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:

Randy Bass Visit

Randy Bass in sitting in canoe pointing in direction

It was just a year ago that Carleton hosted Georgetown Associate Provost, Randy Bass, and I’ve been thinking of some of the work directly facilitated by Randy’s visit. I’ll talk about just two examples in this post.

Liberal Education in the New Ecosystem, Randy Bass from Carleton Academic Technology on Vimeo.

In broad terms Randy talked about designing a liberal education for this moment in history. He asked us, “If you were creating a Carleton education right now, and with everything you knew about the past but also what you knew about the capacities of our current environment and the challenges we are about to face in the next 10, 20, 30 years, what would that Carleton look like?” He suggested our answers would almost certainly cause us to create pilot programs that would push against the constraints of our current Carleton model and that we would need “a different kind of approval process” to make experimentation possible. Enter example 1: CUBE.

CUBE (Carleton Undergraduate Bridge Experience) is a summer/fall experimental course taught by Melissa Eblen-Zayas from our physics department. Carleton’s Education and Curriculum Committee (ECC) made the experiment possible by flipping the usual process so that we got quick approval for a pilot with built in accountability and sunset if not approved for continuation. CUBE has two primary student goals: to strengthen quantitative skills and to support the transition to college. The summer part of the course is completely online and is followed by the face-to-face fall course that is being taught right now. Melissa and I look forward to reporting out to the community sometime this winter about this very exciting experiment and regardless of whether the course continues, I think we have taken a solid step toward that future Carleton Randy asked us to imagine. And for me, Randy’s framework and encouragement were crucial.

Example 2 comes in the form of an LTC lunch session and Winter Workshop. Both of these events are sponsored by Carleton’s Future Learning Technologies Group (FLTG) and both events center on creating flexible curricula that push against the 9 ½ week structure or our current term system. The LTC lunch session is Tuesday, October 11 and the Winter Workshop will be in early December. I can’t speak for everyone in FLTG, but I know I was (re-)inspired and (re-)energized by Randy’s question “what would a course look like that was less course-based, less term-based, separated credit from seat-time, thought about all 12 months of the year, thought about how faculty would deploy their energies in different ways? And this energy and inspiration is playing a shaping role in how I’m approaching my part of these two upcoming events.

Randy Bass in sitting in canoe pointing in direction
Randy points the way in the Boundary Waters and to the futures of higher ed!
A year ago, I really bungled my introduction of Randy before his big talk in the Athenaeum. I was tired and had left my notes behind and pulling them up on my phone just didn’t work. If I had the chance to hit “reset” I would say something like this: Just as I wouldn’t (yet) wander into the Boundary Waters without the wonderful Minnesota guide I have luckily found, I wouldn’t navigate the “future of higher education” without the wonderful Randy Bass along!