By Jason Fertig | Many courses teach about business, but not how to actually do it.
As a professor in a business school, each semester I strive to make my courses relevant for students. For readers who are not well-versed in the ins-and-out of B-Schools, my admission may be a bit of a surprise. But politicized majors (e.g., gender studies) are not the only disciplines that present students with an intellectually vapid experience these days. Many business courses are not much better.
Ask business majors why they chose their courses of study and you will receive answers that are some variant of “to get a job” or “to make more money than those useless majors.” But how do such outcomes happen? What do business courses offer that English courses do not? These students take it for granted that their curriculum has value beyond signaling employability, but that’s not necessarily so.
Is management a practice that is learned through experience (i.e., on the job by getting your hands dirty), or is it a science that can be codified and taught to anyone? That depends if the goal is to teach students how to succeed in management, or merely to teach them about management. It’s hard to convince the business school powers-that-be that those two outcomes are vastly different.
I like to use sports analogies when teaching, and a golf analogy about two beginning golf instructional classes may help make my point.
In the first golf class, students receive lessons about the various clubs available, about the differences between driving, putting, chipping, and pitching, and about course management strategies for different professional courses. To apply these lessons, the students take turns hitting a whiffle ball around the room with a shared club. They’re learning about golf, but scarcely doing any.
In the second class, students bring their own clubs to a driving range and putting green. These students learn some fundamentals about swinging their clubs, but each day they take those fundamentals out to the course to play a few holes. Their instructors allow for various idiosyncrasies in the students’ swings, provided that the golf balls are flying in the appropriate direction and are landing in the hole in fewer strokes. But when needed, the instructors will prescribe drills and exercises that will help each student improve, based on observed faults.
Which class is likely to produce better golfers? If you were playing a foursomes match tomorrow, from which class would you rather choose your partner?
How does this analogy apply to my semesterly challenges in the classroom? Many business professors teach their courses in a style that’s like “Class One” while I try to make my pedagogy like “Class Two.”
The typical business class normally involves an expensive ($200) textbook that presents the idea of management to students as if they are new visitors to Earth. If that sounds off the wall, here’s a sampling from one that is supposedly more “applied”:
Time is a manager’s most valuable resource, and one characteristic that identifies successful managers is that they know how to use time effectively to accomplish the important things first and the less important things later. Time management refers to using techniques that enable you to get more done in less time and with better results, be more relaxed, and have more time to enjoy your work and your life. Time management means managing yourself so that you are more productive and can accomplish the things you need or want to accomplish. Self-management is the ability to engage in self-regulating thoughts and behavior to handle difficult or challenging situations. Yet all of us have patterns of habit and behavior that are hard to change, along with various impulses, desires, and fears that may make it hard to manage ourselves toward more efficient behavior.
According to the authors, students need to learn how to define time management. Students may lack some basic skills today, but they are not that dumb. They know that people must manage their time; they’ve been doing that for many years. Wash, rinse, and repeat the terminology parade and you have much of the content that students read in most management/leadership/marketing classes.
When evaluating business classes (other than accounting classes, which emphasize knowledge and skills tested on the CPA exam), the reading list is a critical data point. If the class has a single textbook from a major publisher, there a good chance that it will merely be about the subject matter.
I’m not shy when it comes to talking to students about this issue. In fact, recently I feared the worst when a student told me in front of the whole class that I annoyed him. But when explaining why, he said that I ruined many of his other classes because he now understood the “about vs. practicing” dichotomy.
Knowing about proper time management does not help students practice better time management. Business students are doers, not philosophers. There are business students who are gifted enough to transfer their classroom learning to practice without prior application, but those students are exceptions.
Yet the classroom is more akin to thinking vs. practicing. If I am to practice what I preach, I have to either take my students to the golf course or truly bring the course to them.
Given the resources available, my personal approach starts like many courses—with reading and reflection. But I differ in my pedagogy in that I use classic texts (many of which are free in the public domain) to awaken students’ minds from the terminology doldrums. For instance, on time management, students read Sun-Tzu’s Art of War: “The skillful soldier does not raise a second levy, neither are his supply-wagons loaded more than twice.” Determining a modern interpretation for that statement requires much more brainpower than reading the definition of efficiency as given by academia.
But perhaps my “great books” approach is still too theoretical. After all, a person who benches 400 lbs. is strong, but without applying that strength, that person is just built for show.
To truly teach a skill like time management in a non-academic fashion, I actually ask my students to practice managing their time! I present them with various tools to use (e.g., David Allen’s Getting Things Done, Stephen Covey’s Habit No. 3, Putting First Things First, or the lesser-known but powerful Pomodoro Technique). Most importantly, while I do assess their knowledge of such tools, I give more weight to their perfecting their own time management “swings” by adopting the aspects of each technique that best suit their “games.”
Believe it or not, when students are not spoon-fed common sense, they’re actually capable of thinking!
I have seen many business students enter college with great expectations, but leave quite jaded because they didn’t learn anything. That frustrates me because I’ve had great experiences in bucking the trend of breezy courses “about business” with my students. I want them to leave college seeking more. As Baltasar Gracian wrote 400 years ago in his Art of Worldly Wisdom: If you enter the house of Fortune through the door of pleasure, you will leave through the door of sorrow.
My long-term goal is to create more converts to my pedagogy. I need all the help I can get, from employers demanding more from graduates to current students demanding business courses that aren’t just fluff.
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