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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.


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

T-shaped people, pancake people and Stickle Brick people

A couple of months back, Chris Rapley reminded me of the description ‘T-shaped people‘, started in the 1990s. This phrase is used to describe the sorts of industry, business and project leaders who have sufficient depth of expertise on which to base decisions, but who are also able to cover wider ground in order to understand different perspectives, put their knowledge in context, and empathise with their teams. The idea of a T-shaped education is also a decent metaphor for t

Breadth vs Depth in university education

Health Warning: I am finding it increasingly difficult to keep separate my personal views about education, as expressed on this blog, and the work I am doing on Arts and Sciences BASc. I guess this is inevitable and may be no bad thing. It is worth saying, though, that by no means all that I write or say here will feed into or be applicable or relevant to courses we offer on the BASc. A couple of weeks back I was taken with a comment from my colleague Prof Vincent Walsh that

Humanities – a source of future value?

This is my first vlog. I discuss how recent reports from think-tanks and discussions with major employers point to a re-evaluating of the humanities – not along the lines of their inherent or social value (that is a separate argument) but along purely monetary lines. References: Future Work Skills 2020 by the Institute for the Future See Also: Council for Industry and Higher Education Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha Nussbaum Valuing the Humanities

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

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

Groucho Marx and interdisciplinary education

‘I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member’, so said Groucho – as Woody Allen tells us in Annie Hall, if you can’t get to the original quote. Since I blogged on interdisciplinarity and individuation last week I’ve been thinking about the logical consequences of a move in education which allows people to individuate their learning to such a degree that each personal combination is unique. There is a possibility here that those of us educated in this way

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

The web, ways of learning, interdisciplinarity and a history of knowledge

Our first round of applicants came to the Open Day of UCL Arts and Sciences BASc last week.  It was a very enjoyable day for us and great to meet so many interesting and interested students – but I will skip some the details of the day. This blog is about what I am learning about how students are learning, what that means for us at UCL BASc and how I see this as fitting in to some broad ideas in the history of knowledge. For our Open Day, there was a lecture which students ha

Flipping the lecture hall: first thoughts

Inspired by Khan, reading more at Steve Wheeler’s blog and many other links, I am thinking more about how we can use technology at universities to give the students what they want: meaningful contact time with their lecturers, professors and the leading academics. This is about putting the people back at the centre of the learning. It is using technology to do stuff technology can do, and allowing people to do the things most of us want people to do. How can we do this? Well,

Series learning versus parallel learning

One of the principal criticisms one meets when setting up an interdisciplinary degree is that what the student learns will be ‘superficial’. It may have some breadth, but no real depth, none of the necessary ‘stuff’ one should get from a proper university degree. In my discussions and presentations I try to assuage this worry by, among other things, pointing to the work and thoughts of my colleagues, the Pathway Representatives on the Arts and Sciences degree. These front-ran

Resisting expertise

As I read more on interdisciplinarity, learn more about it through my daily work, talk more to colleagues who do fascinating interdisciplinary work and lead fascinating interdisciplinary lives, there is pressure on me to become an expert in the discipline of interdisciplinarity. There is something obviously ridiculous about this, and I am resisting. Although I think that so far I am right to resist in this case, it forces me to reflect on what might be perceived as a lack of

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

Interdisciplinarity, future work and the learning of ‘languages’

Currently my work has me thinking about future employment, the world of work and the role of universities in preparing students for this aspect of their lives. For this blog entry, I want to put aside the issue of whether there is a conflict within universities between scholarship and preparing people for the world of work. There are other articles on things like this in this blog. Let’s assume here that the proportion of the population going to university will remain high an

Cross-reference theory of understanding – the Searchlight Metaphor

I hold that you get the best understanding of something by looking at it from many different angles. You can think of this as cross-referencing. And the image I like to use as to how that cross-referencing works is the way a searchlight (or, rather, a set of searchlights) can probe and illuminate an object. Generally I take this metaphor to apply to understanding anything whatsoever, but in order not to get bogged down in philosophical terms like ‘proposition’, ‘essence’ and


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