January 18th, 2021

Well-rounded education important, SACPA hears

By Kalinowski, Tim on February 7, 2020.

Shelly Wismath, dean of Liberal Education at the University of Lethbridge, answers a question during the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs. Herald photo by Ian Martens @IMartensHerald

Tim Kalinowski

Lethbridge Herald


Getting a well-rounded education is as important today as it has ever been, Shelly Wismath, dean of the Faculty of Liberal Education, told attendees at this week’s Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs luncheon on Thursday.

“Liberal arts generally refers to social sciences, humanities and fine arts,” she explained. “The model at the U of L is liberal education which is broader. Our model says if you are a humanities or fine arts major you need to know some basic science, and you need to be exposed to scientific ways of thinking. If you are a science major you need to be exposed to social science and humanities. I think the problems in the world today are really complex and you need to have a number of different viewpoints and lenses.”

“In this century, we can’t just study one thing and know one way of looking at the world,” she stated.

In this vein, Wismath also explained why an outcomes-based approach, as the UCP government is proposing, could be an instance where we are cutting off our nose to spite our face if not carefully thought out.

“There has been a trend toward a focus only on jobs as outcomes rather than thinking about the higher-level skills,” she stated. “Sometimes we focus too much in our courses and majors on learning content and not articulating for students the kinds of meta-level skills that reach across disciplines. I think the job market is changing so much that half the jobs people will be doing in 10 years don’t exist yet. And a lot of the jobs we are currently training people for will disappear or be automated. So we really need to focus on the right set of skills that transcend just memorizing content.”

However, Wismath does believe it is correct for the government to demand some type of accountability for learning outcomes.

“It’s quite reasonable to ask for an outcomes-based (model),” she said, “and if there is a flaw in our system now it’s that we haven’t always articulated those outcomes well enough. The danger is who decides what the outcomes are? And how do we measure them? And we know if you pick on a particular thing and start measuring that it distorts the system to produce that kind of outcome. That’s where the difficulty lies.”

Wismath said such distortions could do a long-term disservice to the types of perspectives you might need to bring to bear on the multi-faceted problems the world faces both now and in the future. She gave an example she heard from a recent talk given by the Oldman Watershed Council during its SACPA presentation last week to make her point.

“Climate change is not a science problem, it is a psychology and marketing problem,” she explained.

Wismath said the U of L’s well-rounded educational approach is able to encompass these types of complexities by offering a breadth of subjects and viewpoints for students to study, and is able to successfully integrate knowledge, teach critical thinking skills and educate students for citizenship and leadership in society.

“One of the things U of L alumni tell us is your degree will get you your first job,” she explained, “but your liberal education will give you your second and third job, and your career. I think that’s really telling message.”

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