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Higher Education, Interdisciplinarity, and some related things like Expertise and Future of Work

Welcome to my new blog. You can read more about me in the About tab, top left. I'm looking forward to getting back to 'writing and thinking out loud' about Higher Education, Interdisciplinarity and other things that interest me. You can talk to me either here or on my linked Twitter feed.

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5 minutes of thoughts on integrated curricula and liberal arts

Below is the text of a short talk I gave at a conference on Liberal Arts organised by Benedictus on Friday 24 June 2016. * I’m not sure what I was thinking when I proposed to give a 5-minute talk on the topic of ‘How to create an integrated curriculum’.  I now don’t think this is possible to do properly in 5 mins. So I will simply raise some thoughts but I won’t go into nuts and bolts here. These are on the website of the Arts and Sciences BASc degree at UCL and you can put t

Two problems with academic specialisation

One theme of this blog is the relative importance of specialising over staying broader in your education while at university – particularly at undergraduate level. Elsewhere I’ve made the case for a broader higher education on a number of grounds. But let’s say you want to go on to become an academic, the next stage is usually to do a PhD and then to publish papers in learned journals. A PhD must be ‘an original contribution to knowledge‘ and that must be significant, right?

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

Education for ‘specialisation’ in the knowledge economy

There are many reasons to believe that a liberal and interdisciplinary education in arts and sciences is the best to prepare you for work in a knowledge economy. In this world, service jobs overwhelmingly dominate and workers are required to show flexibility, creativity, empathy, team-working skills and so on. The, formerly competing, notions of inherent value and instrumental value blur together in jobs which require ‘virtual collaboration’, ‘cross-cultural competency’, ‘sen

The Knowledge Economy and end of the inherent vs instrumental value conflict in education

‘The Knowledge Economy is the future of the world economy,’ professional services firm Deloitte announced in their report of February last year. What is a ‘knowledge economy’? Safe to say we do not yet understand it very well. The Wikipedia page needs a lot of work. However, it seems that many of the richer countries in the world now ‘exist within’ such economies or perhaps ‘are’ such economies, if that does not grant too much existential priority to the notion of economics.

Explicit vs Implicit in Education

So, I get consulted a lot these days about what we’re doing at UCL, how come our students are able successfully to study such radical combinations as Organic Chemistry, Accounting and Arabic, or Conceptual Design, Design Engineering and Inorganic Chemistry, or Law, Engineering and Environmental Economics, and so on. ‘What is the process?’,’ What are the stated outcomes?’, ‘What in the summary of the vision?’ ‘How do you define interdisciplinarity?’, ‘What are your metrics of

Work, skills, education and 21st century blarney

Had a good ol’ chat with Tom Bennett on Twitter last night. In case you don’t know Tom (and neither do I, really) he’s a superb edu blogger – very funny and very much in the ‘trad’ camp when it comes to the current debates on school education. Tom hates stuff about teaching 21st century skills: emotional intelligence; resilience; teamwork collaboration and those sorts of things. I sent him this link which he commented on as ‘total gibberish’. I’m not so sure. But even if I’m

Interdisciplinarity: easy but hard; hard but easy.

In some ways the concept of interdisciplinarity is easy: when doing research or when learning, follow the problem, not ‘the subject’. That is (on one view) ‘interdisciplinary research’ or ‘interdisciplinary learning’. Karl Popper said it in 1963: ‘We are not students of some subject matter, but students of problems. And problems may cut right across the borders of any subject matter or discipline.’ So don’t worry about what ‘discipline’ or ‘subject’ you are meant to be doing;

Wading In

I read Toby Young’s piece on ‘The Blob‘ over the weekend. Some of it I agreed with, some of it I didn’t. Here’s a few sections of what could be many in response. Facts Is it really true that up and down the country children are being denied the knowledge of facts? I have two children, 9 and 7, in a local state primary school and they learn loads of facts. They tell me about Ancient Greece, The Tudors (including dates), bats, owls, eclipses, the physics of sound (fantastic pro

Qualification or Formation?

