The first step to creating a future-proof learning institution? Take an adaptive and integrative approach

The first step to creating a future-proof learning institution? Take an adaptive and integrative approach

By SMU City Perspectives team

Published 4 July, 2022


If you don't operate within a box to begin with, then you don't have to unlearn to think outside of the box.

Elvin Lim

Professor of Political Science

In brief

  1. Integrative skills are central to solving the complex problems of our time and those of an unforeseeable future. By being able to synthesize the insights of one field with another and identify patterns that emerge across multiple domains, graduates would be better able to respond to complex challenges of the future.
  2. Giving students the freedom to develop their own unique combination of interdisciplinary expertise is key. Learning institutions can facilitate the journey by offering resources (E.g., domain knowledge), opportunities (E.g., Work-Study programmes) and guidance to help them curate an individualised programme of study.
  3. Businesses and universities will continue to play an integral role in the education ecosystem. Both stand to benefit from this new approach since integrative thinking is primed for unlocking greater human potential; bringing innovation and problem-solving to new levels.

Leaders of today are looking to nurture a generation of problem-solvers who are as dynamic and resilient as the problems they seek to solve. Enter, Integrative intelligence. Or as some may call it, Interdisciplinarity 2.0. Individuals with this skill set are able to recognise the insights of one field as they relate to another and identify patterns that emerge across multiple domains; allowing them to better predict and respond to the future. Some of the world’s leading universities are adapting their programmes to incorporate this approach; specifically, by putting students in the driver's seat of the education journey. By giving the individual the freedom to craft their own unique area of interdisciplinary expertise (as opposed to choosing from a predetermined list of majors), students who take up the Individualised Major will map their interests with real-world needs, in real time.

Dean Elvin Lim on how integrative skills solve complex problems such as pandemic management:

“For example, in the study of the pandemics, you cannot just study epidemiology. You have to understand public perceptions and their reactions to rules about masks. You have to think about the psychological responses to lockdowns and the effects on mental health. So, if we bring all these together, that's what CIS tries to do: to train our students to be able to solve problems that are particularly complex and dynamic as they are in cities.”

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Learning as you go 

Deciding on a career path has never been easy, but present-day students have the added pressure of knowing that many jobs of today will soon cease to exist. As the capabilities around Artificial Intelligence (AI) improve at extraordinary speeds and more industries adopt it in place of human talent, the question is; what can't machines do, and how can we dedicate our resources effectively to create a workforce that is, as far as machines as we know them are concerned, irreplaceable? The answer, according to Professor Elvin Lim, Dean of SMU’s College of Integrative Studies (CIS), is to take an adaptive and integrative approach to education so that students can stay a step ahead, or at least be better positioned to course-correct when the market starts to change.

The College, which is the seventh school of SMU and was launched in May 2022, is the first of its kind in Singapore. It takes the University’s flexible approach to education to even greater levels by allowing students to individualise their own major and defer the declaration of their degree programmes till their second year. This gives them the much-needed time to carefully assess their areas of interest and choose an existing programme or design an interdisciplinary programme that they believe will have relevance and demand post-graduation. To guide students who take the latter path, the College will assign each student a faculty advisor and, for students on the professional track of the Individualised Major, an industry mentor. With their direction and insight, students can craft a unique and interdisciplinary major that speaks to their own interests while also solving an existing industry or societal challenge.

What role do businesses play?

Having a front-row seat to industry changes is another crucial step to staying ahead of the curve. Students who have early and regular access to internships and Work-Study programmes are better positioned to understand the frontier needs of industry, and to make sound decisions on the disciplines they wish to go deeper in. These opportunities also allow students to learn valuable life lessons in resilience and risk-taking.

Not all businesses have the same needs for integrative knowledge, of course. Large corporations and innovation powerhouses like Google are known for hiring talent with the type of vision and interdisciplinary thinking that comes with an integrative education, while small-medium enterprises (SMEs) tend to have a more traditional approach towards domain expertise. Even so, these SMEs have the most to benefit by opening their doors to such students. Individuals with interdisciplinary backgrounds can offer unique perspectives to their existing problems, and might even spark innovative ideas that keep them relevant and viable for longer. 

Dean Elvin Lim on the inevitable need for SMEs to embrace integrative thinking:

“This kind of thing would be very easily seen as valuable in a place like Google or Bain. But in SMEs that have very, very clear deliverables within a more limited scope of the company size, they may well think that the more traditional approach is the way forward. I think at some point when they hit a certain scale, when they need to start really disrupting and recreating their product and their service paradigm, that's when these kinds of skills become particularly important. That said, I suspect the leaders at the very top of the apex have that. Whether or not they want this to percolate down the ranks, I think it depends on the scale of the company.”

How can we prime universities for this sort of flexibility?

With flexibility and self-directed learning being key drivers of an integrative education, how can universities prepare for the journey? For many, the administrative and advising challenge of helping individual students design their own majors would be enough to turn them away. However, the same technological advances that are changing other industries will also likely change the way university education is delivered; opening up endless possibilities in personalised education.

Institutions that have established a name for themselves in specific fields might also hesitate to change a system that has worked well for them - but a middle ground option exists. By combining disciplinary domains that are seeing traction in the market, institutions can still equip their students with the flexibility and dynamism of an integrative education, which is another viable option that they can offer along the wholesale individualised approach. SMU’s Politics, Law and Economics (PLE) major, and Computing and Law degree are two such programmes that took this hybrid approach, showing that present-day students already recognise the importance of a diverse yet integrative education.

Professor Elvin Lim encourages more learning institutions to take the plunge into integrative education, even if it means taking a halfway step. In his words, “moving ahead of the times may be the best way to ride the waves of change to come”.  

Dean Elvin Lim on embracing change:

“If we are capable of being uncomfortable outside of our domain area, we have begun to stretch our lateral vision. We have begun to contemplate other possibilities than the path of least resistance. Human nature is such that we want to engage in things that have very low transaction costs. So, the things that we know very well, we repeat all the time because it has very low transaction costs. What integrative learning does is it gives you an appetite for high transaction, initially high transaction cost actions. And when you do that, you begin to break down your resistance to uncomfortable situations.”

An education that’s built to last

All in all, an integrative education is designed for the long haul. By giving students greater ownership of their learning journey, students are empowered to respond effectively to a dynamic future while also tailoring their education to their talents and passions. As the new domains of future industries become increasingly complex and interdisciplinary, this approach to education gives us a real chance to nurture a new era of ever-evolving specialists; problem-solvers with the agility and resilience to pivot across domains and find integrative solutions time and time again.