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For mystery and mastery, it pays to follow the unorthodox course
Steve Coomber, 06 October 2005
© 2005 Times Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved
Steve Coomber learns about adventurous teaching methods.
"INNOVATE or die" is the call from the boardrooms of many of the world's leading companies. It is a message re-inforced in the curriculums of business schools. Ironic, then, that teaching methods and venues for the full-time MBA have remained resolutely traditional on many business school campuses across the globe. There are, however, some notable exceptions.
This month, London Business School (LBS) is introducing a new elective: creativity and personal mastery. The course was originally created by visiting professor Srikumar Rao and delivered at Columbia Business School.
Don't expect to find much use of the conventional lecture room, with its horseshoeshaped seating, here. Covering what might be termed soft skills elements of management education, the course, which aims to "produce profound changes in your life", is taught through a variety of highly innovative immersion exercises, each of which lasts a week. Students might, for example, spend a week viewing the world not from a self-centred perspective, but with a view to helping others. "Whoever you run into, from the sweet vendors in the Tube station, to the professors in class and the colleagues at work, think in terms of 'how can I be of service to that person?' " says Rao. "And stop focusing on yourself."
The exercises may seem unrelated to the standard MBA fare, yet they have benefits rooted firmly in the real world of work.
"Some of the things we did seemed to have nothing to do with management, such as eating Ethiopian food, going to the opera, or jumping out of a plane," says Magnus Asbjornsson, an LBS MBA student who took the course at Columbia last year while on an exchange programme.
"Yet afterwards I started to challenge my assumptions and look at career paths in a different way. I changed my approach to career search. Every application that I submitted after the course got me through to the final round." Asbjornsson now works in London for Marakon Associates, the management consultants.
The course comes highly recommended by participants. What other elective can claim to be so heavily oversubscribed that students apply two months in advance, submit seven essays and undergo an interview? How many electives have a dedicated alumni network? It may seem like fun and games, but there is method in the madness of unconventional approaches to learning. "Traditional MBA teaching is standing in front of a class and delivering a lecture, but that just doesn't work," says Dinah Bennett, a senior tutor at Durham Business School.
"Research has shown that if you just stand up and talk at somebody, they only retain 4per cent of what is said. But if you encourage people to apply immediately that learning in practice, it jumps to 90per cent."
Bennett calls this mix of practical and theoretical teaching style "pracademic".
LBS is not the only business school adopting an adventurous approach to pedagogy.
More and more business schools are discovering that innovative teaching pays.
Cass Business School at City University, London, has introduced a mystery of business course. Based on the idea of not lecturing, the course focuses on five themes: business as art, business as play, business as story, business as theatre and business as war. During the five-week elective, students learn about decision-making at the Churchill Museum in the Cabinet War Rooms, beneath Whitehall in London. They also pay a visit to the National Portrait Gallery and, with the help of an art historian, decode images of leaders.
In one exercise, they get an up close and personal taste of conflict resolution and negotiation. "We got a leading theatre facilitator and a former hostage negotiator, went to a West End theatre, hired the rehearsal room and dealt with the theme of conflict," says the course designer Professor Clive Holtham, director of the Cass learning laboratory.
Where the early adopters lead, other business schools are likely to follow. Some students may remain unconvinced by such unconventional approaches to learning. Not Asbjornsson, however.
"The title of the course is strange, the syllabus is stranger, and neither comes close to being as strange as the course itself. Yet it is the best class I have ever taken," he says. "It tackles an entirely different part of your business school studies and your life."
© Times Newspapers Ltd, 2005
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