The LEAP Challenge Blog

Going Transatlantic: Bologna's Lessons

In a recent interview in Inside Higher Ed, where author Paul Gaston discusses the subject of his new book, The Challenge of Bologna: What United States Higher Education Has to Learn From Europe, and Why It Matters That We Learn It, Gaston urges engagement with developments in Europe:

We share most of Europe’s priorities for higher education. We believe that increased accountability should support responsible comparisons of programs and institutions, that students should have less difficulty in transferring academic credits, that the credentials we offer should be more easily understood by the public, that teaching should be more intentional in the light of a consensus on outcomes, and that as a nation we should remain highly competitive in attracting international students. We have important initiatives under way in many of these areas. But the Bologna Process represents a coordinated commitment to such reforms that is monitored continually throughout the continent. With one decade of progress to report, Europe can offer us a useful example.

I couldn’t agree more. Indeed, in my foreword to Gaston’s book, I endorse his call for a transatlantic dialogue about the U.S. tradition of liberal education and its relevance for the new global context, and I suggest the following five areas of focus.

 

1. Articulating and achieving the multiple aims of education. Like their European counterparts, U.S. leaders face pressures to make jobs the index of educational effectiveness and “success.” Yet colleges and universities across the United States have invested heavily in building curricula, pedagogies, and cocurricular programs that engage students with the wider community and especially with societal and environmental dilemmas that pose fundamental challenges to democratic sustainability. Evidence is emerging that there are real civic and intercultural gains for students who take part in such efforts. European universities, too, are unwilling to accept an educational framework that makes employability the primary metric for success. Bologna and U.S. educators would be well advised, then, to work together in persuasively articulating the case that everyone has a stake in building “civic capital,” in producing graduates who are both prepared and expected to take responsibility for the future of the democratic promise.

2. Facilitating cross-disciplinary learning. From the U.S. perspective, the most arresting aspect of the Bologna process has been the decision to focus cross-national qualifications and degree expectations on a single field of study—or, in U.S. jargon, “the major.” One of the points of convergence between educators and employers in the United States is their shared recognition that, to deal with the complex problems that characterize our society, students need a strong grounding in multidisciplinary frameworks. U.S. colleges and universities increasingly tout their interdisciplinary programs and strengths, while U.S. students routinely choose double majors, majors and minors, or interdisciplinary majors. It is hard to argue, from the U.S. vantage point, that baccalaureate study in a single academic field is the best way to prepare for a global future. U.S. and European educators would benefit mightily from a far-reaching probe of the connections between disciplinary and cross-disciplinary study as they create twenty-first-century designs for higher learning and global preparation.

 

3. Teaching students to apply their learning in new contexts. To its credit, the Bologna process has made “applying knowledge” one of its five organizing principles for postsecondary excellence. U.S. educators have been moving in a similar direction. However, many faculty, in all nations, still stand somewhat removed from the question of how well students are really learning to apply—and amend—their understandings in real-world contexts. Few would contend that higher education is fully successful in teaching students how to “transfer their learning”—reliably and generatively—from the academy to the community. As both U.S. and European educators wrestle with the creation of productive connections between knowledge and practice, everyone has something to gain from a determined transatlantic effort to develop robust evidence about “what works” in building graduates’ capacities to work in real-world settings and to make effective judgments in contexts of uncertainty.

 

4. Probing the future of general education. Across the United States, general education is being redesigned as a strategy for teaching students how to set their particular interests in larger contexts and how to integrate and apply their learning at progressively higher levels of effort and achievement. Proponents of integrative learning also see general education as a way to foster students’ creativity and curiosity. Pushing students out of their comfort zone in specific disciplines, embracing topics that stretch beyond anyone’s individual expertise, these problem-based designs for general education have in fact attracted international attention. Europeans have much to gain from a close look at where U.S. general education is heading, even as U.S. educators acknowledge that they have a very long way to go in making integrative general education a demonstrable achievement and not just an ambitious goal.

 

5. Designing assessments that show what students can actually do. The Bologna quality assurance process is intensely focused on what students are gaining from their primary area of concentration, the academic field or discipline. Self-consciously driving a far-reaching “shift from teaching to learning,” Bologna has worked energetically to create frameworks for assessment that show what students can do with their knowledge. Absent any agreed-upon national framework for quality assurance, the United States is nonetheless moving in a similar direction. With both general and specialized studies now increasingly involving students in research, extensive writing, problem-based projects, and significant experiences of community-based learning, U.S. educators also are setting in place a framework that potentially enables them to make students’ actual work the primary source of evidence about students’ learning gains in college. Yet the Bologna approach to the assessment loop leaves comparable U.S. efforts far behind. Those concerned about the U.S. direction on accountability would do well to hold up the Bologna example to U.S. policy leaders.