Aaaah, if only we got along as well as the Breakfast Club kids…
A classic Constructivism learning scenario I experienced (usually painfully) in my MBA programme was the dreaded group case study project. The intention was good: students took concepts we had absorbed in textbooks and lectures into a group context to work on a case study project. The final deliverable was a five-to-ten paged paper which addressed given learning objectives or specific questions. Normally the group would have to put themselves in the role of a senior business leader and propose a set of strategic recommendations.
Groups were between three to five students. The case materials described a business scenario and provided some context and a variety of graphs, charts, tables of figures, all of which might or might not be useful. On two occasions I experienced, we did actual consulting projects with local businesses and presented our recommendations to the “client” and our professor.
I say these activites were “dreaded” for two reasons. First, due to heavy courseloads we students rarely had sufficient time to learn or reflect much. Group meetings took place outside of class in our limited free time, and were highly objective-focused. We aimed to achieve a good-enough submission to meet the requirement. Furthermore there were varying levels of motivation in the group. Inevitably one or two of the group members would wind up doing most of the work whilst the lazy ones coasted.
Inevitably we split the work into manageable pieces and some poor idiot was up all night trying to massage each piece into something coherent. Unfortunately the result was usually very little social collaboration, and the stronger members didn’t do much to enhance the learning of the weaker ones.
Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) skills could be varied but often we were given “puzzle pieces,” such as parts of an annual report, inventory stock levels, personnel turnover statistics etc. We had learned the basic theory behind these types of data in the classroom. Using a combination of these clues, the scenario and creativity, we were meant to collaboratively come up with solutions with the understanding that they wouldn’t be perfect and we didn’t have all the information. This was meant to be good training for the real-life business world.
A scaffolding strategy to improve the experience would include planned meetings with a teaching assistant facilitating a small group. Even better idea: enlist a volunteer from the real business community could mentor the group in these planned sessions. This would force the group to have a real discussion and focus on the process and purpose of learning, rather than on the outcome of completing the assignment on time.
The entire teaching method of case studies in business schools is meant to be a social constructivist one, however it rarely worked as intended. Another idea could be to do the same exercise but in the classroom in a longer session, perhaps using a “world cafe” facilitation method. This method puts participants in rotating groups so that they all have a chance to discuss a topic. As the members rotate they share insights they have learned during their discussions with the other groups. Gradually knowledge builds during the process and there is a wrap-up at the end to share ideas.
As part of my outside research I discovered that my instructors weren’t executing the case teaching method as it was intended. The method is not designed to be completely student-driven with a “deliverable” outcome. Harvard Business School’s website on the method calls it “participant-driven learning” and the onus is on the instructor to first, know their students’ backgrounds and second, meticulously prepare and structure the discussion in advance (Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning, 2017) often with a large student audience. Students are graded on the quality of participation in these class discussions. With this in mind, the method my professors used seems like more of a shortcut and explains why it wasn’t a satisfying learning experience.
I’m reminded now of another business school lesson on cultures which was excellent! The Organisational Development professor had us come in on a Saturday so we would not be rushed. We were split into two groups and given standard behaviours for our group. One group was meant to ask several questions about the health of one’s family, offer refreshments, and get comfortable before starting a business discussion. This was meant to be a typical middle-Eastern way of interaction. The other group came in, started throwing money around and was impatient with the questions, wanting to “get down to business” immediately. This was meant to be a typical American or Northern European way of working.
After the exercise each group reflected on what the interactions felt like. Even though we had only been “wearing” these cultures for a few minutes, the emotional reaction was intense. I was in the middle-Eastern group and found the “Americans” quite jarring indeed!
In this scenario the instructor was a facilitator (“scaffolding”), giving us some resources to do the exercise and facilitating the discussion and reflections. The instructor challenged us to compare our experiences with the theories of culture we were learning, and what cultural dimensions were at clash with one another (ZPD because we were stretched to apply our recent experience to enhance our understanding of an abstract concept). We as peers encouraged one another to participate (“social constructivism”).
Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Teaching By the Case Method. Retrieved November 10, 2017, from http://www.hbs.edu/teaching/case-method/Pages/default.aspx
Image courtesy of IFC, no photographer cited. Ten Things You Didn’t Know About the Breakfast Club, from http://www.ifc.com/2016/07/things-you-didnt-know-about-the-breakfast-club