Retooling curricula for the 21st century


Kelly Wenzel

Professor Louis Silverstein raised questions at the fourth roundtable discussion Nov. 17 at Stage Two in the 618 S. Michigan Ave. Building.

By Assistant Campus Editor

The idea of creating a curriculum for the 21st century took center stage Nov. 17 at the fourth roundtable discussion hosted by the college during the drafting process of its Strategic Plan.

Students and staff filled Stage Two in the 618 S. Michigan Ave. Building, exploring such topics as determining essential skills for graduates and streamlining the interdisciplinary degree process during the 90-minute discussion.

Stan Wearden, senior vice president and provost, said the feedback the college has received from the roundtable discussions as well as the comments aggregated on the Civic Commons website have been thought-provoking and extraordinarily helpful towards making changes necessary to the college.

Participants emphasized eliminating redundancies in majors and departments to create more cohesive classes and curricula, and, by extension, enhance the interdisciplinary culture of the college.

“[The administration] is going to have a lot of conversations about [interdisciplinary majors and minors] and curriculum built around collaborations within majors over the next five years of the strategic planning process,” Wearden said. “The big challenge is to get everyone to focus on learning outcomes and think about building curriculum. Whether it’s the core [curriculum] or changes to the majors or the creation of new minors, I think the conversation needs to be about the learning outcomes we’re looking for.” 

Wearden said that the school needs a universal set of learning outcomes, regardless of a student’s major, within the core curriculum.

Pattie Mackenzie, assistant dean of the School of  Media Arts, explained how this proposal could work: “We have learning outcomes for every course taught at Columbia in order to measure learning and growth.  Now the college is re-envisioning what the student of this century needs to know to be a renaissance person in the Liberal Arts and Sciences Core.  Having learning outcomes for our possible new LAS core helps position our students well for the future.  For example and this is a hypothetical case, what if we determine that all students need to understand basis computer programming or coding to be a well-educated person of the 21st century.  Developing learning outcomes for such a course would be a natural evolution for the LAS Core providing us with markers for that new learning.”

Nevertheless, Wearden acknowledged focusing on learning outcomes will be challenging.

“It can be a hard conversation to have,” Wearden said. “There are courses that already exist, but you have to put that out of your mind while you’re talking about learning outcomes. Then you can come back and say, ‘How can we embed these in courses, and do our existing courses serve these [learning outcomes] or are these new or revised courses?’”

A common sentiment voiced was that the collaboration of departments and majors would lead to more dynamic classes and students graduating more prepared for the 21st century working world.

“One interesting thing that comes out of these conversations is, is our existing configuration of departments the one that makes sense for the 21st century?” Wearden said. “As we start talking about collaborating in cross-disciplines, does this lead to the creation of new departments and maybe old departments not existing anymore in their current configuration?”

Wearden said he does not have specific departments in mind for mergers or eliminations, but such changes are possible.

Lance Cox, a junior cultural studies major, actively tweeted his thoughts about the ten forum questions during the roundtable session using the hashtag “columplan” to ensure the moderating board received his input. He said he was displeased with the administration and that there needs to be more communication between students and the administration.

“Stop the ‘What can we give students?’ and start the ‘How can we figure out what students want?’” Cox said. 

Louis Silverstein, associate professor in the Humanities, History & Social Sciences Department, questioned what was meant by the overall theme of 21st century curriculum.

“I get the impression we’re assuming we know what the 21st century will be like,” Silverstein said. “We have to realize is that our students have to create the 21st century. Not just artistically but also in terms of social justice. What will they bring to challenge and teach us in a very different way?”

Wearden said Silverstein’s comment is why feedback is important. Students need to have skill sets in multiple departments to have the ability to adapt to careers beyond college, Wearden said.