Is the Future of Liberal Arts Programs “K-Shaped”?

Different kinds of learning.


September 15, 2016

Many of our institutions have initiatives to integrate essential learning outcomes traditionally associated with liberal arts education into all our programs. The LEAP initiative of the American Association of Colleges and Universities has provided many visible and influential examples. For educators in the liberal arts, these developments provide welcome opportunities to leverage the value of what we do across our institutions.

On the other hand, these developments can also provide challenges for our own liberal arts majors in demonstrating distinctive attributes for employability – not our only or even primary goal for students, but not one that we can ignore. 

Going beyond I-shaped and T-shaped Learning
We used to be able to make the argument that graduates of our liberal arts programs were more “T-shaped Learners”. That is, many professional programs and STEM majors were characterized or caricatured? as developing “I-shaped Learners” with strong depth in their major area but not much breadth or strength in essential learning outcomes. I can recall teaching students in engineering who only had four one semester electives outside of engineering over the course of an eight semester program (one of which was a course in the English department where they would “learn how to write”).

In contrast we could formerly claim our liberal arts majors were distinguished by their “T-shaped Learning”, where depth in a particular discipline like History or Literature was complemented by breadth of understanding and by “transferable skills” that enabled graduates to apply multiple knowledge perspectives in the workplace (and in their other roles as community members and global citizens).

In our current environment, we might want to label this more formally as “epistemic fluency”:

Working on real-world problems usually requires the combination of different kinds of specialized and context-dependent knowledge, as well as different ways of knowing. People who are flexible and adept with respect to different ways of knowing about the world can be said to possess epistemic fluency.”

The title of the book from which this quote comes, Epistemic Fluency and Professional Education, illustrates the challenge to Liberal Arts programs. As students across our institution come to demonstrate mastery of essential learning outcomes beyond their own disciplines, the signature value that liberal arts majors offered to the workplace in the past may be diluted.  As our institutions make progress on developing more T-shaped Learning in all our programs you can see more examples of this direction in Engineering Education from the T-shaped Summits we in the liberal arts can in parallel explore a new generation of beyond-discipline outcomes as signature strengths for our majors.

Epistemic fluency in specific (workplace) knowledge practices of growing importance
We aren’t planning to encourage all our Humanities majors to take a minor in Economics or Business to bolster their value proposition in the workplace – that would only encourage the impression that expertise in particular workplace domains is the key to graduates’ success. Instead, one of the ways we are tackling this challenge is through exploring epistemic fluency in particular workplace knowledge practices rather than particular professional knowledge domains.  For example, we have some initial pilot studies in the works on two specific emerging knowledge practices:

These knowledge practices have the following properties which make them well-suited for development in a liberal arts context and as signature strengths for our students:

  • The capability to engage with these knowledge practices requires integrated development of students’ conceptual understanding, practical skills and experiences, and personal mindsets – an integration where liberal arts programs have traditionally been strong.  An integrated understanding of Innovation, for example, considers the whole social process of creating value from the mobilization of new ideas, including technical, psychological, sociological, economic, ethical, political aspects.
  • These capabilities are of growing importance for the workplace.  In the case of Knowledge-Building Capability, many professional workplaces, traditional knowledge work – acquisition, mobilization, distribution – is being augmented with an increasing emphasis on knowledge creation.  Higher education institutions have always been deeply engaged in knowledge creation: many of the emerging knowledge practices for collaborative knowledge creation in the workplace have their roots in the practices of our scholarly communities.
  • These capabilities are equally valuable beyond the work environment, in our students’ other roles as community members and global citizens.  We do expect that epistemic fluency in such emerging knowledge practices will equip our graduates for success across diverse workplace knowledge domains and contexts. However, that is not our only, or even the primary, goal for our students in liberal arts programs (but nor is it one that we can ignore).

Toward K-shaped Learning (and learners)
We believe that our teaching and learning environments in the liberal arts can provide curriculum elements to build students’ conceptual understanding across disciplines, e.g., with courses on the History of Knowledge or the Ethics of Innovation. We can also provide experiential learning opportunities which build student competencies and skills in these knowledge practices, e.g. through course assignments requiring collective knowledge-building and reflection on the process. Finally, the required mindsets and disposition can be developed through faculty serving as models ‒ with students as partners ‒ in engagement with the lifecycle of innovations in teaching and learning. (There is a similar emphasis on mindsets in areas like Entrepreneurship ‒ but less emphasis on knowledge-building as a team effort to which liberal arts and social sciences can contribute.)

We see this emphasis on developing students’ capability for applying diverse ways of knowing within specific emerging knowledge practices ‒ in the workplace and elsewhere ‒ as complementing the knowledge and skills developed in their liberal arts majors and in the institutional essential learning outcomes expected of all students. We want to continue to develop depth of understanding for student majors in traditional liberal arts disciplines, with the new capability perhaps representing an additional specialization, minor area of study, etc. (with possibilities for students in other programs to also opt in).

In terms of I-shaped and T-shaped, this seems to require a third element or “line”. In honor of the focus on Knowledge practices, we’d like to express this as K-shaped learning. Just as we need to integrate the development of essential learning outcomes into development of student capabilities in their major disciplines, there has to be a strong intersection of all of the K-elements ‒ discipline depth, essential outcome breadth and documented capability in one or more emerging knowledge practices ‒ in order for the desired epistemic fluency to mature.

Thomas Carey is an Executive-in-Residence for Teaching and Learning Innovation within two higher education systems in Canada (Ontario and British Columbia), a Research Professor at San Diego State University and a Visiting Scholar in the Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation at the University of Queensland. The “we” involved in the explorations above include colleagues at George Brown College and York University - for the Innovation Capability pilot studies in Ontario - and at Thompson Rivers University, Kwantlen Polytechnic University and the University of the Fraser Valley - for the Mobilizing and Creating Knowledge pilot studies in B.C.. These are still “pre-alpha” endeavors (despite this blog column being about Higher Ed “Gamma”…)


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