Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In Praise of Business Education

These are, we are told, dark days for business education.  The economic downturn has been laid at the feet of business schools too caught up in teaching theory to inculcate ethics.  Employers complain that business schools fail to provide them with students who can complete the most basic tasks--writing clearly, speaking well, working with others.  And most recently, business schools are bearing the brunt of the criticism growing out of Academically Adrift, which suggests that standards are low, teaching is poor, students are unmotivated, and that business fields have become the major of last resort for students hoping to slip through college without troubling themselves to learn.

As a historian serving for this year as the Dean of the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business at Westminster College, I have three responses to these complaints:

 First, at least during my entire education career, business schools have been magnets for these sorts of complaints.  My fellow history majors looked down their noses at business school students who just wanted to get through and get paid.  Later, when I became a faculty member, my colleagues and I looked with jealousy at the big salaries paid to business school faculty and graduates.  And we complained in the halls about the business students in our general education classes who could not find a passion for important things like the social history of British colonies in the Americas.

Second, many of the supposed faults of business schools--large classes, lecture-oriented teaching, disengaged students, shrinking amounts of homework--were not pioneered by business schools.  Instead they are the creation of colleges and universities enamored of what John Tagg calls "the instruction paradigm"--an approach to education that focuses entirely on educational efficiency, or in other words, getting as many students as possible into and out of classes.  Sir Ken Robinson's recent speech (made into a video that has gone viral) is only the latest demonstration of the soul-killing futility of such a model of schooling.

Third, these criticisms of business schools miss both the innovations in business education that are now leading change in higher education, and the new generation of business students who are transforming the goals and curricula of business schools across the United States.

Let me start with business students.  While there are certainly students who have selected business because it is an "easy" major (in the same way that students fall into other "easy" majors--sociology, english, history--pick your favorite) the business students I have met at Westminster tend to be ambitious, focused, and intent on improving the world they find themselves in.  Fifteen years ago when I started leading civic engagement efforts on college campuses, I was most likely to attract students from the social sciences.  Today, those students come from business.  They have discovered the transformational power of social entrepreneurship, they understand the way that the world is a complex system, and they believe that business fields are the ones best prepared to empower them (and their fellow-citizens) to respond to the economic, environmental, and educational crises before us. 

Nor are all business students upper-middle class white kids intent on maintaining their status through high-paying jobs.  Business is a field that attracts non-traditional students, first-generation college attenders, students of color, and others who are looking for a way to craft better lives for themselves.

In business schools that are paying attention to changes in education and the business world, those students are met with curricula and pedagogy that are as good or better than that found anywhere else in the university.  Here is what I mean:

Outcomes--Many academic programs are designed around classes and then, almost as an afterthought, they add desired outcomes.  Many business programs are designed with the outcomes in mind, and then the learning experiences are built to lead students to those outcomes.  In the Gore School, our MBA was built after long conversations with alumni and local business leaders led us to agree on a set of outcomes.  Then the courses were built to add up to those outcomes.  The result is a curriculum that reinforces itself, where every class adds to student understanding of a range of topics, not just a single subject. When we have learned about gaps in student performance, as with writing a few years ago, we have adjusted the curriculum to respond.

More radically, in recent years we have created two project-based programs, where rather than taking courses, students work through a series of projects.  Those projects lead them to the outcomes.  The programs are competency-based.  That is, students graduate when they can demonstrate competency in all of the program areas.  No competency, no graduation.  The result is programs where students can demonstrate their business acumen, not just demonstrate that they have taken courses on business topics.

Pedagogy--While many business (and non-business) schools use traditional lectures as their teaching method, more and more of them, including Westminster, focus on teaching that leads to learning.  By this I mean that our courses require students to get a hands-on learning experience.  They work through cases, do live consulting projects, build businesses, serve internships, and solve real-world problems.  They can do this because their faculty are both academically qualified and experienced in the business world.  Our students may not be able to rattle off complex formulae or theories at the drop of a hat.  But all of them graduate with real experience in the business world.

Relationships--While it is not the case that small class sizes guarantee excellent learning, at Westminster we have been able to use small class sizes to build strong relationships among students and between students and faculty.  The result is a learning environment where no student can hide, and where no student is ignored.  This is good educational practice, to be sure.  But it is also good business practice.  In a work world where more and more jobs require people to work in teams, to respond to complex problems, and to innovate rather than replicate what has been done in the past, an education focused on ensuring both support and accountability is essential.

I do not mean to suggest that Westminster, or any business school, has "solved" the problem of business education.  Nor do I mean to suggest that all of the critiques of business schools and business students are wrong.  But I do think that the sort of education that good business schools provide their students is the sort of education that all students need.  The proof, perhaps, is in the results.  Last year, accountants with a Westminster undergraduate business degree passed the CPA exam at higher rates than students from any other school in Utah.  Westminster's D.A. Davidson investment team consistently is one of the top five in the US at making gains in the stock market.  And for the past two years, Gore School of Business seniors have significantly outperformed expectations on the CLA--the very assessment tool which has sparked the furor about business education in Academically Adrift.

These are small things all.  And the number of students participating in each is too small to generalize about all Gore School of Business students as a whole.  But at the very least they suggest that not all business education is broken.  In fact, it may be very good indeed.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Small things indeed, but revolutions have been born from such apparently small changes! Very insightful thoughts and certainly valuable at revealing many of the opportunities where Westminster College is making significant inroads, (although, like all business schools, we still have some obstacles to overcome). As one of your traditional MBA instructors, (as well as an architect and Coach in your new project-based programs), I can say that the journey over the last four years has been both a whirlwind as well as an exceptional professional development experience. When I returned to the academy in 1999 to work toward achieving my PhD after 35+ years in business and management, I was dubious about whether I had the stamina and intelligence to catalyze change in the burdensome, Kafka-like “bureaucratique” of higher education. I am still a bit anxious about whether I will survive (GRIN).

During these past four years, and especially under your unique leadership skills and style, I have developed confidence and practice through the incremental and radical changes I have been able to put in place in my andragogy and the resulting transformation of learner outcomes. Many of us in the Division of New Learning are a self-selected team that have been permitted and encouraged to develop and identify “best practices” in our non-traditional BBA and MBA learning modules, where “coaching” has eclipsed the traditional approach to “teaching.” Many of us have “taken to heart and soul” the constructive criticism leveled by Sir Ken Robinson's proposal against higher education. I have integrated competency and project-based deliverables and approaches into my “traditional,” classroom-based MBA courses. The results have both astounded me as well as my learners.

Other Westminster Schools are beginning to build upon the foundation encouraged within the Gore School of Business. Our campus has been stimulated to continue to experiment with “guide on the side” approaches, contrasting our success with the anachronistic “sage on the stage” styles, (although I have experienced some incredibly superb lectures).

As a private institution, we have received support from the very top of the College, including the Board of Trustees, to construct new learning strategies, transform techniques, and architect new methods that will capitalize upon the learners’ capacity to master competencies.

I pray we can keep up this momentum and possibly, in the next few years, we will no longer need a Division of New Learning. By that time, the transformative experience we are participating in could morph the majority of us into the philosophy of “new learning.” I live in hope…