Developing challenge-led, interdisciplinary teaching: Helping make the curriculum a site for transformation

Photo credit: Daryan Shamkhali, Unsplash CC0

In this post, the authors share their experiences from hosting a workshop on Developing challenge-led, interdisciplinary teaching at the University’s Learning & Teaching Conference. This post is part of the ‘Hot topic’ theme ‘Lessons from the Learning and Teaching Conference 2021′.

Global challenges can be great entry points for students interested in global citizenship and in developing interdisciplinary skills – attributes increasingly valued by employers, and highly relevant to the University’s Strategy 2030. Courses dealing with global challenges can be exhilarating and fulfilling for both students and staff, but designing teaching to approach these big, complex issues can be really daunting. However, the University’s commitment to contributing to global challenges through Strategy 2030, rooted in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and its vision, purpose and values is a great foundation for challenge-led teaching and learning.

There are already inspiring activities happening within the University that we can learn from, including:

While a one hour session could only ever ‘scratch the surface’, some of the key messages, questions – and some answers – emerging from these initiatives, and workshop participants’ own experience, include:

What are the big questions relating to identifying and understanding global challenges?

  • We need to listen to and  empower students to contribute to their own learning – co-creation is vital. Diversity of student thought and experience is a huge strength  in determining what questions we should tackle.
  • Crowdsourcing is another approach to identifying key questions and possible answers – see for instance
  • We need to agree what success looks like and how to measure it –  this needs broader measures than usual.

 What and how should we learn in order to tackle global challenges?

  • We need to decide what we want all students to understand and know, and be able to act on. This is especially relevant with Curriculum Transformation in mind. Should this type of activity be integrated within all courses in the University, be an additional Global Challenge courses or both? One approach would be through exploring issues through  a pedagogical approach – what is the issue / what do we know about it / do we need to do anything about it and if so, what / what skills and disciplines are needed to do so and who has these – or how do we learn these?
  • We must provide adaptable structures to meet the demands of learners, society, and employers for 5, 10 years and beyond.
  • The Curriculum Transformation programme is an opportunity to design interdisciplinary, global-challenge based learning into the curriculum by providing time, space and structure for this sort of activity. The concept of an ‘arc’ of learning provides a useful way of thinking about the student journey in developing relevant, transferrable skills.
  • Challenge-led teaching can be a great platform for exploring transferrable skills and attributes, such as creativity, connection, curation, compassion, community, entrepreneurship, leadership, positive impact, citizenship, co-creation, and collective action
  • The global challenges are dynamic, they are shaping who we are now and who we will become. Therefore our teaching and our learning needs to be dynamic, and flexible enough to incorporate new solutions and repurpose old solutions for new problems.

How to facilitate impact by students?

  • Connection to stakeholders/partners within and outside of the University is powerful – staff can help students, and students can help staff make these connections at local, national and global levels in order to gain real world examples of impact, and experience of working.
  • Students are already providing creative solutions. We need to empower students to share their movement beyond questions to actions. ‘Local manifestations of global issues’ are an important way for students to ‘connect’ to global challenges through having local impact.

We look forward to the ongoing discussion on this important topic – and welcome other examples of good practice!

With our special thanks to presenters Colm Harmon, Ellen Macrae, Charlie Bevan, Ruth Donnelly, Patricia Erskine, workshop facilitators Kirsteen Shields and Pete Higgins, and participants who freely contributed the ideas summarised here!

You can also watch the recording of the workshop from the Learning and Teaching Conference on the Conference website.

Liz Grant

Liz Grant is an Assistant Principal, Professor of Global Health and Development and Director of the Global Health Academy Liz co-leads the University Compassion Initiative and is the CMVM faculty representative for Edinburgh Futures Institute. Liz is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Her research and teaching is in planetary health, palliative care in a changing climate, compassion and the SDGs. Liz directs the Certificate of Global Health Challenges and the Masters of Family Medicine.

Susan Jarvis

Susan Jarvis is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Teaching in the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security. Susan’s background is in research and education in sustainable food systems with a particular focus on Animal Welfare Science. She leads the DDI Agritech Talent programme which develops data related educational activity in the area of sustainable food systems. Susan is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

Geoff Simm

Geoff Simm is an Assistant Principal, Professor of Global Agriculture and Food Security and Director of the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security. The agrifood academy is an interdisciplinary hub of researchers, teachers and students seeking evidence and learning for sustainable, ethical food systems for healthy people and a healthy planet. Geoff’s background is in research, education, industry and policy engagement on sustainable farm animal breeding and sustainable agri-food systems. He is a Fellow of the Royal Agricultural Societies, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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