Well Rounded Curriculum – An Insight from Biglan’s classification of disciplines

Posted on July 27, 2010


Author:  Sanjay Goel, http://in.linkedin.com/in/sgoel


In 1973, Biglan classified academic disciplines along three dimensions. Each of these dimensions were broadly classifies into two categories – hard vs soft, pure vs applied, and life vs non-life [1][2][3][4][5].

As per this classification, hard disciplines follow a single common paradigm, whereas the experts of soft disciplines differ in their methodologies and concepts.

The hard-pure disciplines are concerned with universals and simplification, whereas soft-pure disciplines are concerned with particular cases. The thinking approaches significantly differ for these categories.  The hard-pure disciplines have an atomistic approach and rely more on linear logic, facts, and concepts whereas soft-pure disciplines have a holistic approach, and rely more on the breadth of intellectual ideas, creativity and expression.

Biglan’s classification of disciplines

Hard Soft
Life Non-life Life Non-life
Pure Biology, Biochemistry, Genetics, Physiology, etc. Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Geology, Astronomy, Oceanography, etc. Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, Political Science, Area Study, etc. Linguistics, Literature, Communications, Creative Writing, Economics, Philosophy, Archaeology, History, Geography, etc.
Applied Agriculture, Psychiatry, Medicine, Pharmacy, Dentistry, Horticulture, etc., Civil Engineering, Telecommunication Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, etc. Recreation, Arts, Education, Nursing, Conservation, Counseling, HR Management, etc. Finance, Accounting, Banking, Marketing, Journalism, Library And Archival Science, Law, Architecture, Interior Design, Crafts, Arts, Dance, Music, etc.

The hard-applied disciplines focus on problem solving and application of knowledge to create products and techniques, whereas, soft-applied disciplines focus on personal growth, reflective practice, and lifelong learning to create protocols and procedures.  The hard-applied disciplines are concerned with mastery of physical environment, whereas soft-applied are concerned with enhancement of professional practice.

Implications for Curriculum Design:

This classification is shows an insight for the curriculum desginers of higher education.  A well rounded broad based undergraduate curriculum should ideally aim to expose the students to all the different categories of disciplines. This exposure should not be limited to transmission of some known facts, concepts, and skills to the students.  Well  rounded students should have some familiarity with the context,  thinking approaches, professional concerns, design goals, research questions,  research approaches,   etc. of diversified disciplines.

Almost  all disciplines are potential domains of applying IT.  Many of these have also contributed significantly to expand the body of knowledge related to  software system’s analysis, design, and development.  Consequently familiarisation with diverse desiplines becomes even more important in the context of software development education.   Therefore, this idea has been incorporated in the proposed  multi-dimensional framework of pedagogical engagements [6].  In this framework, I have also combined Biglan’s classification with Harden’s taxonomy [7] to develop a novel approach to define  levels of integrated pedagogical engagements.   I shall soon write about this approach and these levels in a future article.

In  another article “Software Development Education: Breadth Courses for Developing Domain Competence and Systems Thinking [8],”  I have discussed about some courses outside computer science that will not only help in increasing the breadth of a computer science student’s  curriculum, but can also contribute  significantly towards developing the important traits of ‘domain competence’ and ‘systems thinking’  [6].

Meanwhile, Biglan’s classification of disciplines can be used by the  academic and computing community to review their existing curriculum and courses to ask the following  questions:

1.   Which of the eight  Biglan categories are promising domains for great future IT applications?

2.   Which of the eight  Biglan categories of disciplines are not even touched by the so called broad based undergraduate computing education?  Is there a need to address this gap?   If yes, how to address this gap?



1. Ruth Neumann, Disciplinarity,  In Tight Malcolm, Ka Ho Mok, Jeroen Huisman, Christopher C. Morphew (Ed.), The Rutledge International Handbook of Higher Education, Routledge, USA, pp 487-500, 2009.

2.   Yonghong Jade Xu, Faculty Turnover: Discipline-Specific Attention is Warranted, Res earsch in High  Educ ation. Springer, Vol. 49, pp 40–61, Feb 2008.

3.   Matthew Kwok, Disciplinary Differences in the Development of Employability Skills of Recent University Graduates in         Manitoba: Some Initial Findings. Higher Education Perspectives, volume 1, issue 1, pp.60-77, 2004.

4.   Biglan, A., The characteristics of subject matter in academic areas, Journal of Applied Psychology, 57, 195–203, 1973.

5.   Malaney, G. D., Differentiation in graduate education, Research in Higher Education, 25(1), pp 82–96, 1986.



8.   Software Development Education: Breadth Courses for Developing Domain Competence and Systems Thinking


Keywords: Software Engineering Education, Computing Education, Computer Science Education, Engineering Education, Information Technology Education, Information Systems Education, College Education, Higher Education, Professional Education


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