Five years ago, Deborah Buszard and her colleagues at Dalhousie University embarked on an ambitious initiative to create the College of Sustainability. Recognizing that social, economic and environmental sustainability issues now touch nearly every subject, the college offers undergrad students from any faculty the chance to pursue a second major in sustainability taught by professors from disparate fields. The initiative is now in its third year and 1,100 students have taken classes from the college. It was short-listed for a World Innovation Summit for Education Prize.
We asked Dr. Buszard, who will take up the helm as deputy vice chancellor at the University of British Columbia Okanagan in July, her views on the elements of the ideal classroom for fostering creativity.
Universities in the last century fell into disciplinary and technical training. We produced people who were experts in the content and skills of their field but who may not have broad skills and critical thinking. In today's world, where we get access to content pretty much for free on the Internet, content is not nearly as valuable to teach as it was 100 years ago. We need to be teaching students to think creatively and synthesize ideas from multiple perspectives.
The most fantastic teachers are people who really master their discipline and can inspire others to find it as exciting and fun as they are finding it. One of the great boons of our university system is that we have active scholars in their disciplines bringing an engaged, very up-to-date understanding of their discipline to their students.
Students often come to university having been beaten into a narrow mould about how they expect to be taught and evaluated. We need to help students unleash their creative side in addressing their academic work. In addition to being given writing assignments, first-year students are also given creative assignments in which they can choose any medium that they wish to respond to a question or an issue. We get anything from a rap to a video to a piece of art work, to regular written material. We also encourage students to be reflective learners by asking them to reflect on material from lectures in small discussion groups, perhaps multiple times, which is better than just writing material down once then regurgitating it in a test.
Co-learning and peer-learning
Students from across the university work together in groups. It is very much like the world of work, where you work together with people from different disciplinary backgrounds to address a problem.
Typically in the third year, students are taking on real-life sustainability issues on campus. For example, we had a group of students work with the food services, looking at operations in our cafeterias. As a result, there have been a number of innovations, including going tray-less, which has reduced water usage and wasted food. The first group of fourth-year students are doing a sustainability situation analysis with Credit Union Atlantic and making recommendations.
Balancing content and understanding
Students combine sustainability alongside their discipline. Because we have freed ourselves from the obligation to deliver the standard disciplinary content, we can deliver intellectual skills and thinking habits to help students address complex, interdisciplinary sustainability issues. One wants both depth and breadth. As the students are developing their capacity as disciplinary scholars, they are learning to be more thoughtful and aware of the epistemological approach of their discipline. They gain the broad wisdom of recognizing other disciplinary approaches.
Large classes are okay
Large classes can be highly engaging. We have two or three professors in each class. I teach with a historian and an architect. We have a lot of different perspectives and we tend to debate them in front of the students. It's less of a lecture and more of a conversation. Our classes are interactive. Then we pair them with tutorials led by teaching assistants, where students do reflective and group work with 20 students.
Teaching for tomorrow
At the [World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, Qatar]I heard many international educators say the same things I'd been thinking. They said that education now is what will define what society is like in the future. The primary resource we have for future development is the intellectual capital of our country, and if we don't get that to be the best it can be, we will not be as successful with our innovation agenda.
Special to The Globe and Mail