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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.


The Impulse to Generalism

I spoke recently at the London Expertise Group, a group of philosophers, psychologists and educationalists, about generalism in undergraduate education. I argued that we need to reclaim some ground for this type of education – its intrinsic and instrumental value. As I’ve argued before, I see generalism as the kind of Big Daddy of interdisciplinarity. But whilst interdisciplinarity is in vogue, generalism is still derided by the use of such phrases a ‘jack of all trades’, ‘ge

Learning Maths 2.0

This year I am tutoring some maths again. I’ve missed it and it was nice to find my brain in decent shape – after 5 years away from teaching this material. But as I was preparing for the tutorial, there was an integral substitution that didn’t come immediately. I thought: ‘OK, shall I thrash around for a bit, use some rough paper, maybe get out a few old text books?’ But all decent mathematicians like a short cut, so I just thought, ‘Nah, type it into google and see what happ

Specialism, Generalism, Details and the Big Picture

Interdisciplinarity is in vogue in education. It’s been in vogue in the US for a while and throughout most of the last 100 years some major institutions in the States have offered interdisciplinary modules or fully interdisciplinary degrees. The discussion is now in full flow in the UK, after some isolated but noticeable attempts at similar projects over the last 50 years or so. It is widely agreed that in areas such as International Development, Gaming, Behavioural Economics

Your education is a work of art

So often these days we talk of education as a mechanical or, at best, physical process: you need to ‘tick boxes’, ‘jump through hoops’, ‘overcome barriers’, ‘grind out a result’. There seems to be little notion that in undertaking an education we are creating something in itself. At best we are…what? Beating the machine? But really your education, especially at university, should be much more like creating a work of art, a painting. I think of this image particularly with res

Reclaiming Generalism

Ask yourself this: would you prefer your prime minister to have studied one thing at university or to have had a more rounded higher education? I put this question recently to a group of 60 school and college students who came to UCL. They had come to see what the Arts and Sciences degree was about. Many of them were interested to consider it as a degree they might take. When asking the question, I did my best to point out to the students that I might be biased. Further, I ac

I Know Nahthing…

I had an excellent day at the PELeCON at Plymouth University, despite a mad dash to get there and a chest infection. I learned a great deal and made contacts with several people whose work I aim to follow through twitter and elsewhere. On returning, I have followed up some leads and read more and…well, as so often happens, I am left feeling a little sheepish and humbled by all that I do not know, all that I perhaps should have known and all that I may have said in the past th

Assessment in universities

The way we assess students at university is currently subject to some interesting challenges. I discuss two of these challenges in the vlog below. 1. The challenge to university assessment posed by an economic situation which causes a younger generation questions the processes, values and even competence of the older generation. 2. The challenge to assessment posed by the immediacy and ubiquitounsess of high-quality academic materials and different points of view available el

Design for Learning vs Emergent Outcomes

There is a growing interest in what is called Design for Learning. I am reading a nice book on the subject by Julie Dirksen, and Aaron Sams (who is usually credited, along with Jonathan Bergmann, with establishing the ‘flipped’ classroom), discusses UDL (Universal Design for Learning) here at this video post. In engineering, where design has always been implicit, there is renewed explicit focus on all aspects of design, including the aesthetic, and UCL’s Anthony Finkelstein w

Drill Classes? Really – in the age of web 2.0?

A few months back now, there was an interesting debate between Steve Wheeler and Larry Sanger about, essentially, the value of learning facts versus the value of learning method in the age of web 2.0. (See Larry’s comments here and Steve’s remarks here). Another way to characterise this is a debate over whether to teach content or process. I think I left comments on both sites and I think they both make valid points. I do not see how you can apply method without facts, but eq

Do you need to see your lecturer?

