stretched by a new idea never returns to its original dimensions.”

We need to stretch our learners in many different directions so that their minds can thrive within the complexities of modern society.

Andrew Baylis Director of Learning & Research