Liberal Arts Learning in 21st-Century Spaces

Liberal Arts Learning in 21st-Century Spaces

When employers admonish the educational providers of this country to produce future-ready graduates prepared to solve the hardest of real-world problems, what does this look like? In the face of global disaster, is it a nation of specialists with day-one job-ready skills? Or is it a faction of generalists, armed with broad understanding of cultural contexts and maybe some writing skills?

As aggregated from national studies and compiled by Gould Evans, the top five skillsets most desired by 21st-century employers are as follows: collaboration/working in teams, problem solving/critical thinking, grit, cognitive flexibility and communication skills.

At their core, these are all skills based in the liberal arts experience.

Traditionally, liberal arts programs encourage smaller seminar classes over lecture hall formats to encourage collaboration and discussion—not just passive learning—relying heavily on communication skills as a pathway. Critical thinking is the only currency accepted by all departments in the college, and academic requirements for cross-curricular study demand students to use this currency in different ways, developing cognitive flexibility. Lastly, grit is often correlated with the experience of trying something intellectually risky, falling short, and having the mindfulness to restart a new course of thinking. Liberal arts programs tend to encourage explorations outside major concentrations, allowing these controlled failures to happen and produce discussion of process as an externality.

However, the word “liberal” in today’s discourse is a polarizing term carrying more than its share of baggage. The term “arts” conjures an after-college experience with a potentially starving existence, a concept not well-leveraged against the financial resources needed to afford a higher education. And although a true liberal education includes a well-rounded foray into science and math as well as the humanities, the word “sciences” is often dropped from the phrase “liberal arts and sciences.”

As we stare down another potential economic disaster brought about by global pandemic, the work that some traditional liberal arts institutions have done to rebrand and reimagine themselves may help hedge their institutions.

The Liberal Arts Rebrand: Two Studies

My own undergraduate liberal arts institution, Colorado College, has long frequented lists ranking the nation’s most innovative schools, bestowed as such for its one-class-at-a-time course schedule called the Block Plan. The college has always sold the Block Plan experience as a vehicle for rigorous academic inquiry for the well-rounded undergrad planning on attending graduate or professional school. While the traditional semester plan requires a course load of about four or so classes concurrently, the Block Plan focuses these inquiries into 3-1/2 week blocks, with each subject taught with singular focus. Simply learning for the sake of learning, in this immersive way, was enough for me and my parents, as I graduated into the relative peace and prosperity of the late 1990s. Yet, our world has changed.

The pivot for Colorado College, therefore, was to position its crown jewel, the Block Plan, as an armature for encouraging real-world learning, concurrently punching up liberal arts fundamentals as skills most sought by employers. Numerous initiatives have been undertaken to enhance the experience of the Block Plan, such as: summer blocks for course credit that connect students with alumni internships and establishment of a Center for Immersive Learning; and Engaged Teaching, which seeks to sell the flexibility of the block schedule and make it easier for professionals to teach in-residence or host learning experiences off campus. Lastly, the school established an Innovation Institute within the academic structure of the college to provide resources for students wanting to use their education to seek “real-world answers to complex questions.” And, rather than marketing this innovation hub open to only the technology and business-minded students, the entity sees its participants as “changemakers” and not “entrepreneurs,” becoming more inclusive of those wanting to explore solutions to cultural and social problems.

William Jewell College – Pryor Learning Commons

Another liberal arts institution, William Jewell College, is undergoing a similar repositioning. William Jewell is a critical thinking college. Their website reflects 21st century learning principles—case in point: a photo of students gaining experience in the medical field is punctuated with the headline “A Community of Thinkers and Doers.”

Powerful forces—the 2008 recession and global intellectual competition—have necessitated this reframing, even if first principles are still a foundational part of the education and should be touted, deservingly, as 21st-century skills.

Rebrand Meets Redesign

However, the relinquishment of old language is only one part of remaking the liberal arts tradition for the 21st century. What are the implications for the design of learning spaces for these schools, or any school for that matter? Large research universities or vocational schools are not immune to relying too heavily on old models and may fail to acknowledge that specialized training could get in the way of arming students with the necessary toolkit. Liberal arts schools—as well as the nation’s research universities and vocational schools—must be ready to remake their spaces to meet this new moment. Further, the elementary and secondary organizations that serve as foundations for these institutions need to be mindful of these shifts as well.

Like students on the Block Plan, these institutions of learning should no longer be tied to the four walls that contain them. As educational designers, we need to become skillful at not only designing spaces for learners, but spaces that inspire collaboration with the professional partners in local communities. These spaces should be flexible, as these community partners and what they bring to the learning environment may change with time.

The pandemic will continue to show us that new modes of learning and working, once thought impossible to implement, can be catalysts of innovation as well as a path to survival. An academic calendar that’s able to shift for a virus—as many schools have advertised for the fall of 2020—may be ripe for reimagining as a way to better incorporate real-world learning experiences when it’s safe to return to person-to-person experiences.

Not to be forgotten, though, is the critical thinking imperative, which is the bedrock where both the liberal arts experience and the broad-based skills of the 21st century take root. The reframing of the term “liberal arts” allows for a more nuanced conversation about the skills students are acquiring, and less focus on the specific curriculum students choose.

Missouri Innovation Campus

As designers, many of us have embraced the notions of creating active-learning spaces to host project-based learning units designed to cultivate the critical thinking skills necessary for 21st-century work. We’ve designed spaces that mimic work environments they may find in internships outside the classroom. Many schools have embraced maker spaces and STEAM spaces, allowing students the freedom for self- directed learning and ownership in where and how to work on their critical thinking skills.

However, we may need to challenge ourselves further, and dive deeper with our clients. Research metrics to support these efforts and deep conversations with clients about the “whys” for these spaces will only improve them.

The current crisis also reveals the need for broader inclusivity of institutions and the spaces they inhabit, and we must apply these principles to learning environment as well. The principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) speak to the inclusivity of all learners. Continuing to expand on those principles to understand the overlapping factors of cultural background or trauma sensitivities will be important to ensure everyone is given the chance to embrace their inner liberal arts learner —or real-world learner—however you choose to call it.