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Students sit in a university lecture hall. Is this the ideal learning environment? (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Students sit in a university lecture hall. Is this the ideal learning environment? (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Canada Competes

Rethinking university to prepare for an uncertain future Add to ...

With rapid change, the skills needed in the future are difficult to foretell. Four creative Canadians suggest how they would design higher education to meet an unknown future skills gap.

One teacher, one student

André Alexis

Author and teacher of creative writing at several universities

It’s a reasonable question, what might my ideal university look like? Unfortunately, my answer is absurd: For me, an ideal university – or at least its Creative Writing Department – would have as many teachers as it has students. Why? Well …

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I was teaching a course in creative writing when it struck me that my students and I were not contemporaries in any meaningful sense. We did not have the same foundations, assumptions or even goals. Wouldn’t my “outmoded” advice be exactly the wrong advice to take if they hoped to “succeed”?

But teaching creative writing isn’t about teaching a methodology. It isn’t about teaching “success.” It’s closer to imparting (or deepening) a curiosity about narrative or storytelling or about how thought is organized. It’s like pointing out how this or that part of an engine works and then thinking about how previous inventors have designed their engines to deal with certain stresses and requirements.

The student must be led to his or her own way of creating. The best way to do this is to show them how others have created. The more one learns about how someone else creates, the more one learns about the thinking behind creation, the more one is able to choose a path for oneself. To me, the ideal would be for the student to learn how the teacher goes about it while the teacher re-learns his or her art by answering anew the questions he or she has already answered. In narrowing it down to two people, the student is given maximum exposure to one person’s process, something clearly defined to reject or modify. This choice is at the heart of any art form.

In teaching an art, one can’t teach what will “succeed.” None of us knows that. Better, then, to let one teacher and one student explore an art form together. Not as equals! The teacher is a teacher for having gone through what the student is going through. But as fellow explorers of the imagination. To me, the exploration of imagination in all its forms is the essence of learning.

Worker-learners, not students

Gerry Dee

Comic and star of CBC’s Mr. D, and a former physical education teacher at a private school in Toronto

Perhaps more hands-on experience starting on the very first day, as well as a more concentrated approach to the program you are in. No need to take first-year sociology if you are enrolled in a math program.

We should focus more on the practical component of the programs – more hands-on. Want to study business in university? There’s no better training than working at a business for eight hours a day. Ask questions there. Learning charts and graphs about supply and demand won’t provide you with the same kind of experience. I realize every program has a theoretical component, but let’s see the theory at work in the real world.

We need to immerse ourselves in the program sooner and more often. Pick a program and master it starting in first year, not fourth or fifth.

I think we also need to back this up to the high school level as well: We need more focus on teaching ethics, manners, professionalism, attire, communication and plain old people skills. All in all, if we allow young Canadians to be subjected to their interests sooner and more often, we may excel and compete better on a global scene. I think we do quite well already, but it never hurts to know more.

A mix-and-match education

Timothy Taylor

Novelist, one-time banker and assistant professor of fiction and non-fiction at the University of British Columbia

One big challenge with today’s university system is the silo aspect of education and research on campuses. I think isolation – not being able to see and appreciate and potentially co-ordinate and combine efforts with people in other units – can be a real liability as universities try to prepare students for an uncertain future.

I’m influenced by my own experience. I've had what you might call a cross-disciplinary career. I studied economics, then got an MBA. I spent a few years in banking, then quite a few more in resources consulting to pay the bills while I tried to become a writer. All that has contributed to my thinking there are huge benefits to understanding what other people are doing and how they approach problem solving in their realm.

One way to look at what we do here in Creative Writing is that we teach how to work with narrative. How do we tell stories? How do we make them effective? Much of that is directed towards students who are pursuing narrative skills in service of literary fiction, creative nonfiction and other genres. But the idea of narrative as a tool is emerging in disciplines that have nothing to do with “writing” per se. In business, you may hear marketers talk about “corporate storytelling” as a component of brand building. In medicine and psychotherapy, you find a new attentiveness to narrative to better understand a patient’s experience of illness.

I think we need to provide opportunities for researchers and students to mix disciplines in curious and surprising ways – a psychology degree with a minor in creative writing, for example. Our economy and culture are evolving so fast, there’s real uncertainty about what exact skillsets will be rewarded in the future (although I think good writing should always be in the mix). I think we need to make these conventional avenues of inquiry more combinable, allowing students to discover ways of mixing and matching for a future that they can see potentially more clearly than you or I can.

Revisit the Renaissance thinker

Tom Rand

Entrepreneur, managing partner of the MaRS Cleantech Fund, author and holder of four degrees

My young nephew Trent recently started his computer engineering program at Ryerson. To graduate, only two courses from other faculties are required. Years ago, at the University of Waterloo, my electrical engineering program demanded a similarly meagre interdisciplinary effort. The same can be said of the humanities: little literacy in statistics, mathematics or science is required. We are not turning out well-rounded engineers. Or scientists, artists, economists ...

Specialization of knowledge can be a good thing, of course. Advancements in medicine, computing and science often come from graduates who went on to spend years refining their knowledge to a finely polished point.

But without context, hyper-specialization is reduced to many facts about very little. And with Google at our fingertips, facts are ubiquitous – understanding is not. Connecting the dots, building bridges between interests, expanding the art of the possible: these require a multi-disciplinary perspective.

Our highly complex and interconnected world needs more generalists, not specialists. We’ll not solve the defining problems of the 21st century – resource scarcity, climate change and overpopulation – by digging deeper into specialized silos. Politics, economics, science, engineering, psychology and the arts: All of these and more interact to form an emerging space for solutions.

To know a little about a lot is becoming a lost art. We need engineers who can philosophize, artists who speak science, and anthropologically inclined economists.

Our universities might show a renewed commitment to classic Renaissance thinking, and require students to integrate knowledge, think across disciplines, and translate ideas from one conceptual framework to another. And make my nephew Trent take a few more courses in philosophy. Or theatre. Or …

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