Business Education: The Progression Of Thought

Over the last couple of weeks I have had the opportunity of being observed in my classes by my mentor. After watching me profess in the classroom, my mentor and I would go have a cup of coffee and discuss education.

Dr. Foltz is an Anthropologist and I am a Business scholar-practitioner. One would think two different subjects, needing two very different styles. However, through our conversations we found an amazing common ground.

When we started this process Dr. Foltz asked me who the major theorists of Management were? I spouted off Mintzberg, Schien, Maslow, Herzberg, and many others. Then we began to discuss the process of teaching business to students. I have developed a style over the years, but in discussing developmental theory with Dr. Foltz, he has both validated and enlightened me on how to do a better job educating my students.

As we have progressed through this discussion I have been thinking about the different ways business classes should be taught. Teaching business is both theoretical and practical, and this relationship is applicable at all levels of classes we teach. But how is the rigor of a 100 level class different than a 400 level class? My conclusion is that there is a difference, but there are similar application elements too. So what does this look like?

I think it is difficult to break business classes into a traditional Liberal Arts understanding of lower division and upper division. However, I do think that Bloom’s revised taxonomy applies to business classes. 100 level courses are more about remembering and understanding the theories and practices of business, while a 200 level course involves the understanding and applying of business concepts. 300 level courses involve applying and analyzing the results, thus determining the value of cause and effect. 400 level courses are where the outcomes are more evaluating and creating results.

However, William M. Sullivan in his excellent book “Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education,” explains a different way of looking at how business education evolves through the four years a student is at our institution.

In our lower level business classes our outcomes are focused on the developing of analytical thinking. Sullivan states, “This emphasis reflects the fact that Analytical Thinking lies at the heart of scientific inquiry and the technological innovations that flow from it. It is a critical skill for democratic citizenship as well and the basis of rational discourse in every domain.” This type of thinking is foundational to a solid business education and career.

“Analytical thinking involves the formulation and rigorous application of abstract concepts. It requires students to understand particular events as instances of more general concepts and learn how to formulate claims and make valid arguments using those concepts.” At the 100 level, business classes focus on the general and broad elements of business. An example of this is how BUS 101 deals with the introductory concepts of Economics, Management/Leadership, Law, Accounting, Finance, Marketing, and Entrepreneurship. The student’s thinking “is simple,” but the application is where the complexity begins to emerge. However, analytical thinking progresses into our 200 level courses too, such as BUS 211/212 where we introduce our students to accounting. In this 200 level course the student demonstrates analytical thinking by reviewing general accounting principles, and observing how the theory works in a demonstration by the Professor; the student practices these concepts by filling out of worksheets or electronic spreadsheets. At the end of the process the student then discusses what the numbers mean.

However, when students enter our 300 level courses they begin to develop the ability to see the possibility of multiple outcomes in given situations. In other words the students are learning how to “allow for multiple solutions” to given business problems. As Sullivan states, “The need for this kind of Multiple Framing in advanced intellectual work makes it clear that Analytical Thinking as powerful as it is, does not provide all of the intellectual tools needed to negotiate today’s complex world.” How this looks in a 300 level course involves what is called double-loop thinking. Take for example my Organizational Behavior class. Today we discussed attitudes in the workplace. We reviewed the ABC model of understanding attitudes. We could have just focused on the value of a good attitude on organizational productivity, thus single-loop thinking, but we used double-loop thinking when we discussed what Sullivan called the “historical roots of the assumptions underlying business concepts.” We questioned the historical assumption of productivity and profit as the only valid reason for creating a positive work environment for employees.

Using double-loop thinking, or multiple frame thinking, business scholar-practitioners are learning how to reflectively explore the greater meanings behind the practice of business. I really think if one teaches 300 level business classes like this it prepares the student to perform at the higher level of thinking associated with a 400 level course.

A 400 level business course involves practical reasoning. If we teach our students to analyze, use multiple frame thinking, reflect on the why, they should be able to recognize the theoretical concepts associated with business, as well as have developed the knowledge and skills needed to practice business. This type of learning demonstrates the positive relationship between Liberal Arts and a business education, while helping business students embrace the liberal values associated with good citizenship to ethically practice business.

Business 100 at our institution is our introductory business course. It begins by educating our students concerning the general concepts of business. It gives the students an overview of all of the subjects they will study in our program. Our 200 level courses continue to help our students develop analytical thinking. However, in both our 100 and 200 level courses our students are demonstrating how they remember, understand, and apply the concepts they are learning. But, it is when they get to the 300 level courses that they are not just analyzing, but creating multiple frames of interpreting the practice of business. They truly are analyzing and evaluating, reflectively, the value of business. When they get to our 400 level courses, they have a foundation for the practical reasoning they will need to demonstrate and create a relationship between the theory and practice they will be using in the real world.

I think that Business education is a little different than other subjects taught at a liberal arts institution. However, I think business professors focus too often on just the practical elements of business and not enough on characteristics associated with multiple framing and reflective analysis questioning the why behind business. Until we do that, we will continue to do the same thing but expect different results, which is not what our society needs at this time.

And that is my thought for the day!

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