Teaching & Curriculum - Blue Ribbon Commission for Undergraduate Education
There were various factors that led me to establish that commission. One was that in terms of the undergraduate curriculum, the University had been pioneering at the time of its establishment in 2000, it had introduced a broad-based educational system not unlike the US, in contrast to the British-based deep major that was delivered in the other two major universities at that point in time. Although changes had been made along the way, the basic structure and the basic philosophy had remained, and I thought, as we approach our third decade, it is very timely for us to take a really hard look, especially at this time when the world is undergoing such change. That is not to say change hasn’t happened in the past, but the pace of change, the nature and direction of change may be somewhat different at this point in time, and so that was one.
Secondly, I was very conscious that SMU had a lot to offer in the core curricular space that was as much part of the education of our students as the disciplinary curriculum, but we had not fully realized the potential of that, I thought. And I wanted to do something about that. I also wanted us to think very hard about what we are trying to achieve—what are the outcomes, the learning outcomes for our graduates—and be driven with the end in sight, so to speak. So, whether it is the curriculum, the pedagogy, the co-curriculum, the core curriculum, I wanted all of it to speak to the graduate learning outcomes. And I did not start with a preconception that we were not doing it and therefore needed a commission to look into how to do it. I started with the premise that there were probably some things we were doing that were speaking to certain outcomes, there were probably some things that we were not doing that could speak to the learning outcomes, and there were probably some things that we were doing just because we had been doing them for years and had not really thought about what the desired outcomes were.
I got together a group of people from across the six schools, and I am so delighted with the choice of colleagues that came on board because they were all wonderful contributors. More than the immediate group of about 20, there were work groups, that whole Commission was divided up into five or six work groups, and they co-opted both faculty and staff into each of the work groups. So all in, the engagement involved about 50 to 60 people in the thinking and discussion and so forth. Of course, subsequently, we engaged a whole lot more stakeholders, but this was roughly the group that I think has contributed significantly to the outcomes of the Blue Ribbon Commission. We started by asking ourselves what the graduate learning outcomes were, and we did not just pull them out of the air. What we did was to look at a lot of what is going on out there. The McKinseys of the world that have studied the skill sets that are needed for the 21st century, the discussions at Davos and World Economic Forum, the research that academics do into these sorts of things. We engaged our stakeholder communities from alumni to employers and faculty and we put all of that together and devised a set of graduate learning outcomes, five areas. As you might imagine in an academic institution, all you need is 20 people in the room and you will have 50 different views, and each individual disagrees with himself or herself at different points in the discussion, but that was the richness of the discussion.
And so we settled after quite a lot of discussion and debate on the five areas: disciplinary and multidisciplinary knowledge, intellectual and creative skills, interpersonal skills, global citizenship, and personal mastery. All of them are very important in my own conception. But the last is a special favourite of mine—personal mastery—because it is really about getting on top of who you are as a person, getting on top of how you make decisions, how you navigate choices, how you bounce back from adversity, the resilience that you might display. And I think that many universities tend to think of these things as personal qualities that the individual cultivates himself or herself in life, but I think the university has a role to play in all of that as well.
These five areas were further broken down into subcategories and so forth, and at different points in the Blue Ribbon Commission’s work, BRC for short—we kept coming back to, and we tweaked as we went along, as we thought about how we would deliver. But keeping honest, meant coming back to them and asking ourselves whether what we were proposing would contribute to these outcomes. From that, we thought about the curriculum as a whole, the academic curriculum. And basically, we had the core curriculum and the disciplinary curriculum. The disciplinary curriculum, I decided that I should respect the schools and their domain knowledge and have them take the lead in thinking about what they wanted to do there, with graduate learning outcomes in mind. But the core curriculum which cuts across the university, was where we spent significant effort thinking through what does it mean to be core, and there were many things that needed rethinking.
The university up till that point did have foundation courses, core courses, general education and just a couple of other baskets that students had to access, but it didn’t kind of hang together with a certain coherence and a certain narrative and philosophy—that’s what the group did. I think collectively we were quite proud of what we have devised in three pillars. The first being capabilities, the second communities and the third civilizations. And parenthetically, the alliteration speaks to us, as academics who like that sort of thing.
