University Design by David J. Staley

The Integrator

Chris W. Gallagher, College Made Whole: Integrative Learning for a Divided World (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019).

Chris Gallagher begins College Made Whole by observing that “colleges and universities are not designed to promote integrative learning.” (xiii) Integrative learners are those with the ability to “connect and synthesize ideas, knowledge, and skills across learning experiences in different contexts.” (xii) Most college curricula corral students toward one specialized major, with a general education requirement that is more smorgasbord than integrative learning experience.   Further, what ever integrated learning that does exist in universities is under assault by so-called education innovators, especially those who wish to “unbundle” the university.  Unbundling means “breaking institutions into multiple distinct providers of goods and services; courses and curricula into discrete modules; faculty into various instructional roles (content developers, instructional designers, success coaches, evaluators); learning into atomized skills and bits of knowledge; and degrees into smaller (micro, nano) credentials.” (2)  Gallagher feels that unbundling is not a solution to anything in higher education. 

The response to the assault of the unbundlers is not re-bundling but integration.  “In order to help shape the kind of integrative learning and learners that can confront the complex challenges of the twenty-first century,” Gallagher writes, “colleges and universities will need to be neither unbundled nor rebundled, but rather integrated. To integrate is to combine two or more things so that they become a new whole. The word’s etymology traces to the Latin integratus, the past participle of integrare, to make whole. Integration is a creative process of bringing something new into the world, something that–unlike a bundle–is more than the sum of its parts.” (5)

In Gallagher’s very attractive vision for higher education, integrative learners enact both depth and breadth of learning.  I am drawn to his definition of specialized, disciplinary knowledge: “In order to gain specialized expertise, one must learn not just content but also, and perhaps more important, how to think like an expert in a particular field, whether academic or professional. Domain-based knowledge and skills are always shifting in response to internal and external developments, so the key to an expert’s success is not what they know at any given moment, but rather their ability to learn and think, the way experts in the field do.” (61) Depth of knowledge is much more than mastering a body of knowledge, but practicing the habits of mind of a particular discipline. 

Gallagher does not define breadth as cognitively inferior to depth of knowledge. “If depth means learning how to be an expert, breadth means learning how to be a non-expert,” he writes.  “Curious, informed, responsible non-experts are as important as experts in complex and ever-changing social contexts.” (61)

For a higher education world obsessed with measuring “learning outcomes,” Gallagher’s vision for the purpose of integrative learning is worthy of emulation.  “The ultimate goal is for students to be able to size up an unfamiliar situation or problem, identify and activate their relevant expertise, and determine what they will need to learn, and go learn it–all the while recognizing and valuing both the limits of their own expertise and the extent of others’ expertise. They must understand themselves as experts and as non-experts and know when to exercise their specialized expertise and generalized understanding. They must connect and synthesize different ways of learning and thinking into a holistic understanding of themselves as learners and thinkers.” (62)

Imagine if these students learned from both disciplinary specialists and interdisciplinary non-experts.  The former is who we usually call a “professor,” the latter we might identify as an “integrator.” This person would be a mentor, a non-expert, a generalist.  Gallagher imagines a professional guiding students through their integrative learning journeys. “Integrative learning is facilitated by faculty members who develop holistic relationships with students, support them inside and outside the classroom, mentor them over time, help them build on prior knowledge and make new knowledge available for future use, and connect them with campus community and professional opportunities and resources.” (136) In my view, the faculty members described above would be distinguished as “integrators,” academic specialists in non-expertise.

We might visualize the relationship between professors and integrators this way:

If the circles represent the disciplines, then a professor with specialized, expert knowledge would reside inside a circle.  An “integrator” would roam the spaces between the circles.  Student-professor-integrator would form the pedagogical triad of the “college made whole.”

David J. Staley is a higher education philosopher, strategist, futurist and designer, and is an Honorary Faculty Fellow in Innovation at CHELIP.  He is the author of Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education and the co-author of Knowledge Towns: Colleges and Universities as Talent Magnets.

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