Steve Jobs once said, ‘A lot of people haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions, without a broad perspective on the problem’.
NUS recognises the merits of a broad-based education. The spirit of a broad-based education is a central feature of the NUS Teaching Philosophy, which articulates that ‘NUS aims to produce individuals with curious and questioning minds, willing and able to examine and engage in rigorous inquiry, of a broad range of issues within and beyond assumed disciplinary borders’. Not only do we seek to ensure that our graduates acquire the requisite content knowledge, vocational skills and competencies for their majors or professional training, it is equally important that our graduates are empowered with broad knowledge, a wide field of vision and transferable skills.
Why is it important to provide our graduates with a broad exposure to multiple disciplines?
A diverse bank of knowledge and experiences helps us to see and appreciate matters not just in isolation, but to see the possibilities and relationships between ideas, events and subject areas. By studying different areas, one is constantly training one’s mind to think critically, hone analytical abilities and to derive conclusions from information. The mind becomes more agile, and this in turn enables one to learn, understand and organise new knowledge more easily and quickly. After all, the real world is not made up of experimentally defined questions to which one can flip a textbook to obtain answers. In this ever-changing economy and workforce, one needs to be deft and adaptable, to figure out the complexities of each unique situation and problem.
Diversity in educational experiences is thus important. One way to introduce breadth into the university curriculum is through a core curriculum that spans across the university, regardless of one’s major. This is the practice at many American universities. The core curriculum requirements will typically include classes in writing, critical inquiry, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, humanities, social and natural sciences. In British universities, students read the bulk of their modules in their disciplinary majors, and for breadth, students are required read a few modules outside their majors. In recent years however, many British universities have attempted to move towards a more broad-based framework.
The University-Level Requirements (ULR) at NUS is a hybrid of the British and the American systems. NUS has since moved from a traditional British curricular system to a (American) modular system. Today, our system is generally flexible enough to allow students to pursue depth and breadth, according to their interests and aptitude. Apart from core and elective disciplinary requirements, there are General Education (GE) requirements, breadth module requirements, and Singapore Studies module requirements.
In my view, the current system is not ideal. Specifying module requirements does not go far enough to ensure that all NUS students are reaping the desired benefits and outcomes of a broad-based education. An NUS undergraduate could, in the past, select modules that would allow him/her to go through university without completing any modules in writing, presentations or statistics – all of which are basic essential skills. To plug this gap, one measure we have taken is to incorporate a compulsory module in writing and communications for all NUS students; this will be implemented over the next 3 years.
Our colleagues in the General Education Committee have also formed a task force to rethink the GE requirements at NUS. The task force has recommended a structured GE approach by introducing a defining programme, preferably at the onset of one’s university journey, comprising a few GE modules that will broaden learning. Each module in the GE requirements will have multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary content, and employ pedagogies that will lead to significant learning experiences. How the modules are taught, learnt and assessed, will be emphasised as much as what and why they are taught. Getting good teachers for GE modules is critical. To deliver an ‘educationally disruptive’ experience, GE teachers must be strong in their disciplinary interests; at the same time, they must have a deep appreciation of a broad spectrum of disciplines, with multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives.
The possibilities for provocative study, experimentation and risk taking need space, protection and cultivation. The task force is thus advocating for NUS to provide a ‘low stakes but high yield experience’, to move our students out of their comfort learning zone through an ‘educationally disruptive’ experience that will shape their learning modes and perspectives. Fresh from high school/junior college, and for Singaporean males, from National Service, we think that some new students may need some time adjusting to this new learning mode. As such, the idea of having a grade-free semester for GE does merit consideration.
Students also need to experience academic brilliance, and to be introduced to and inspired by the culture and qualities of academic inquiry and discourse. Hence, it is critical for departments to involve the most inspiring and charismatic lecturers in teaching introductory modules. This will allow our brightest faculty to reach out to many young minds, to imbue them with the correct learning mindsets and perspectives, and set their learning journeys on the right path.
These are some insights into the directions that NUS is heading towards, and I welcome your thoughts, feedback and suggestions.
‘Context is crucial for full understanding, and a general knowledge of the world gives you that context.’
Robert Harris, 1991