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Rigour in interdisciplinary education

What is rigour in education?

A rigorous education must be intellectually demanding. It must require students to present work which is accurate, well-written, well-researched and, where appropriate, contains interesting detail.

None of these qualities is the sole property of a particular academic discipline and one can present work which has all these qualities which crosses disciplinary boundaries.

There is a point at which rigour becomes dull, when an insistence on rigour is an excuse for inflexibility and more of a demand of bureaucracy than an aid to interesting thought. Inflexibility and stiffness is at the root of the word. Where and when any positive attributes of precision mutate into the negative ones of rigidity is impossible to predict but it is something educators and students must be alert to.

It is an open question as to whether the focus on templates, outcomes, aims and objectives, and the rest of the teaching and assessment paraphernalia surrounding education in the last 30 years – from schools right the way through to PhDs – has led to more rigorous work or not. It is also an open question as to whether insisting that work be done in disciplinary silos is important for rigour. Certainly an awful lot of good, rigorous work was produced before the establishing of these things, so it cannot be that they are a necessary condition.

Interdisciplinary work challenges notions of rigour. On the one hand, it can generate new ideas, create new ways of working and generate new products which stand outside standard templates and procedures of assessment. And, by definition, it crosses boundaries so that established disciplinary experts may not know what they are looking at and be hard-pushed to say whether a piece of work is rigorous or not.

This is not an excuse for sloppiness of any kind – interdisciplinary or otherwise – but I am sceptical that we encourage the best sort of thinking by starting with too much in the way of prescribed process and format – let alone outcomes. I don’t have a quick alternative answer. It seems to me that in each case the work must be discussed with a teacher so that what is rigorous about it and what is not rigorous can be understood.

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