The capabilities pillar focuses very much on the individual capabilities, the sorts of numeracy skills, the writing skills, the managing skills, and, in a certain sense, that is what we have been doing quite well in at SMU already, and we didn’t want to lose that. But we also realized that for a graduate to be successful not just in his or her career but in life, it is not just individual capabilities that matter. It is how the individual is situated and learns to be situated within a larger community
And so we devised the communities basket with the following philosophy: that in the modern-day community, what an individual needs to navigate would be to understand the economics of it. Communities and societies are shaped and structured by how economics works, and so students need to understand economics and society, not just charts and graphs in microeconomics, but truly how economics impacts society and vice versa. So we wanted to devise a different kind of economics course in that basket within the pillar—the basket on “economies and society” within the pillar of “Communities”.
Then we thought, in this day and age, for someone to navigate their community and society, they cannot but encounter technologies. And so, we devised a basket on technology and society. It is not about coding, etc. That’s in computational thinking in the first capabilities basket. It is about technology and society—what does it mean for a human being to interface with technology? It is about AI and robotics—but what does this mean for my life, and how does it change the way human beings relate?
Technology and society is the second basket, and the third is on cultures. Very obviously, as we navigate communities, we need to navigate different cultures. And by cultures I don’t just mean ethnic cultures, although there is that. I don’t just mean national cultures, although there’s that. It is also about things like urban cultures. It is also things like family cultures in business history, for example. This is the basket that is humanities-oriented. It will have cultures in the sense of ethnic cultures and national cultures and histories, and it will also have the performing arts and literary arts and so forth, but also the urban cultures that we navigate as we live in cities and so forth. We have had really good feedback from students—even though we haven’t rolled out the full core curriculum, we were piloting some courses including one on urban cultures—and the feedback has been tremendous.
So that is the second pillar of communities and so moving outwards from the individual to the communities, we then moved to the larger civilizations pillar. The civilizational questions that are in a certain sense, timeless and placeless. They are things that will confront all humanity, one of which is ethical questions. And so, since day one, we have had a course on ethics and social responsibility. We all were committed to keeping that even if it meant thinking again about whether this was the way we wanted to deliver it, etc, but we were committed to this, and so it remains.
And the second basket in this pillar is something that we call big questions, and it is a course that will have themes that change over the years. This time around we are experimenting with a course called Happiness and Suffering, the big questions that confront humanity, and it is really interesting because you could approach happiness from a philosophical perspective, a neurological perspective, a psychological perspective, and that is exactly what is happening. The course will expose students to multi-disciplinary ways of thinking about a particular theme. Other possible themes over time—war and peace, wealth and poverty, law and justice. These are all areas that I think we want our students to be at least acquainted with, if not more deeply engaged with, because these are questions that they must think about at some point in time as human beings, not just the capabilities that will enable their work, important though that is.
So that is the sum total of the core curriculum, almost. There are two other dimensions. We have asked that there be a Singapore studies requirement and an Asian studies requirement. Students will have to fulfil the requirements, though it can be fulfilled from the core curriculum or from the disciplinary curriculum. If you were doing a course on doing business in China in the business school, it could fulfil the Asian studies requirement, or if you were doing a course on Singapore history in the cultures of the modern world basket, it could fulfil that Singapore studies requirement.
Finally, I would just say that we have very deliberately tried to integrate the co-curriculum with the core curriculum. We have always had a requirement for community service and internship. Well and good. We are weaving that into those pillars as well. The capabilities pillar is where the internship requirement sits because it is about capabilities, about work capabilities. And we are also now going to make it credit-bearing, on top of it being hundred percent requirement, because we want to make explicit the learning that students are getting out of the internship. There is a lot of tacit learning, but how do they think about what they have learned, and how do they be conscious of that, that they can use some of that in their future lives?
The community service is weaved into the communities pillar, and again it will be credit-bearing and we will render visible the learning outcomes. We have set up something called the Reflective Practice Unit, which is residing with the Dean of Students outfit, and the group of colleagues there who are devising the scaffold for reflection, and a set of questions that will guide the students after they have done the community service, while they are doing the community service, and indeed before they start the community service to reflect on what it is they are trying to learn from this, and what indeed they have learned from it.
The final civilizations pillar will also have an activity component — in addition to internships and community service—this is the global exposure component, and we have asked that a hundred percent of our students have some global exposure during the course of their four years with us. We are mindful that for some students there might be some challenges if they are working part time to support the family, being away for a semester doesn’t just affect them, it affects their family. We are working on ways of mitigating that, and I have seen over my years how a student who does have that global exposure comes back enriched, and I really would like for that to have touched every student’s life.