Interdisciplinarity Interview #1: The different dimensions of educational values

Dr. Jennifer Meyer and Dr. Jan Scharf focus on educational values from a psychological and a sociological perspective. In part 1 of our interview series, they report on the impact they create by combining their disciplines and explain what other scientific fields should learn from this.

Dr. Jennifer Meyer
IPN – Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education
Leibniz Section A
Profession: Educational Psychology

Dr. Jan Scharf
DIPF | Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education
Leibniz Section A
Profession: Sociology of Education

For me, interdisciplinary work means…
JM: to look at concepts from different angles and find a common language to increase our understanding of what is it is we are talking about.
JS: openness for theories and methods, taking different views as a chance for new insights and analyzing a topic from different perspectives.

Dr. Meyer and Dr. Scharf, please think back to your first meeting. Did you have any biases against each other’s discipline that you have been able to revise in the meantime?

JS: When we met, I was very much interested in discussions with scholars from other disciplines. And I thought that sociology and psychology complement each other in a nice way when it comes to complex research questions.

JM: At first, I didn’t have many ideas on what characterizes sociology when we met. But over time, even beyond our shared projects, I have become more interested in sociological perspectives, and just as Jan said, I think it complements the psychological perspectives in many ways.

Can you explain the topic of your joint project?

JM: In our project, we examine how educational values – in terms of the personal importance of education – relate to student achievement. We consider what the term “educational values” means from both the perspectives of educational psychology and sociology of education. Our goal is to find similarities and differences in theoretical approaches from both frameworks and see how we can benefit in understanding students’ school motivation and achievement when combining both perspectives.

Why is interdisciplinarity important for your joint project?

JS: Research in education often aims at explaining differences between students based on different theories, for example why some perform better in school. We wanted to show that combining approaches from two disciplines may provide deeper insights – when testing it empirically.

JM: When we met, we noticed quickly that we were both interested in values in the field of education, but didn’t know yet if we were talking about the same things. And I think working together on this topic helps us both to think more deeply about it.

JS: I guess in the process of revising the theoretical and conceptual parts of our project and paper we both learned even more about the theoretical considerations of our own discipline.

What are the key findings until now; and how did they benefit from interdisciplinarity?

JM: When considering the theoretical approaches from the two disciplines, we found common ideas. For example, coming from a psychological perspective, (situated) expectancy value theory by Eccles and Wigfield describes the construct of utility value as the perceived individual usefulness of engagement and achievement in a task or domain. The sociological perspective also reflects the usefulness of education for social status (prestige) and comfort (financial security), both of which can be valued outcomes of education. Overall, our work shows that even though both frameworks use different terminology and come from somewhat distinctive perspectives, the conceptual similarities outweigh the differences and we might benefit from combining our perspectives to solve challenges we have as a society. Importantly, this is still a work in progress and I am thinking about the project differently each time we get feedback from journals or colleagues.

Can you give a specific example of what has become clearer to you as a result of such feedback?

JM: The recent feedback we got made me think more deeply about how constructs from the different disciplines might be understood differently or not at all by readers from other disciplines, and that we need to be even more specific about what they mean. So each time we learn new things about the others’ perspectives, increasing our own understanding of both theories.

Communication of interdisciplinary research and within interdisciplinary teams can be challenging. Can you share your experiences?

JS: In educational research, it may be a bit easier compared to other research areas. We can already rely on previous interdisciplinary work. However, also we experienced that finding common terms can be challenging – as it applies to “values”.

What advice can you give postdocs for upcoming communications?

JS: As Jennifer said, we need to be very precise. But my advice would be to simplify the explanations at the same time.

JM: And maybe look beyond the lines of your own research tradition in literature searches. I think we need to include findings from other disciplines into more of our work.

Were there factors in your education or background that particularly prepared you for interdisciplinarity?

JS: I studied social sciences, which means that I attended seminars in political science, sociology, and social psychology. Over the years, I learned that in particular topics at the overlaps of these disciplines interested me a lot. So I wrote my diploma thesis about political attitudes.

Beyond your enthusiasm for the topic: are you putting your scientific career at risk by working in an interdisciplinary project? What are relevant aspects?

JM: For us, in this project, it was the main goal to go beyond the respective research fields and traditions. Our latest experiences with peer review show it is not that easy to publish work that is designed to be so interdisciplinary in its main focus. We found that so far there are not many high impact journals interested in that kind of research in the field of education. Of course, a critical review process allows us to keep improving the comprehensibility and quality of our paper.

JS: It may take a bit more time to publish such a paper. But I believe that a more innovative approach may also be interesting for the scientific community. Even if we would take a risk, like you formulated it in your question, it could be very fruitful.

Is the scientific system in Germany prepared for interdisciplinary research? Do you have a suggestion how interdisciplinary work can be fostered (by Leibniz)?

JS: Our network, the College for Interdisciplinary Educational Research (CIDER), is a great example how the scientific system is prepared for it. And how it can prepare young scholars for interdisciplinary research.

Which strategies of the CIDER network should be transferred to the broader science system?

JM: I think the great thing about the CIDER network is that it gets people from different disciplines to talk about the same issues. It takes some time, given the differences in both terminology and methodology, but we can get great insights from it. So maybe we need more interdisciplinary networks to discuss specific topics aside from our usual day to day work.

JS: Besides interdisciplinary collaborations mentioned by Jennifer, it is already a great asset to get feedback to your specific work from colleagues with a different perspective on a certain topic – critical questions help to clarify the analytical strategy.

Apart from interdisciplinarity, what would you like to advocate for?

JM: I would like to see more rewards for team science. For example, Jan and I share first authorship on the work we are talking about here, but we don’t know if this will be recognized when people read through our CVs. A lot of career-relevant recognition, such as awards and fellowships, are designed to recognize the individual performance instead of the team effort that might often be behind the biggest accomplishments.

JS: Science communication: presenting the main messages of new research findings to a broader public becomes more and more important.

We would like to express our sincere thanks to Dr. Jennifer Meyer and Dr. Jan Scharf for supporting our interview series on interdisciplinarity with their participation.

Find out more about the interviewees and their work:

Want to find out why we created this interview series?

Want to learn more about the first interview series on COVID related research?

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