Considering the breadth of higher education

This year’s Teaching & Learning Symposium (held November 5th at Hart House) – “Higher Goals for Higher Learning” – was attended by 240 University of Toronto instructors, staff and librarians. This was the 7th year that U of T colleagues have gathered to present research, discuss ideas, share experiences and celebrate teaching through workshops, roundtable discussions and poster sessions. There was also a keynote address by Richard Wiggers (Executive Director, Research and Programs, Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario) and a featured discussion with the winners of the 2012 President’s Teaching Award.

One conversation that peaked my interest was on the merits and perceived detractions of breadth requirements. They exist for a reason (well, many reasons) – to ensure that a student experiences topics outside of their main area of study. This is meant to broaden a student’s horizon, to offer new perspectives and help to shape a more well-rounded person. However, is this how each student views this requirement?

Are breadth requirements an opportunity to experience something new and interact with peers they might not otherwise encounter? Or are they merely a distraction they are forced to endure? A classmate once told me that she was enrolled in the English Specialist Program because she didn’t want to take courses she didn’t care about. I’m sure that many have heard of (or actually participated in) English classes designed specifically for science students. They are less about the knowledge, skills and experience acquired as much as tick off the breadth requirement box and get back to what matters – fulfilling degree and faculty requirements.

Is this a question of liberal vs. professional education? Or is there more grey area here? (And, please note, I prefer the thousand shades of grey reference to the fifty.) I know that I always appreciated the opportunity to experience the new and unfamiliar that the breadth requirement allowed. Of course, I also finished my degree over a 24 year period so I might not be the best example. Is there a way that we can address this attitude or is it something that we will never be able to resolve. A university is not a homogenized unit and students arrive with different goals and intentions. Some will push to discover and experience as much variety as possible while others will pursue the straight path to graduation. Can we say that one is more valuable than the other? And is this something that we can examine beyond anecdotal evidence? If anyone can provide insiight on this topic, it would be appreciated. My guess is that there is more than one answer but I would be interested in hearing what people have to say.

Teaching & Learning Symposium 2012


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