Many students tell us the most valuable thing they get from university is the small classes, the time when they get to interact with their lecturers and tutors: quality time. This is such a no-brainer it should hardly need to be stated. And yet it is important to remind oneself of this and some other similar things because we are in danger of losing sight of some of these simple truths in HE. So students need to meet (not just see) their tutors. But universities have a diffic

International students and UK credentials

Since I blogged on the dangers of UK universities relying on their credentials in the current climate of change in HE, I’ve been thinking that the situation is a little more interesting than I first presented it. The fact is we now have a number of different cohorts within the student body in UK HE. One way to divide up the student body is between International and Home/EU students. This is not simply a crude dividing line made on the basis of geographical identification, or

Two marks against ‘credentialism’

Exciting stuff happening at MITx. This is the sort of challenge to higher education and to education in general we like to think about. It is absolutely right for MIT to do this, just as it is right for Khan to give his stuff away for free. In some ways this harks back to the good ol’ days of university education when great professors and lecturers were happy to entertain just about anybody and talk to them or teach them for free, provided the student – whoever he or she was

Interdisciplinarity and individuation

A tweet about this conference on ‘Promises’ has me thinking about interdisciplinarity in education: the promises it holds and the risks that come with those promises. The beauty of what an interdisciplinary eduction offers is essentially one of individuation. As such it feels contemporary, relevant and desirable. It is part of a long line of political and social developments in democracy and individual freedoms. What we all would like, surely, is to learn what we want, how we

Multiple intelligences, multiple selves

Reading Daniel Ariely’s Predictably Irrational. I like his suggestion that we might all be an ‘agglomeration of multiple selves.’  This seems to me to fit with Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and a phenomenological position in philosophy – as well as my own experience. For surely none of us has exactly one type of intelligence. We have, in varying degrees, mathematical intelligence, musical intelligence, visual intelligence and so on, and each of these will

The Khan Academy and undergraduate education

I’ve been struck today by this story on the BBC pages, which pulls together things I have been writing on the blog since I started and which has interesting implications for undergraduate education. The Khan Academy is superb. It is close to covering universally the entire syllabi of the world’s schools. It cannot be long before Khan and his team take on undergraduate education: Calculus 101, Biochemistry 101, the great texts of English literature etc. (UPDATE, 26 November –

Interdisciplinary education in an established environment – emerging thoughts

I feel at risk once again of getting sucked into the discipline of interdisciplinarity, prompted this time by some excellent articles on such things published by colleagues of mine. But I resist. I want to stay as an outsider, to try to see things continually afresh. Of course the danger is that one ends up re-doing what has been done before or missing a trick or a short-cut that could save time or help students out. But we have to trust that I and my team can bring at least

Future Universities – teaching low-tech

Lots on the future of universities in the air. I’m sorry I missed the series at Cambridge with Martin Rees, Stefan Collini and others talking on the subject. I am mostly concerned with undergraduate education, rather than research. Two themes come to mind in this regard. 1. How we address learning in the light of the technology and communication revolution. 2. How we address learning in the light of the tremendous challenges posed by the crisis in capitalism and the consumpti

Teaching yourself

‘We can only teach ourselves’ is a phrase one hears in educational circles. I guess this is true on some level, but I do not want to turn out copies of myself in my students – that seems completely wrong. I also think it is wrong for institutions to turn out ‘types’ of students. What can this really mean: They all vote Conservative? They are all kind to animals? They are all entrepreneurs? They all like gooseberry jam? The idea seems slightly ridiculous. Surely the aim of edu

Global anxieties, local hope

My current job takes me out to talk to young people. I visit schools, and also they come to our university to discuss the Arts and Sciences (BASc) degree. I enjoy these occasions a lot. Occasionally I get a little carried away and can’t contain my enthusiasm, and end up confusing the message a bit, but generally these are really good occasions – particularly when the students have plenty of time to ask questions and the visit becomes a genuine exchange, a conversation rather

10,000 hours and interdisciplinary learning

The notion that 10,000 hours is what is required to reach expertise in a given area has been popularised by Malcolm Gladwell and appeared previously in Daniel Levitin’s book This is Your Brain on Music, and elsewhere. This notion presents a challenge to someone involved in an interdisciplinary education project. There are anxieties that a student studying an interdisciplinary course will spread themselves too thinly; they will only study ‘a little bit of this and a little bit


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