I'm at the AACU conference on integrative learning in Atlanta. There have been a couple of great talks (especially about the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver, and about a film/history course at Gallaudet). But the conference has been confusing, because there are some key unanswered questions at the core of it.
Here are a couple--How is integrative learning different from learning? As the term is being used here, integrative learning is actually about changing the campus educational infrastructure and processes. Or at least when people talk about it they tend to refer to building ties between disciplines, and between general education and the majors. Or they talk about e-portfolios, in which students do that sort of connection-building. These things are great, and I think we ought to do them, because they might make it easier for students to learn. But they, themselves, are not integrative learning.
If we think about it from what we know about learning, then all learning is integrative. For someone to learn something, they have to connect it to (or integrate it with) what they already know. This happens intellectually, and it happens in the brain. So what sort of thing are we hoping that students will do that goes beyond this?
Is integrative learning really learning about a particular sort of thing? Based on presentations here, complex problems are a possibility. But very few campuses that I see are building their curricula around complex problems. (One bright star here is Lynn University, which has a new GE built around questions...) Instead they are trying to find connections between the disciplines.
But it seems more likely that integrative learning is really about developing skills. I'm all in favor of students having certain skills--critical thinking, problem solving, etc. But skills without context are not integrative. Nor do they lead to learning (they lead to habits).
So the big question for me at this conference is this: who is responsible for integrating in "integrative learning"? The assumptions in old models of higher ed is that the student would do this. They would find ways to connect what they were learning with their home, work, family, intellectual, civic, and religious lives.
The assumptions in this new model is that integrating is an institutional imperative, or that institutions are responsible for helping people to do this. Is this true? Is there something about students today that make them less likely to draw connections between things they learn and the things they know and do? If so, what is it?
I've been reading Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society. In it he raises the same question (which is probably why I'm wondering.) He argues that modern society works to institutionalize activities that previously existed outside of institutions--service, for example. Or education. The result is a reduction in the range of activities that people can participate in freely. And, as a result, a decline in the ability of people to freely do things.
As educators work on "integrative learning" we would do well to keep this matter--the ability of education to liberate people, not tie them more permanently to institutions--in mind. Our goal should be to have students leave our institutions better able to make satisfactory meaning out of their lives, not to find meaning only in institutions.
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