For the past four years we have been addressing one of the greatest challenges to contemporary education: creating a balance between the necessary rigour of academic disciplines and the growing recognition that people need to think and work in a more integrative and interdisciplinary way. The structure of our higher education institutions continues to fragment scholarship into silos of specialization. Students are not trained to manage ambiguity and apply critical thinking skills to understand the multi-dimensional issues of modern society. Employers are concerned that graduating students are ill-equipped to engage with and solve real-world problems.
On May 7, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a report entitled The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches from the Same Tree. This in-depth report discusses the challenges and opportunities facing higher education in preparing young people for work, life and citizenship as they face ever-increasing societal uncertainty, complexity and diversity. The report highlights the rationale and challenges for intentionally integrating learning across the arts, humanities, social sciences, science, engineering and medicine.
The National Academies report gives ample evidence for the need for our universities to change. In a 2014 survey conducted by Gallup for the Lumina Foundation, more than 96 percent of higher education leaders stated that they are confident that they are preparing graduates for the workplace; yet only 14 percent of Americans and one in 10 business leaders strongly agreed that graduates have the skills and competences their workplaces need. The report also suggests that more effective integration will help reduce the barriers that result in inequities of participation for women and minorities in many STEM disciplines.
The report points to focus groups conducted by the American Historical Association that identified five skills deemed “necessary to be successful”:
- Communication in a variety of media to a variety of audiences;
- Collaboration, especially with people who may not share your worldview;
- Quantitative literacy – a basic ability to understand and communicate information presented in a quantitative form;
- Intellectual self-confidence –the ability to work beyond one’s own subject matter expertise to be nimble and imaginative in projects and planning;
- Digital literacy – basic familiarity with digital tools and platforms.
They point out that no one academic discipline is adept at cultivating all five of these skills.
The National Academies report is persuasive in its call for action and provides exciting, discrete examples of integration in a “Gallery of Illustrative and Illuminating Integrative Practices in Higher Education” in the appendix. Examples of comprehensive, integrative learning programs operating to scale for academic credit in a complex modern research-intensive university are, however, few and far between. We believe that our recent experiences in Alberta are beginning to achieve many of the goals identified in the report, enabling Canada to lead the way.
With a special grant from the Government of Alberta and generous donations from the community, we were appointed in 2014 to create the Peter Lougheed Leadership College at the University of Alberta. The Lougheed College annually recruits about 70 third-year U of A undergraduates from 10 faculties and numerous disciplines to participate in a two-year certificate in interdisciplinary leadership studies to be taken alongside their primary degree.
The students are divided into forums of about 10 to 12 students selected for all dimensions of diversity. Each forum is led by a specially trained graduate teaching fellow, also chosen competitively from across all disciplines on campus. The program comprises four academic courses, co-curricular programming, a mentorship program and a signature “stretch you out of your comfort zone” summer experience – individually designed by the students themselves and comprising 200-plus hours of community service.
Our courses deviate from most certificate programs where students must choose from a smorgasbord of existing courses. Instead, four carefully integrated, required courses have been created and are offered, working in collaboration with the faculties that host them and supported by contributing faculty members across campus. The courses provide a breadth of perspectives on topics such as ethical decision-making, critical thinking, effective written and verbal communication, managing implicit biases, developing emotional intelligence, and harnessing diversity through the lenses of many different disciplines.
The courses also include opportunities to become adept in using digital communication skills through training and assignments that require the effective use of Twitter and other social media, the creation of video podcasts and regular blog posting. As the students become familiar with the content of the courses and the skills necessary to work in creative teams, so too does the coursework become more experiential, less scripted and focused on developing conceptual frameworks for thinking about problems and looking beyond the campus to establish deployable skills for the workplace and society.
Although the Lougheed College can count among its graduates a Rhodes Scholar in each of its first two graduating classes, acceptances to competitive medicine and law programs, and one Hec Crighton Trophy winner as the top player in Canadian varsity football, we have not selected Lougheed College scholars based primarily on academic achievement. While the students we enroll must have the capacity to complete the requirements of both their primary degree and the Lougheed College certificate, the most important requirements centre on a student’s passion to learn critical thinking and communication skills, harness ambiguity, and participate actively in an integrated, creative, collaborative learning environment with a focus on service to the community.
As the National Academies report emphasizes, there is a lack of strong causal evidence that demonstrates integrative learning leads to improved educational and career outcomes. We have only graduated our second cohort of students and so it is too early for the Peter Lougheed Leadership College to make such claims. However, the report points to evidence that associates increased critical thinking abilities, higher-order thinking and deeper learning, content mastery, creative problem-solving, teamwork and communication skills with integrative programs. We certainly see this in the experiential learning outcomes of our students where we carefully track outcomes in teamwork culture and team assignments. The anecdotal reports from our recent graduates also strongly support these assertions as they tell us of their experiences at competitive interviews and during the first months of their work experiences.
Our work in creating the Peter Lougheed Leadership College has demonstrated that intentional, integrative learning opportunities can be created without disrupting the academic excellence of the specializations of our faculties and departments. Despite taking on unfamiliar learning challenges, our students flourish and report many secondary benefits of our program that carry over into the work they do for their primary degree.
In October 1937, in a letter to the YMCA, Albert Einstein reminded us: “all religions, arts and sciences are branches from the same tree,” warning of the implications of living in a society where long-established foundations of knowledge were corrupted, manipulated and coerced by political forces. Too often learning in the comfort of one’s chosen discipline does not develop the skills needed to engage with people with alternative worldviews. This increases the risks of polarization and devaluation of knowledge-based decision-making.
We now fear storm clouds are forming today across many of our most stable democracies. Canada has so far remained steadfast in supporting the diverse, respectful communities that uphold our liberal democratic values, but it is not immune. We therefore call for a deliberate commitment from our higher education institutions to take up the challenge laid out in the National Academies report and create opportunities for our young people to learn deployable, critical thinking and communication skills through intentional integrated education.
We need to protect our democracies by reducing the risks of polarized thinking and the damaging isolation of social media echo chambers. Our next generation of young leaders needs to be open, reflective, resourceful and able use their diversity as a strength as they take on the complex challenges of a very uncertain future.
The Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell is the founding principal, and Martin Ferguson-Pell is the founding vice-principal, of the Peter Lougheed Leadership College at the University of Alberta.