Home/ Opinion / Columns/  Education that focuses on challenges over disciplines

A software company is looking to expand. It puts out a call for software engineers, web developers and systems analysts, specifying particular degrees, skills and competencies. Applicants with honours degrees are shortlisted. That’s how recruitment has gone for the past century and more. Here’s a different scenario:

A software company is looking to expand. It sets out a series of challenges it wants to meet over the next few years—for example, “break into the Chinese market", or “shift to the circular economy across all supply chains". Shortlisted applicants come from all fields. The winning candidate has no software knowledge or experience relevant to the challenges set in marketing or procurement, but has proven success in meeting a complex healthcare challenge.

Are we moving from a discipline-based approach to a challenge-based approach? This would be a seismic shift in our whole approach to higher education and research.

In research universities like Trinity College Dublin, research and learning are interdependent: Discoveries from research determine what is taught, and what we teach influences what we research. In practice, this has meant that Trinity has developed a disciplinary approach: Experts conduct deep research in their discipline and draw on this to educate students who become socialized into their field of study. Employers, accordingly, recruit from specific disciplines.

This approach has worked right through the 20th century, and into the 21st as well, to deliver the research and graduates that drive economic growth and improve our lives in myriad ways. However, there are increasing signs that the approach needs renewal—disciplinary immersion and a silo’d approach are no longer enough to address the global challenges we face.

What do we mean by “global challenges"? These are issues that address fundamental challenges of human resources or security that have emerged across the globe, at scale, and cannot be solved by a single discipline or within a single country. Energy provision, inequality, migration, conflict resolution, and other problems de jour are all global challenges in need of urgent attention, as also our climate emergency and pandemics.

Challenge-based research is de facto interdisciplinary, but it extends well beyond that concept into a whole new mindset, shifting the emphasis from what the researcher knows to what the challenge requires. Reliance on one’s discipline can lead to an overly deterministic approach. For instance, the challenge of “how to prevent the spread of Ebola in west Africa" was only solved once epidemiologists began to work with anthropologists and religious leaders to understand traditional burial practices.

Such challenge-based research is still in its early stage, but resources are being put into it. Initiatives like the Earth Institute in the University of Columbia, and Trinity’s planned new Engineering, Environment and Emerging Technologies Institute (E3), are all indicators of a shift towards challenge-based research. Krea University is organizing its approach to research across four critical global challenges spanning intelligence, society, sustainability, capital and markets. Since what we research determines how we educate, challenge-based learning is also in development. How will it work in practice?

An example is CHARM-EU, or Challenge-driven, Accessible, Research-based Mobile, European University—a European university alliance that intends to create a new kind of educational experience with a mission “to reconcile humanity and the planet". This alliance will offer a new kind of masters programme that empowers students to co-construct their own curricula. Students are asked to identify challenges around sustainable development goals, and then determine which modules and courses would be most helpful in meeting those goals.

All CHARM-EU students are post-graduates who come armed with discipline-driven bachelor degrees. Is this the right progression, or should we be confronting them with challenges earlier?

Currently, students’ decision on what to study at university is based on aptitudes demonstrated in high school for particular subjects. From a young age, they learn to be discipline-based. Can we move children beyond the self-fulfilling prophesies of “good at maths" or “good at languages"? And can we, as educators, change our own mindset so that, faced with a challenge, we ask what we might need to know, rather than applying what we already know?

In institutions aiming for such a shift, there are signs of undergraduates moving towards this. Trinity’s student accelerator, LaunchBox, for example, enables students to incubate, seed-fund and market business ideas. Students from different disciplines form teams to solve self-identified challenges around, say, food waste, clean energy, sustainable fashion. Their learning is self-directed. If challenge-driven research is frequently top-down, then challenge-driven learning is frequently bottom-up.

While more universities are embracing a challenge-based approach to research and learning, it is the traditional approach that continues to dominate. The tipping point will come once employers, at scale, begin to recognize the merits of this new approach, and seek graduates who focus on challenges rather than disciplines. That moment may not be too far in the future.

Patrick Prendergast & Kapil Viswanathan are president of Trinity College Dublin, and chairman of the executive committee of Krea University, respectively

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Updated: 12 Nov 2020, 06:33 AM IST
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