I tweeted out something about universities as places of formation. Oliver Quinlan said he liked the way it was expressed and asked if I had I done a blog about Qualification vs Formation. I hadn’t, so here it is: a blog on the difference between Qualification and Formation, and the place that universities have in that discussion. I think universities have increasingly become places of qualifications in the past 10, 20 maybe 30 years. I don’t mean this in an entirely positive

Academic Empathy

An occasional paper given at The Faculty Institute of Graduate Studies (FIGS) within the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at UCL November, 2013. Academic Empathy: A concept worth bearing in mind? Abstract Talk of empathy is everywhere: in science, the humanities, business and politics. Yet do we, as academics, think enough about how it applies to us in our academic and intellectual lives?  This paper introduces the concept of Academic Empathy in order to clarify how empathy mig

Generation Blend

This year on Arts and Sciences BASc at UCL, several students studied MOOCs and used online sources alongside their undergraduate modules at UCL. I knew anecdotally of around  8-10 students who were doing this so I wrote to them to ask how they had used MOOCs and other online sources to supplement and complement their UCL courses. This is an unscientific survey and there could be many more students than I know about. I had replies from about 10% of the cohort (those I wrote to

Learning, unlearning and relearning

Some people don’t like this phrase. It was first popularised by Alvin Toffler – he of Future Shock. Those who think the ’21st century learning’ meme is a load of baloney think this is just another cliche, a kind of branding tool for those who think of themselves as ‘progressives’ and visionaries but have no better claim to predicting the future of education than anyone else. But I like the phrase. Here’s 3 reasons why. Drumming As I kid I learned drums. At first I learned the

Would you do your own degree?

This is a question I am increasingly asked. It’s a well fair question to someone leading a big course which includes a lot of innovation. The shortish answer is: I can’t know for sure because I am a different person now and the world has changed a bit, but probably yes. People who are brighter and more interesting than me would have done it On the superb Arts and Sciences team at UCL, both Dr Chiara Ambrosio and Prof Vin Walsh have said they would have done the Arts and Scien

General expertise – the gap between rote learning and a different sort of mastery

The work of Fernand Gobet and Herbert Simon seems to indicate that expertise is ‘domain specific’. That is, you can only learn to be an expert or have mastery in a well-defined area or discipline. This is a challenge to someone who would like to argue for the value of a more general and interdisciplinary type of education for some students. Expertise is good, right? Graduates should have expertise. So how can we show that we are training habits of mind which are powerful and

Being Serious

The last blog was a venture out on a limb to reclaim some of the ground for ‘dilettantism’ in work and in study. The intuition comes from looking at trends in the careers for modern Western professionals (especially those associated with tech – and who is NOT associated with tech in at least some way these days?) and is supported by the informalising of relationships caused by social media and the levelling of hierarchies that the web of knowledge is bringing. White collar, m

Learn, Play, Work, Play

This blog should be read with its companion: Being Serious One of the fun things about being part of the ‘knowledge revolution’  is that we get to reclaim words; we get to look afresh at stuff which went out of fashion or, perhaps more than ever in history, we get to make up neologisms and attach them to all sorts of new and composite ideas. I’ve enjoyed making a pitch to reclaim generalism, giving the word new clothes, a new power and a new rationale. Generalism makes a lot

The Most Important Thing in Education

I attended the Future Learning conference at Stephen Perse School on Wednesday. The school is in a tiny street in the centre of Cambridge and there is something rather magical about entering through a very ordinary door in a brick wall, into a space which feels full of light and colour and bigger spaces than one might expect. The organisers had done an impressive job. The speakers were all excellent and we had stimulating and well-presented contributions from Sir Leszlek Bory

Holistic Hijack

I had in mind to do a proper academic blog on an idea I have that liberal education has generally not flourished in the UK due to a widespread suspicion of ‘theory’ and a healthy devotion to empiricism and pragmatism. However, the blog wasn’t happening, so I’ve sketched the idea in this vlog instead. Here: 1. I reflect briefly on my own writing (or lack of it) in my current position. 2. I contrast some ideas of education from Europe (Humboldt) with our more British ideas of w

Two cautionary tales

I’ve been bigging up interdisciplinarity and generalism as something we must look to provide in UK HE alongside more traditional subject/discipline-based degrees. The most viewed blogs that are closely related to these topics are here, here and here. However, in the interest of balance, there are two pieces of cautionary advice I wish to offer alongside championing these approaches in HE. 1. You can’t have everything Although we may wish to increase breadth, there is simply n

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