Getting Started

Beyond the Transfer Model

So when I began teaching at the business school, the transfer model was really all I knew.  And I was very uncomfortable with my role as the expert.  Some of that discomfort may have come from memories of our high school juvenile characterization of experts: x meaning has been, and spurt a drip (of water) under pressure.   But I think the discomfort comes more from the recognition that any particular subject worth pursuing is almost infinitely complex in reality.  Our way of dealing with this is usually to abstract the key descriptors, but the reality is always more nuanced.  So I have this concern that no matter how much more I know about a subject than my audience, someone will inevitably come up with the penetrating question that will expose my real ignorance.  My other issue with expertise is that it implies that since one knows all there is to know about the subject, or at least more than most anyone else, there is no need to learn.  I preferred to list my expertise as curiosity.  It implied that there is always more to learn if we are just clever enough to get the situation to give up its secrets.

Because I quickly perceived that my approach to teaching was different, certainly from what I had experienced in the institutional environment, but also from that of my peers, I took to sharing my philosophy with a class at the beginning the course.  Eventually it became a standard part of my initial class—probably for more than half of my time teaching.  I’ll have to review my PP decks over the years to characterize that evolution.

Last summer in my Decision course, for example, it looked like this:  I would start with a question—who here has made a decision?  The response was that look of derision: what a stupid question—clearly everyone here has made decisions, many of them in just the past hour alone.  I would proceed with a general discussion about how they were made, how they worked out, whether decision making is easy or hard.  The discussion usually got the students interested in the topic.  Then to further the stage setting, I would have them divide into small groups and make a decision.  I used HyperTheticals, a deck of cards describing mostly preposterous situations which required some decision, created for party entertainment value.  The students seemed to get into exercise, and were not afraid to state their opinions.  Having gotten pretty much universal engagement, we then shifted into more lecture mode to share the agenda for the first class and the course over the next ten weeks (twenty classes).  I tried to introduce as much interactivity as possible, but generally engagement began to wane.  To the point where when I went over the learning objectives, I tried to use the approach that these are my learning objectives for you, but what you as students will really learn is what you see as your own personal learning objectives.  Here there was a lot of reticence or reluctance to challenge or counter.  And my sense is that it wasn’t that they readily agreed with my learning objectives, they had just never really thought about what they wanted to get out of the course because no one in the past had ever indicated that was even an option?  I tackled this head on one quarter several years earlier in an IT Strategy course with memorable results.  That group of students was consistently more engaged, some even enthused, throughout the quarter than any other class I remember; and the administrative overhead I created physically drained me over the ten weeks.  I’ll talk about that example in more detail in a later post.

My attempt last summer was several iterations into this approach and I had begun to hone it into a format that resonated.  Maybe taking the PowerPoint deck and wrapping the typical words around it could also make a good post.  Indeed, it occurs to me that I could do that for a number of lectures since my approach had been to use the PP deck as an outline with pictures to guide my words.  Adding those words to the PP deck would force me to think through what I said and have it available to again assess exactly what I was (am) thinking about the topic.

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