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Rethinking undergraduate curricula

The current crisis of the university is intellectual. It is a crisis of purpose, focus and content, rooted in fundamental confusion about all three. Starting from this premise a working group of scholars that met at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin during the academic year 2009-10 crafted a set of eleven overlapping principles meant to inform curricula reform.

The problems we saw were that curricula today are largely separate from research, subjects are taught in disciplinary isolation, knowledge is conflated with information and is more often than not presented as static rather than dynamic. The crisis becomes more and more visible, as the pace of social, intellectual and technological change inside and outside the universities is increasingly out of step. While universities worldwide are undergoing many, often radical, structural transformations, much less attention is being paid to their curricula. But for the university as a community of scholars and students curricular questions are critical as the curriculum is the core domain of the university.

Clearly, there can be no standard formula for reforming curricula given the huge diversity of institutional structures and cultural differences amongst universities. However, we concluded that there are general principles and foundational concepts that apply everywhere and thus decided to draft a manifesto based on 11 principles listed below that may inform an international dialogue and guide the experimental process of redesigning university undergraduate curricula worldwide. So far the principles laid out in the manifesto have been adopted by a first group of institutions as a blueprint for local curriculum reform. In order to spread our ideas, broaden the discussion and receive additional feedback we created the Curriculum Reform Forum, a web platform featuring our manifesto as well as a variety of other curriculum related resources. We invite you to join our efforts of re-thinking and re-shaping teaching and learning for the university of the future at: http://curriculumreform.org.

The 11 Principles guiding Curricula Reform:

  1. As a central guideline teach disciplines rigorously in introductory courses together with a set of parallel seminars devoted to complex real life problems that transcend disciplinary boundaries.
  2. Teach knowledge in its social, cultural and political contexts. Teach not just the factual subject matter, but highlight the challenges, open questions and uncertainties of each discipline.
  3. Create awareness of the great problems humanity is facing (hunger, poverty, public health, sustainability, climate change, water resources, security, etc.) and show that no single discipline can adequately address any of them.
  4. Use these challenges to demonstrate and rigorously practice interdisciplinarity, avoiding the dangers of interdisciplinary dilettantism.
  5. Treat knowledge historically and examine critically how it is generated, acquired, and used. Emphasize that different cultures have their own traditions and different ways of knowing. Do not treat knowledge as static and embedded in a fixed canon.
  6. Provide all students with a fundamental understanding of the basics of the natural and the social sciences, as well as the humanities. Emphasize and illustrate the connections between these traditions of knowledge.
  7. Engage with the world's complexity and messiness. This applies to the sciences as much as to the social, political and cultural dimensions of the world. Such an engagement will contribute to the education of concerned citizens.
  8. Emphasize a broad and inclusive evolutionary mode of thinking in all areas of the curriculum.
  9. Familiarize students with non-linear phenomena in all areas of knowledge.
  10. Fuse theory and analytic rigor with practice and the application of knowledge to real-world problems.
  11. Rethink the implications of modern communication and information technologies for education and the architecture of the university.

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