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Broadening the curriculum

Toward liberal knowledge

Author - John Heywood


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In the USA at about the same time (SCANS 1992), a committee of the Secretary of the Department of Labor listed the key competencies that were required for the workplace from high school graduates (Appendix 4). (See also Heywood 2008.) The committee argued that every subject in the curriculum could contribute to the development of these skills. In both cases it is the skills that are being integrated into the curriculum for the purpose of improving workplace performance. They gave an example which is shown in Appendix 5. In the case of the UK it was argued that the skills were generic, that is universally applicable and transferable to any life situation be it work or in society more generally. In the USA the skills were those specifically required in the workplace although it can be argued that they too are transferable. For example the skills required for systems thinking with which I associate the skill of synthesis are essential to the solving of complex problems, and very often those problems that persons face outside of work are more complex than those faced in work.

There are three objections to this approach. The first relates to the assumption that the ability to comprehend organisations and one’s role in an organisation can be achieved through specific learning activities within existing subjects without any reference to a formal knowledge base. The second is that without a reflective element there will be little learning. The third is that too much attention to these particular goals could be to the detriment of the integrity of the subject that is being taught. Clearly the personal transferable skills focus on the so-called affective and as such go along way to meeting Newman’s aims for university education and are a broadening of specialist study.

During my 56 years in further and higher education I have seen many changes. It is in the nature of individuals and communities to change things even when they work. We can safely predict that higher education will continue to change. My own prediction is that we shall soon be faced with two-year degree courses. But I would argue that these should be broad based and focused on the development of critical thought with the purpose of acquiring a liberal knowledge. Traditional subject arrangements would not suffice. Some form of carefully designed interdisciplinarity is likely to be necessary. Areas of study would have to be introduced but the relations between the areas of knowledge will have to be clear. What is important is that the structures that arise should be the subject of in depth analysis based on the knowledge we have on learning, the ways of thinking in the different areas of knowledge. The aim is to prepare students for work, life and personal development – in short enlargement of the mind. A curriculum would necessarily have to be designed to take account of student development. The object is to design a whole curriculum and not a list of subjects or modules.[16]

I am conscious that I have not made practical suggestions as to how this might be achieved. I am also conscious of the fact that it has enormous implications for the way professional/vocational education and work is perceived and structured. However there is one possible starting point and that is within subjects. It is my experience in Teacher Education and Engineering that the subjects within them are fragmented, and that students do not see how they relate one with another. They are, therefore, deprived of an important enlarging process. I suspect that it is not much different in other subjects. Why not start in the ‘home’ base?

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