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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.


Learning and Assessment. Back to the future.

Every summer my father, R F Gombrich, gives a course in Pali for anyone who is interested. Typically about 14-20 students come on the programme. They come from all over the world and are of all ages, cultures and educational backgrounds. He is not remunerated for the course, although there are fees to cover other costs. He loves the experience and finds the students dedicated, attentive, interesting and interested. This is what he tells them about studying, learning and asses

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;

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

The New Amateurism

I blogged recently on dilettantism. This was intended as a piece of provocation. But it was also, in my view, an optimistic take on the ‘New Renaissance’ brought about by the knowledge revolution and new ways of learning and working that we are seeing. The suggestions were meant as playfully speculative, in line with the subject matter. I was surprised, then, when talking to my dad last week, to hear that many of the contributors to his new learned journal of the Oxford Centr

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

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

Flipping lectures – reflections on a term of learning

The Approaches to Knowledge course on Arts and Sciences BASc at UCL has now finished. For this module most of the lectures were ‘flipped’ – that means (for anyone who doesn’t yet know!) that most of the content went out to the students via video – in this case to the UCL VLE Moodle.  We used the large plenaries (the old lecture times) for Q&A sessions and other activities. These are my reflections on the experience. But before offering my reflections I should ask the students

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

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

Failure and Confusion

Encouraged by recent discussions of failure in learning (both here at Wimbledon High School for Girls and at the upcoming PELeCON conference), I discuss both failure and its other ‘negative’ bedfellow: confusion. Living with both failure and confusion is essential to successful learning – and, indeed, a successful life. PS I’m learning that I do find it hard to think of more technical/academic stuff off the cuff when faced with the camera (e.g. the ‘Popper’ stuff in this vid

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

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 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,

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

Enoughness of expertise in higher education in the age of web 2.0

I want to introduce the concept of ‘enough expertise’ into higher education – particularly with respect to teaching undergraduates. The concept of ‘enough’ (or should that really be ‘enoughness’?) is in the air – see, for example this symposium at UCL. But usually we are referring on such occasions to material or economic sufficiency (recall the quote from Obama about having enough money if your curtains cost more than an average person’s salary). But in an age where the grea


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