Multidisciplinary work is important, but we should be paying more attention to our differences than our similarities. By Josie Tulip (ESRC funded PhD Candidate in SLS)

With thanks to one of my supervisors, I was given the opportunity to attend a meeting hosted by the Westminster Education Forum (WEF). WEFs are meetings in London which are attended and presented by a variety of practitioners, researchers, educators, policy makers, politicians and other professions concerning a particular topic. The discussion this time focused on the next steps for support, policy and practice in England for early years. Examples of talks included committee enquiry outcomes, suggestions for improving multi-agency working despite funding cuts, working with traveller/ gypsy families and those adverse childhood experiences, early language and literacy support priorities, and the impact of changes to the Early Years Foundation Stage profile. Although there was a lot to learn from the content of the talks (that will have to be another blog), I also learned a couple of lessons about the differences we all have when working in an interdisciplinary manner, and what we should be doing about it.

My first lesson was just how much WEF differed to the usual academic conferences I have been to, and what this meant. Specifically, forums like this WEF contained a larger pool of individual professions and perspectives. A variety of methods and procedures are also used for similar goals. An example of this was an MP aiming to improving adverse childhood experiences from a medical perspective and via committee enquiries; whilst a health visitor utilised a more ethnographic approach and worked more informally and directly with families. Including such a variety of perspectives about the same topic felt very enriching and holistic, helping consider more ways to create successful outcomes.

In contrast, the average research conference has a very specific idea about what type of information should be presented, and so is only appealing to very limited professions. For example, speech and language conferences are usually made up of researchers, students and expert occupational therapists, speech and language therapists and teachers; with information shared typically being research. For a number of professionals, sitting in methodologically-heavy presentations or approaching posters with complex graphs may not be appealing or feel applicable to them. If we want to further enrich the work we are doing, one suggestion is that we need to think about how to disseminate our work differently be more inclusive and appealing to these other professionals.

However, the individual attributes of more specialised meetings like academic conferences are also beneficial because of their unique ability to draw together so much empirically-based and robust knowledge about a specific topic important to policy and practice. This may not be possible if a conference had to adopt multiple other information types and disciplines as well. The question then is how can we have the best of what differences exist by working together without the benefits of different parties becoming less salient. Therefore, it should be recognised that still having more singularly-focused work is important (i.e. academic conferences), but creating and building on frameworks like WEF to larger and more expansive modes of dissemination is needed. This could include creating more large-scale interdisciplinary conferences, journals and practitioner and public engagement meetings. It is clear more work needs to be done to consider these options.

The second lesson relates to my first, but is more cautious about the contribution of multiple professionals. When hearing numerous professionals talking about the same issue and stating what appeared to be very similar goals, it struck me how very subtly, but very importantly they differed. In this meeting, the general consensus was that obviously, everyone wanted to improve the developmental trajectory of children in need. Previously, and within this meeting, I was repeatedly told that professionals need to find the similarities they have to be able to work well together. I find this rather contentious because it seems that “working together well” is framed primarily by the goal rather than the individuals and their motivations.

One example was a dispute between various different professionals about what factors affecting early years children should have been examined, as well as what recommendations should have been derived from a cross-party committee. It was clear from people’s comments and questions they all had different ideas on this, despite all agreeing there should be universal recommendations for early-years intervention. Another example is how a civil servant and a communication charity chief executive had different ‘spins’ on the same statistic of the same outcome. The civil servant stated evidence that more children are demonstrating good development in language, while the charity chief executive argued other factors in this outcome hadn’t been considered (e.g. more girls than boys were achieving good development in language). This evidently shows very different motivations and ideas of success despite looking at the exact same issue. Such important issues then become semantic debates, rather than a movement towards something mutually tangible and universally beneficial.

When taking both of these examples together, smoothing over differences via goals or just presenting information to different professionals will not create useful multidisciplinary working. Rather, it only demonstrates fragmented perspectives being demonstrated in the same room at the same time. We need to explicitly consider and discuss at the beginning of any work or any joint goal what the stakes, priorities and motivations are for each person involved, and attempt to have as many perspectives (especially if we disagree with them) included. However, it is also important to see what can be compromised, how goals will be defined and measured, and truthfully consider whether individuals in a group can successfully work together at all. Just putting professionals together to tick boxes for work and dissemination will be far less beneficial than having realistic partnerships and networks. Instead, these mixed messages and post-hoc disagreements will only confuse practitioners and policy makers, stopping useful progress.

From gaining these perspectives about some of the benefits and pitfalls of interdisciplinary working, I can see this issue is clearly complicated. This was perhaps my first real consideration of this subject, but I hope that the discussion here will give thought to this area for others. For anyone at the start of their career like me (or perhaps not), we need to actively consider what interdisciplinary work means, and what this relationship should look like. For me (right now), it’s okay to be different.

The Westminster Education forum website: