Skills are (part of) “The New Canon”?

horizontal sign with words "new skills training"

In the Chronicle of Higher Ed* article “If Skills Are The New Canon, Are Colleges Teaching Them,” Dan Barrett suggests that after 20ish years of wrestling with a move away from a core liberal education curriculum based on classical texts (a la Harvard Classics), “a new consensus has emerged: that colleges ought to develop in students a set of skills.”

The idea is not to abandon content or disciplines but to build curricula based on specific knowledge that instills skills.

Typically the skills mentioned include those that are quite recognizable at Carleton and some even baked into the curriculum: critical thinking, writing, analytical and quantitative reasoning.

But other skills and methods, perhaps those particularly associated with turning out students ready for the 21st century, are not necessarily part of any canon. This list includes but is not limited to visual and spatial reasoning, information literacy, interpretation of meaning, using and evaluating evidence, and verbally communicating thought.

Barrett’s article shares some examples of how some colleges teach a new canon. Some curricula are tweaked and some are radically reimagined or created afresh. This is certainly happening at Carleton and we’re also seeing an approach to addressing the skills/method gap that Barrett doesn’t mention—the micro-course.

Carleton Spanish Professor, Palmar Alvarez-Blanco, has created an experimental two-credit micro-course as a companion to one of her courses. She wanted to “empower students to understand narratives found in mainstream media, research and produce their own short documentaries, and strengthen their civic engagement experience, digital storytelling proficiency, and practical career skills” and realized that combining this dense packet of skills and methods into a single week of the existing course was not ideal. Palmar is working closely with Academic Technologist Dann Hurlbert on this experimental micro-course. Their process and findings could provide the framework for micro-courses at Carleton as well as inform the revision of existing courses and creation of new courses in order to deliver on a new canon.

We can all look forward to a report from Palmar and Dann and I know I’ll be keeping an eye out for more examples to share of thoughtfully designed courses which effectively teach 21st century skills and methods as well as the disciplinary knowledge at hand.

*The Carleton library subscribes to the Chronicle and provides institutional access.  If you’re on campus, you can simply go to, if you’re off-campus, you can use this link to log on with you Carleton username and password: