The Expanding Classroom

Answer by James Fisher:

Here's my perspective as a B-school professor.

Most undergraduate business school students have the general perception that a business degree is a more, shall we say, marketable degree. Given the high cost of a college education one can hardly blame these students (or their parents) for making this calculation and deciding accordingly.

But these students–and there are many, many of them–vary in their passion and interest in the business profession and the larger landscape of economic activity. This intrinsic motivation is a crucial ingredient to maximize your investment in a business undergraduate degree. You will learn more and your curiosity and sense of purpose is more likely to be attractive to potential employers.

I had one undergraduate who was boiling with ambition and just loved the relational challenge of doing business and the big ideas connected with strategy and entrepreneurship. He wanted to do an MBA, but his own success interfered with that plan. Now in his mid-thirties, he is a CEO of a medium-sized business.

Turning to MBAs, I see two camps there as well. Those who want to re-invigorate or re-direct their careers and then those who have had some measure of success in a particular business or discipline and now find that they need some general management skills. This latter group often consists of scientists and engineers that are now running product lines or business divisions or managing a staff. Both groups have their reasons and they are entirely legitimate.

But for both undergraduate and graduate programs, if the degree is not sought for some intrinsic value–if it is perceived strictly as a means to an end–then the so-called payoff is frequently less than imagined.

Is it better to study business in undergrad or as an MBA?

Answer by James Fisher:

I feel like I've got work to do. Much more than I first imagined when I started teaching over thirty year ago.

Here's my take:

This "problem" with screens or devices is really a subset of a bigger problem, which is one of student engagement. The education system is partly to blame, but so, too, is human weakness.

If we're honest, I think we would agree that the education system — at least here in the US — likes its students compliant, obedient and, generally speaking, passive. Is it any surprise, then, that students, though physically present, often check-out mentally while in the class? To put it otherwise, they are easily distracted. If it weren't screens, it would be (and often is) something else.

Then there is human weakness. Learning takes motivation, application and hard work. This is not the default position of many young people. Professors, such as myself, need to find accommodative strategies. Effective teaching is not entirely the art of taking knowledge and expertise and then melding it with effective communication techniques. It also requires the teacher to crack the nut of human motivation. Enter the professor as impresario.

My own solution, like that of many others advanced here, is at best a partial one. One that often fails in the face of student indifference and my own failure to inspire. By it does work, sometimes.

I use an active learning approach which has been popularized in business schools (and other disciplines) as the case study method. It depends on class discussion, good questions and persistent effort.

Thus, if I spot a student immersed in his or her device, I simply call on the individual. But I also call on the day-dreamer and the barely awake student. I call on the shy, silent student and the international student with halting fluency in English. If you avoid eye-contact, you get called on. If make eye-contact, ditto.

Get the picture? Not necessarily a pretty one. But thinking is a messy, circuitous business.

How does a professor feel when he/she sees students using cell phone/laptop during class and getting distracted?

Answer by James Fisher:

No, at least no longer. I've been teaching for over thirty years and intelligent students are, for the most part, a great pleasure to teach. They can be the leavening agent, activating or enlivening or elevating the classroom experience for all — professor included.

For example, it is infinitely easier to grade an essay or paper written by a student who has a firm grasp of the issues and can push forward a point-of-view or new insight. Such writing invites comment, encouragement and even speculation. A smart question can provoke a stream of follow-on conversation, as can a provocative or unexpected answer.

I teach in a business school and am a case-study guy. It is not at all unusual to have a student who knows the company, the industry or the particular function (e.g., the advertising business) very well — maybe better than me. Again, it's usually to the class's gain (and mine) to have this strong voice of experience in the room. I'll use every opportunity to pull the student's latent knowledge from him or her with all manner of questions and queries.

The best classes are conversational. Intelligent students make good, sometimes great partners in dialogue.

But I'll end on this dour note. Sometimes highly intelligent student are incurious — more's the pity.

Are professors intimidated by intelligent students?

Answer by James Fisher:

Nathan Ketsdever, in his excellent "Top 10" answers to this question, offers "Great Questions" at #9. Let me expand on this one suggestion.

Louis B. "By" Barnes, a legendary case teacher from the Harvard Business School, was famous for saying that teaching is "the discipline of listening extra carefully before making interventions in the discussion." Here is a list of question types he developed:

  • Open Ended Questions: What's going on? What do you make of this?
  • Diagnostic Questions: How do you interpret this events? Can you explain them? What do they mean?
  • Information Questions: Where, When, Who, What are the relevant facts and opinions?
  • Challenge Questions: Why do you conclude that? Where is there any evidence for what you say? Does anyone disagree with that point?
  • Extension Questions: Tell me more about that. What else can you add? Keep going… Can you take us further down that path?
  • Combination Questions: How you relate the point you make to the point he/she just made?
  • Priority Questions: What issues do you consider most important? Why is this more important than that?
  • Action Questions: What should be done? What would you do? How would you do it?
  • Prediction Questions: What do you think is going to happen? Where is this all going to end up? Will he/she do that or not?
  • Generalizing and Summarizing Questions: What general conclusions can you draw from this discussion? Can you summarize the discussion so far?

Jim Eison is a professor of education at the University of South Florida who also has a inventory of useful questions. Here are a few he shared we me, citing Richard Paul as further source for these Socratic-like questions:

  • Questions of clarification: Can you explain that further? Could you give me an example?
  • Questions that probe assumptions: Is that always the case? Why do you say that?
  • Accuracy: Is that really true?
  • Precision: Could you be more specific?
  • Relevance: How does that relate to the problem?
  • Depth: What factors make this such a difficult problem?
  • Breadth: Is there another to look at this question?
  • Logic: How does that follow?

One other tip: wait. As wait time after a questions is extended, you are likely to have more and better discussions. Of course, never answer your own questions.

Is there any way to improve your skills at discussing?

Answer by James Fisher:

Of course it does. But the very next question we want to ask is "How much better?"

Let's do a little thought experiment using the Bayesian analysis that you would have learned had you attended the Harvard Business School and been awarded that MBA.

We will make some assumptions. By all means, change them if you don't like them or if you stumble across the precise data. The Bayesian analytic technique will be the same even if the numbers change.

Let's say that 60% of all successful entrepreneurs have MBAs. Let's further assume that we sample among those entrepreneurs who (thus far) have been unsuccessful, finding that 20% of these unsuccessful entrepreneurs have MBAs.

There is yet one more piece of information that we need to ascertain, namely, What overall proportion of entrepreneurs are successful?  We know that entrepreneurial success is, alas, elusive, so let's place a high hurdle here: assume only 5% are successful. [Again, if you have better data, then just plug it into the analysis below.]

Here is the Bayesian analysis presented below in my clumsily hand-drawn tree diagram.

Stick with me.

Note that the percent of total entrepreneurs who are successful and (joint probability) have an MBA would only be 3%, while a comparable 2% of total entrepreneurs would consist of successful ones without the vaunted MBA.

There are other questions of interest to ask, like, "What proportion of MBAs who are entrepreneurs are successful?" (I'm glad you asked!) Our little tree here allows us to find that 22% of entrepreneurs have MBAs (0.03 + 0.19 = 0.22), while only 0.03/0.22 = 13.6% of those MBA's will actually succeed as entrepreneurs. Furthermore, it is interesting to observe that, given our particular assumptions, the entrepreneurs without MBAs are much less likely to have success: 0.02/0.78 = 2.6%.

I'm indebted to Professor David E. Bell of Harvard Business School for this little example of Bayesian analysis. If you want to read more, then you can purchase his note on "The Value of Information" at the Harvard Business School Publishing service or Product.

Does getting an MBA make someone a better entrepreneur?

Answer by James Fisher:

Truth be told, many people go into an MBA program thinking they want to land in the very position in which you currently find yourself, namely, a position in a professional services firm with a shot at partnership and some serious money.

These folks should be careful what they wish for because they, like you, may very well find themselves in a firm and doing work that they are "not particularly fond of."

Generally speaking, at these highly selective firms the ones who make partner and scale the executive heights of the firm are not necessarily the brightest or the wiliest–they are the ones that enjoy the work the most. (James Stewart, a New York Times business reporter and former law associate at Cravath & Swaine makes this similar point about law firms.)

So I'll be very frank and say that I don't think that the MBA credential, even from a top b-school, will do much in the way accelerating your ascent through the ranks of any organization or significantly boost you salary. It is possible that the experience itself may be a tremendous experience in a host of other ways. You may meet some incredible folks that will shape your future, you may get greater clarity on your vocation or you may discover an interest or opportunity that you previously had not imagined. The key question, I think, is this: Is that what you're looking for? If so, they're real possibilities.

Let me take a slightly different tact, I see a lot of people in MBA programs seeking to revive a stalled career; I see a lot of people seeking to make a career pivot; but I see fewer at the level you describe or that are seeking to improve the odds or rapidity of advancement along what is essentially the current path. Nothing at all wrong with that, but I don't think b-school is the optimal strategy for that objective.

Let me close with a true story–after all, I'm a case-study guy. A young man with excellent undergraduate credentials went into Teach for America and did a two-year stint. He was accepted into the Harvard Business School and coming out he had three really excellent job offers. He had worked for Cummings, the engine manufacturer, as an intern and they wanted him to work for the VP of strategy at Cummings HQ. He had two buddies who were doing an entrepreneurial thing–an entertainment production company in LA–and they wanted him to run the business side of things. Finally, McKinsey offered him a position as a consultant.

He chose McKinsey. In a couple years he left the firm and went to work in the education reform space. Eventually became an executive–CFO or something like that–at a non-profit educational enterprise like KIPP.

So the route to the right career is often a circuitous one. Credentialing has a role, but we shouldn't exaggerate it.

Should I quit my job and go to business school?

Answer by James Fisher:

How about this little thought experiment? I am a sadist and you are a masochist. If I agree to torture you this afternoon, then it seems that we're both the better for it. You and I are maximizing our pleasure.

So would not utilitarianism endorse our perverse pact according to its vaunted pleasure principle?

But that's not right, you say? Exactly.

Something about utilitarianism that seems ethically tone deaf.

So let's spell out some of these problems:

  1. It lacks ethical depth. It reduces values to facts. You should behave in a way that contributes to the greatest good – maximize utility, pleasure, happiness. Okay, but what about humans rights, justice, truth telling. Utilitarianism (a theory of the good) often collides with deontology (a theory of the right).
  2. It's subjective. Happiness can be a slippery concept. What causes, say, authentic happiness versus false happiness. Might self-sacrifice, pain and suffering ultimately contribute to happiness.
  3. It's too simplistic. We're driven by more than the pursuit of happiness or pleasure — we're psychologically more complex. We admire heroism, we value the well-being of posterity.
  4. It can't account for evil. Utilitarian does not scratch the surface of human intention very deeply. It hardly seems plausible that evil is simply the wrong calculation of consequences.
  5. It presumes we are more prescient than we in fact are. Who can really know the consequences of particular acts? What behavior now brings happiness in the future? Our track record in this respect is abysmal.
  6. It lacks a religious sensibility (of course, a plus for many). What about God, the soul, life after death, sin? Utilitarian pushes all these off the table, insisting they're largely irrelevant a a guide to behavior.

Of course all this said, let's give credit where credit's due. Utilitarians have often been right about some of the big issues: women's right and slavery come to mind.

Maybe we should be listening closer to Peter Singer's arguments about animal rights. What do you think?

What are some objections to utilitarianism?


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