Portretfoto Jan Bransen
Portretfoto Jan Bransen

Column Jan Bransen: Learning landscape

Every now and then a new word pops up – at least a word that is new to me – that can be used to articulate an important issue. For example, in a self-study of a university of applied sciences programme that I will soon visit as a member of an audit committee, I came across the word "learning landscape" as an alternative to the word "curriculum". I think it's a great find, and important too, especially because the word "curriculum" always reminds me of IKEA, of that endless walking route that you are forced to follow there, even if you know exactly what you are coming to get.

Of course, IKEA doesn't have a well-considered structure in mind, as if you must have seen the bookcases, side tables and mattresses first, before you can make a sensible choice from the office chairs, two-seater sofas or kitchen cabinets. But I feel the same way about almost every academic bachelor's or master's programme. The courses offered usually have a connection that most closely resembles the strips of an old-fashioned strip card. That's not necessarily a bad thing, by the way. 

Over the past forty years, I have been involved in many education programmes, and almost always the build-up was no more than a more or less accidental result of special circumstances. For example, a professor who went abroad for six months, so that his courses were not scheduled in the first semester but in the second. And there were also study programmes that worked with a two- or even three-year rotation schedule. Students who enrolled in year A were given a different set of courses than students who enrolled in year B or C. That worked as well as it could, until educationalists started to question the lack of vision and substantiation of the curriculum offered. There had to be a structure in the program, with basic subjects and follow-up courses, and so on. Well, whatever. Little did we know. We just did our best to get students interested in what we ourselves found interesting – and important.

Now I am a great advocate of vision and substantiation. That is precisely why I see good opportunities for the concept of "learning landscape". Because let's face it: our students are very different from each other, which makes the whole idea of a rigid curriculum just as stifling and just as out of place as that mandatory walking route at IKEA. It is a misconception to think that our fields of study are neatly structured and require a strict and straightforward curriculum. All these disciplines are the more or less accidental result of complex histories, histories that can be told in hundreds of ways and that have not had a linear chronological development. So even if we were to offer every field to our students with nothing but the history of the origins of the discipline for a year – not a bad idea in itself – we could still do that in many ways. 

There is therefore something to be said for a liberating transformation of our study programmes into programmes without a rigid curriculum. Let's familiarise our students with a learning landscape, a landscape that is characterized by the large, complex problems of our time. In any case, these problems require a multifaceted approach, and many different perspectives. A strict curriculum mainly ensures discipline, and compartmentalisation of the intellect of our students, where we should mainly want to inspire them to develop a broad view, an open attitude so that the whole world will turn out to be a learning landscape. 

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Jan Bransen is Academic Leader of the Radboud Teaching and Learning Centre and Professor Philosophy of Behavioural Sciences.