The Lean University: Yale-NUS College


By Michael Moore-Jones, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio

Original post at

If you read my blog regularly, you may have read recently of my decision to attend Yale-NUS College in Singapore from July. In my post about this, I ran through a few of my reasons for choosing to attend Yale-NUS, and one of the reasons I touched on was Yale-NUS’ adaptability due to its small size and the fact that it is a brand new university. I’ve been giving some more thought to this, and wanted to outline why this is such a big deal for education as a whole.

“Lean” is a word that’s been thrown around a lot recently, usually in connection with startup companies. It describes methods used by startups to validate hypotheses about their business model and customers so that they can determine the best way to grow while spending as little as possible. I actually did an investigation for my International Baccalaureate Extended Essay into the applicability of lean startup methods to different types of companies. Since then I’ve been broadening my thinking. “Lean” can be applied to all sectors – indeed there’s already been a lot of thinking done around this – and I think education is a sector especially ready for “lean” to come in.

How does Yale-NUS College fit into this?

I would argue that Yale-NUS is the first Lean University. I’m going to explain here why this is, how it’s going to help Yale-NUS to succeed, and why it’s important for education everywhere.

In the “A New Community of Learning” paper that Yale-NUS put out this month, one of the paragraphs that struck me the most was the following:

“At Yale-NUS College, these forces resisting change do not exist. There are no entrenched department interests—indeed, as we will discuss below, there are no departments. There are no courses or curricular tracks honed to a fine edge by years of individual or collective effort that might be endangered by a new approach. And there are, as of yet, no alumni. Thus, a new institution like Yale-NUS has a unique opportunity to ask which of the various existing models of general education might be the most effective, and whether new models that do not exist at all in long-standing institutions might do even better. The question of “how do we get there from here” simply does not arise; the only question is, “where do we want to start?””

The inaugural faculty members who wrote this paper have a keen pragmatism that lends itself very well to “lean” ideas.

No departments? I think this is a crucial step. Most traditional universities are huge, and departments were created as a means of organisation. Yet the bi-product of organisation by departments is that academic disciplines are siloed. The “departmental interests” mentioned in the above are things like competition among departments to have highest student numbers, or teaching awards. These things breed competitiveness among academic disciplines that I would argue is not in the best interests of students. To use an example I’ve previously used in a blog post, in New Zealand at university I’ve studied the historians Herodotus and Sima Qian – separately, in different departments. I doubt my professors in each of my classes have met each other, or whether they’ve realised that Herodotus and Sima Qian have anything in common. At Yale-NUS, by breaking down the boundaries of departments, professors are free to look at all the links between disciplines, and thus craft a curriculum that links everything together in a way that a traditional university could not.

The faculty’s willingness to do away with departments shows that they’re willing to try new things and take aspects of various types of education to see what works best. But they take this further:

“For a common curriculum to carry on encouraging true faculty deliberation, it will have to be subject to periodic review and renewal. The Yale-NUS faculty has committed itself in advance to reviewing the College’s common curriculum frequently, weighing the benefits of continuity and tradition in its deliberations but also the benefit of having the curriculum truly be a reflection of the faculty’s collective understanding.”

A core tenet of lean methods is “validation”, or checking to see whether your hypotheses are working out in reality. If they aren’t, you need to adjust aspects of your hypotheses and re-test them, or “pivot” entirely. The Yale-NUS faculty have shown – even before they have any students – that they’re aware of the importance of this, and as a future student I’m thrilled to see this. I think it means that what I’ll be learning will be much more relevant and applicable to my future because of this adaptability.

Yale-NUS’ small size is the other huge advantage lending itself to “lean” methods. When you have tens of thousands of students and thousands of faculty members, it can be virtually impossible to change at all, let alone adjust fundamental things like departments or curriculum. When you have 150 students and 50 faculty, the story is very different.

Take the following hypothetical. Say a group of ten faculty members are sitting at lunch one day with ten students, and they’re discussing their classes. If a couple of students make a suggestion as to how an aspect of a certain class could be improved, the staff are free to take this on right then and there and report back to other staff members that very day. Changes could be made within the week, or even a day, as the traditional barriers that cause delay in change simply do not exist at Yale-NUS because of its size.

The challenge for Yale-NUS will be maintaining adaptability as it grows its student body. Luckily, I think the residential college system – a “college within the college” – will help to keep the college as a whole feeling small and adaptable.

Change very rarely happens from the old and the large. In most cases, the most disruptive change comes from the new and the small. Yet change does spread to the old and the large. It will take time, but if Yale-NUS proves itself to be right, it will be only a matter of time before older and larger institutions are forced to look and learn.

I think Yale-NUS has set itself up perfectly to go about creating a truly 21st-century education, and I’m so glad to be a part of this.

One comment

  1. Curious George

    how are the student activities like?

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