National University of Singapore's big push for interdisciplinary learning: Timely change but there’ll be practical challenges, say experts

The National University of Singapore said that plans for an overhaul of its curriculum are still under discussion and it will release more details at a later date. — TODAY pic
The National University of Singapore said that plans for an overhaul of its curriculum are still under discussion and it will release more details at a later date. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Sept 16 — The National University of Singapore (NUS) is undertaking a mammoth task to overhaul its curriculum and while it is commendable, experts said that the move to let students take up more interdisciplinary learning may come up against certain hurdles.

Getting students to diversify and professors to embrace the change in providing a range of learning could be a challenge, and it may not be feasible for more specialised courses such as medicine and law, they said.

In broadening its students’ learning through interdisciplinary courses, the university is looking to help undergraduates better prepare for an uncertain world during and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.

NUS president Tan Eng Chye revealed this change in an opinion piece for The Straits Times on Thursday (Sept 10). He said that the school must “radically transform itself” as its students will be graduating into a world of “wicked problems” that are ill-defined and “mutate all the time”. 

Prof Tan cited Covid-19 as an example of such a problem. “To even try to understand it, much less solve it, requires integrating knowledge, skills and insights from different disciplines.” 

When contacted for more information on the new curriculum, NUS said that the plans are still under discussion and it will release more details later. 

In his opinion piece, Prof Tan said that it will be a move towards “problem-based pedagogy and experiential learning”, and NUS will make changes in the months ahead, by easing excessive requirements for subject majors, among other things. 

Not just about Covid-19

Experts in the field contacted by TODAY agreed that an interdisciplinary curriculum is timely and will be helpful to students given the new trials and threats brought about by Covid-19 and beyond. 

Dr Ho Boon Tiong, a consultant educationist, said that interdisciplinary learning can help students thrive in the working world, where solutions to problems may not be so straightforward. 

They may be encouraged to find connections between two separate domains, not just for situations thrown up by the pandemic, but for other nascent problems. 

“Climate change, for example, is not just about the climatic conditions,” Dr Ho said. “It’s causes are not just scientific causes but involve (behaviour such as) why people use plastic bags, for example it’s a whole myriad of (disciplines).”

Agreeing, Dr Timothy Chan, director of the academic and student life divisions at SIM Global Education, said that having an interdisciplinary curriculum will help students be “more tolerant of ambiguity”. 

“Students will know that things can be looked at from a different angle, and they will be more tolerant because there are so many different ways of looking at things, which can be solved in so many different ways,” he said.

Having such skills will ultimately be helpful in a workforce, where employers will look out for candidates with interdisciplinary capabilities. 

“In the work field, we are always faced with this kind of situation,” Dr Ho said. “(Employers) in the electronics field and the shipping (industry), they are always seeking ways to troubleshoot and this demands a lot of interdisciplinary connections.” 

‘Easier said than done’

On the other hand, academics questioned if such broad-based learning is practical.

Associate Professor Jason Tan from the National Institute of Education said that students often view tertiary institutions as places where they begin to specialise and prepare for the working world, and so may not be keen on “experimenting” within other fields. 

He observed that many students in junior colleges are already “playing it safe” by taking specialised subject combinations such as triple sciences or triple humanities. 

“They are doing that because they have in mind the university admission system,” he said. This means that they will take up subjects such as chemistry and biology if these are needed to enter a specific course in university.

He also said that it may not be practical to implement interdisciplinary learning in more specialised courses such as medicine, law, architecture and nursing, where there may be work-shadowing programmes that cannot bend to the will of a changing curriculum. 

“You cannot just implement change within the universities without consulting the professional bodies as well,” Assoc Prof Tan said. 

To help assure students that depth in specialisation will not be sacrificed in this new system, Dr Ho said that there must be a balance struck between breadth and depth. 

“A good approach would be for someone to be an expert in one field while being knowledgeable or having some basic knowledge in other fields,” he said. 

Faculty members will also have to be on board for this new curriculum in order for it to work. 

Prof Tan of NUS wrote in the editorial that “if professors are to provide range, they, too, must embrace range”. 

Dr Ho said that this may be easier said than done, since faculty members often have a “psychological fixation” on their specialised fields and tend to “guard their turf”.

He said that to break this “silo mentality”, professors have to work together as a team. “(They) have to work with colleagues and have some give-and-take and understanding, (to) come together to locate these intersections.”

Dr Chan from SIM Global Education suggested that an interdisciplinary curriculum need not hinge on professors painstakingly designing specific courses and giving lectures, but should be problem-centric, with students from different disciplines forming smaller groups to brainstorm solutions. 

Students in this group can then see how problems can be solved “from an engineering viewpoint, an environmentalist’s viewpoint, from a (humanities) viewpoint”, he said.

“That will help (students) broaden their perspective.”

Similarities to Yale-NUS’ system

Professor Joanne Roberts, executive vice-president of academic affairs at Yale-NUS College, told TODAY that she saw some similarities between Prof Tan’s proposed changes and the curriculum at Yale-NUS College, a liberal arts college established by Yale University and NUS. 

She said that students from Yale-NUS College can take prescribed courses in a common curriculum, which introduces them to “foundational concepts and modes of inquiry across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences”.

These courses help students “learn to draw connections between multiple fields, discover links between literature, social sciences and the sciences, and connect these discoveries to topics and problems of contemporary society”. 

With the impending changes, she added that Yale-NUS looks forward to “working closely with NUS, sharing with and learning from them, as they embark on this new approach”.  — TODAY

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