[This post is written by DVR Seshadri, Adjunct Professor at IIM Bangalore. He has been a mentor to hundreds of students across institutions during the last decade and a half. DVR has been constantly striving to improve his teaching effectiveness and this post is based on some of his experiments in the last few years.]
Teaching, as a noble profession, has always remained close to the heart to most teachers. However, in recent years, the methodology of teaching, or pedagogy, has been severely questioned, in India as well as in other universities around the world, especially in business schools. In a well written article, “Those who can’t, teach” (The Economist, February 2014), Schumpeter questions the objectives of the business schools in the US, and whether the faculty in business schools are interested in teaching at all. The teachers are urged to extensively engage in research and publications and as a consequence pay little attention to the process of teaching. Schumpeter also believes that the herd mentality of following higher ranked business schools have led the lower ranked business schools to focus on attracting talented students, rather than providing high quality teaching per se. As the costs of education rise, Schumpeter warns of growing competition to teaching from MOOCs, or Mass Oriented Online Courses, which provide identical course content taught in business schools, at very low price to the students.
A significant proportion of teachers treat teaching with discomfort and some consternation. As a consequence, some of them tend to belittle teaching. They take recourse to proclaiming that teaching is inferior to research. Such implicit caste hierarchy in many business schools does little to alleviate an already grave situation relating to the efficacy of teaching and learning.
At heart I am a teacher and have always approached it with a spirit of fun, rather than considering it to be a strenuous task. True, there is hard work required, but the joy of imparting knowledge, and being able to make a positive difference to the lives of my students, continues to motivate me. It is in this background that I would like to reflect on some much needed innovation in teaching in institutions imparting business education.
Teaching as a transformative experience for the participants
In a well written book, “Education for Judgment” (‘Education for Judgement: The artistry of discussion leadership’, by ‘C Roland Christensen, David A. Garvin, and Ann Sweet, Harvard Business School, 1991), teachers at the Harvard Business School reveal critical issues that teachers need to resolve. The book provides some important guidelines that teachers can follow to improve teaching. Stressing on the need for teaching to be a transformational experience for students (as opposed to downloading content from the teacher to the taught), the book provides good advice to focus on the ‘learning experience’ as against the ‘teaching experience’. In the following chart, I have attempted to present the ideas of the book in a form of a simple flow diagram.
Acquisition and application of knowledge: Undoubtedly, the classroom is a forum for the participants to acquire knowledge. They should also be directed towards productively applying such knowledge. This responsibility falls squarely on the teacher. Often teachers in their anxiety to ‘give more’ to the participants indulge in expansive coverage under significant time constraints, without paying adequate attention to enabling the participants an opportunity to apply the knowledge. The importance of application orientation in business schools cannot be over-emphasised. If a teacher can motivate participants to think about issues such as ‘Where does the knowledge emanate from?’, ‘What does the knowledge actually consist of?’, ‘How is the knowledge actually represented in the human mind?’, ‘How can this knowledge be applied in practice?’ etc., she sets in motion a self-perpetuating learning ecosystem in each participant. In this context, it is important for the teacher to make participants think through the inter-connectivity of knowledge gained from various courses. This is often given short shrift when courses are taught virtually in silos.
Usable Knowledge: Knowledge when given a context is easier to impart and understand. In this regard, the faculty’s focus on application of knowledge is infinitely more valuable than just imparting knowledge. This ensures that the participants are able to use the knowledge in problem solving and relate it to contemporary business issues that they are likely to come across in their professional lives.
Constructing the learning experience: An important responsibility of the teacher is to create the right atmosphere for learning. The teacher is likely to face several dilemmas in this regard. For instance, should he to focus allowing participants to come up with divergent questions or should he work towards obtaining closure and convergence in the classroom discussions? Should he focus on soliciting the right answers and cut out all other discussions or allow discussions as they emerge, regardless of their being right or wrong answers, wherein the participants ultimately figure out by themselves the fallacy inherent in faulty lines of discussion? Here the dilemma is on correcting the answers of the students or allowing them to hone their reasoning abilities. While there are no right answers to any of these questions, it is fair to state that the teacher has immense influence on the quality of the classroom experience. What is important is that the teacher uses knowledge as an instrument for learning rather than for display of his knowledge. Most participants are inveterate learners, and if the teacher is able to create the right learning experience, participants learn far more quickly. More importantly, they learn from each other and it behooves the teacher to facilitate such peer learning as well. In many intensely competitive classroom environments, unfortunately this opportunity is not sufficiently leveraged.
Creating communities of interest: The teacher can have a huge influence on the participants in getting them involved and to generate genuine interest for the subject. A community of interest is created when the participants enable each other and organise and communicate content amoung themselves. Participants are then fully empowered and learning becomes a transformational experience.
As shown by the diagram above, the cycle of activities is iterative. If implemented well, it leads to a virtuous cycle of superior learning for the participants as well as for the teacher.
Methodology of teaching - Pedagogy
While it is difficult to be prescriptive about which form of pedagogy is best suited for the classroom, it is fair to say that some of the teaching techniques have worn out their utility as effective pedagogies. In this regard, it is time that the curriculum and worn out pedagogies are reviewed and changed for the benefit of the participants.
In April 2014, I was invited by the Indian Institute of Management, Indore to take a few sessions on innovative teaching methodologies as part of the institute’s Faculty Development Program. Participants comprised of 33 teachers from various management schools. I conducted four sessions, one each for instruction oriented teaching, traditional lecture based pedagogy, case study pedagogy, and one using Active Learning Methodology. The participants were then asked to give their feedback on the teaching method they felt was best suited to ensure superior learning.
In their feedback, 72% of the participants mentioned that Active Learning Methodology or ALM was best suited for superior learning. 9% suggested case study based pedagogy, 9% suggested that a judicious mix of all the four pedagogies be used, while 6% did not give a clear response. Interestingly, only 3% suggested that traditional lecture based teaching method was useful as a superior learning tool.
Participants mentioned that the traditional lecture based pedagogy was still useful to cover the syllabus within the time available for teaching the course. They felt that traditional forms of teaching were still relevant because they help to teach concepts within the prescribed constraints of time, which is a major factor that they have to reckon with, especially in the university system. Many of the teachers also said that given the proliferation of business schools in the country, the quality and motivation of participants was also a major factor that they had to grapple with.
On the other hand, teachers of the workshop who favoured ALM mentioned that it facilitates a self-learning approach and helps to develop different perspectives on the subject being taught. They believed that the ALM method enabled high level of participation among the learners. It was more meaningful and result oriented vis-à-vis conventional teaching methods which were much more instructor-centric teaching approaches. ALM invoked critical thinking and enhanced the thought process of the participants. The participants see value in learning the topic, and hence the learning becomes relevant. More importantly, ALM helps to improve the attention span of the participants, with their active involvement and allowing them to think ‘out-of-the-box’. A word of caution from the participants (in their feedback) was that ALM was time consuming and that sufficient preparation was needed by the instructor to ensure that the classroom discussions are kept on track.
[To be concluded in the next post which will focus on the ALM pedagogy.]