Sunday, July 04, 2010

My Take on Education: What Changed?

I am engaged in the business of learning, literally. I don’t teach. I am engaged in managing a for-profit education enterprise. The focus of the business is on developing leaders, who, as I usually proclaim, are a special type of people different from ‘managers’ and in short supply, in communities and inside companies.

My special skill is in creating business models and partnerships to take training programmes globally. I enjoy the work and always felt a certain sense of mission in doing what I did. Starting my career in India, where the business I worked for offered IT Training to inner city graduates, this was easy: I saw a lot of lives ‘transformed’ for real. I used the experience in the international training market, first in South East Asia, and then in Eastern Europe and Middle East, over last ten years. I dealt with various learning programmes and varied customers along the way. I gradually became confident of what I did, though I never ever taught myself.

Practice invariably develops a theory, and I had mine: Something I needed to justify the decisions I took, accepted my own bias uncritically and made business sense. Like, my university degree made little difference in my life, and hence, I concluded that university style teaching does not help much. I concluded learning that really matter is the one allows people to change their circumstances, like IT training did for me. To me, a worthwhile exercise of teaching was about teaching ‘marketable’ skills and leading students to ‘recognized’ diplomas and degrees.

So, when I attempted to set up a learning business of my own, with support and encouragement from a few wealthy individuals, I set out to establish a World Campus: A distributed, technology enabled facility, which offered standardized tuition on various business and technical subjects, leading to recognized, mostly British, awards. The idea was to set up a network of partnerships in various countries, with colleges with real buildings and people, which will support and advice the students; but, learning, primarily, will happen over the Internet, in virtual groups.

As a preparation to this venture, I did several things. I put a notice to my employers, giving them a reasonable time to find my replacement. I refreshed my IT skills, which became rusty after years of disuse. And, almost out of freak interest, I enrolled in a course on Adult Learning.

This last bit – learning consciously about adult learning – has quite a transformational effect on my thinking, which I shall summarize here. In fact, it has changed my approach to my professional practice in a number of ways. Part of this came from my own commitment to try to understand various theories of adult learning, which exposed the limitations of the one I had myself. However, a lot of this fresh perspective also came from interacting with people who actually teach. Some of this learning was anecdotal, but in the context of the literature I was exploring at the same time, this opened up alternative possibilities of looking at my own professional practice. There were many strands of thought, but I shall only talk about three main ones:

First, I started to appreciate the role of the teacher somewhat. In my scheme of things, which was built on years of experience of trying to deliver standardized learning experiences over multiple locations [thus building education ‘brands’], the teacher was an unnecessary distraction. It is s/he who usually upset the formulaic scheme of things, which I could control; often, my professional struggles were struggles for control – between the classroom driven by teacher’s personality and the idealized, impersonal ‘branded’ classroom of standardized learning experience. I usually wanted to leave the teacher as little space as I could, reducing him/her to mere administrators of learning, handing out course notes and filtering out ‘noise’. My theory – justification – behind doing so was that the learners demanded what was written on ‘the tin’, the marketing brochure that was written by the expensive advertising agency I spent money on.

My reflections based on literature and conversations with practising teachers opened up an alternative way thinking: Should learning be viewed as impersonal acquisition of competence, or a way to be ‘a person in the society’[Jarvis, 2009]? Also, since our understanding of learning is still so limited, is it possible to reduce the business of learning into structured steps, however well designed, because the learning style of students [Kolb, 1984; Honey, 1994] could not be ignored for the sake of political correctness. However much I disliked the ‘human’ intervention of the teacher in the uncorrupted bliss of technology-based training, I have come to appreciate the role s/he plays: An understanding further enhanced by the discussion of Social Life of Information [Brown and Duguid, 2000] and the importance of personal and social context of knowledge, which is enhanced by the social participation in the classroom.

Secondly, my simple scheme of skills training and certification, leading to ‘transformation’, stood exposed with a greater understanding of what education attempts to do. The idea of critical thinking [Brookefield, 1987], being able to examine the ‘given’, appeared important. It was not just about the literature of critical consciousness that mattered; in the backdrop of the severe global recession, brought about by a collective cognitive failure, the mainstream economists [Rajan, 2010], popular authors [Pink, 2010] and psychologists [James, 2007] were discussing how the inherent limitations of our educational system, the focus on creating ‘clever rogues’ rather than promoting ‘legitimate peripheral participation’, lead directly to some very bad economics and policy decisions.

Finally, I learnt to reflect and use the reflections in practice. Till this point, I, like many others, took Management as a science. Though we were aware of the uncertainties inherent in the environment, we believed there existed formulaic answer to all problems. Statistical models reigned supreme, and uncertainty was, in a sense, just one factor to be measured. This not only reflected in what I did, but also in what I wanted to offer to the learners in the World Campus: A simple, memorable step-by-step exposure to how to manage.

I was not alone, most business school teaching is indeed based on such formulation. In 1962, Chris Argyris predicted moving from management development programmes that teach managers how they ought to think and behave to programmes, which help managers to learn from experience (Honey, 1994). But, the practice still lagged behind.

Again, conversation and engagement with academic and professional literature, such as Donald Schon’s Educating The Reflective Practitioner (1990); Henry Mintzberg’s Managing (2009) and subsequent interview in Strategy & Business (March 15th, 2010) opened my eyes to an obvious truth: Management is a practice, not science. We do not know most answers, but that does not matter as long as we don’t pretend to know and actively seek to find.

So, in summary, my professional practice has changed. I have a much greater appreciation of the social nature of learning and the role that the teacher in particular and the classroom in general plays. My World Campus is no longer an impersonal technology-driven entity, but a technology facilitated global community where real teachers and real students work side by side. I have consciously moved away from the simplified formulaic offerings of MBA and other such degrees, but started exploring various peripheral possibilities instead. And, finally, I have embraced reflection as a core attribute of managerial practice, and accepted that being open to learning is the best way to deal with a confusing, fast changing world.


Brookfield, S. (1987), Developing Critical Thinkers, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brown, J.S. and Duguid, P. (2000) The Social Life of Information. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Honey, P (1994), Styles of Learning, in Gower Handbook of Management Development, Edited by Alan Mumford. Vermont, USA: Gower.

James, O. (2007) Affluenza, London: Vermillion.

Jarvis, P (2009) ‘Learning to be a person in the society’, in Contemporary Theories of Learning, edited by Knud Illeris, pp 21 – 34, Oxon: Routledge.

Kolb, D (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Mintzberg, H. (2009) Managing. London: Financial Times/ Prentice Hall.

Mintzberg, H. (2010), Management By Reflection: An Interview by Art Kleiner, Strategy+Business. Available on

Pink, D (2010) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Canongate Books.

Rajan, R (2010) Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten The Global Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Schon, D (1990) Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

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