Prescriptive freedom

Harvard Business School’s teaching model offers consistency but also allows unscripted ‘discovery’, explain Michel Anteby and Caitlin Anderson

Lecturers’ reluctance to teach courses developed by third parties is a major obstacle to the “scaling-up” of higher education, according to a report published last year by a US-based educational consulting firm.

Interviews conducted at 25 institutions revealed that academics take pride in personally – although often laboriously – determining the content, methods and pacing of their courses. In the words of one, “nobody wants to give someone else’s speech”. The implication is that scripted and coordinated teaching stifles academic freedom.

Yet this fear rests on partly unchallenged assumptions. Chief among them is the belief that higher learning and standardisation cannot coexist; that open-ended teaching and learning are snuffed out by the tightly scripted pedagogy necessary to achieve economies of scale in higher education.

A second shortcoming of such doom-and-gloom scenarios is the fact that their origins typically lie in the imaginations of traditionally trained academics. People who become academics typically enjoyed being students in traditional settings, and they assume that the best way to teach is the way they were taught.

A close study of the Harvard Business School’s teaching model offers an opportunity to test both assumptions. The school’s experience indicates that selective, resource-rich educational institutions do not invariably opt for small-group tutorial instruction on the Oxbridge model. The sheer size and scope of the required first-year MBA curriculum at the school leads to a considerable degree of routinisation. Each year, 900 students take the same 10 modules or courses taught by about 70 academics.

For a new member of staff accustomed to an institutional policy of benign neglect of teaching, the fairly standardised and highly collaborative teaching practices at the school can be disorienting. Individuals teaching the first-year curriculum rarely choose the content of their classes. Across a given course (for example, marketing or finance), students read the same case material in preparation for each session, usually written by a member of the faculty and chosen or commissioned by a course leader. All teachers meet regularly with the course head to discuss how best to present the material; they frequently view taped sessions from previous years to help them “prep” their class.

Written teaching notes (available only to instructors) extend the script into the class discussion itself. Teaching notes give newer instructors the accumulated experience of past discussions of a given case. Most offer leading questions to kick off discussion, advice on how to move the class through the material, advance warning of the range of likely student responses, and tips for rescuing the conversation if it gets off track. Colour-coded seating charts tell instructors which of the 90 students to ideally call on to speak (based on past class participation).

In sum, much concerted effort goes into ensuring the consistent delivery of courses. Yet the teaching scripts and routines at the school deliberately leave some space for academics to reach their own conclusions about the material covered.

Take the case studies and teaching notes. Matters of delivery are indeed carefully scripted, but far from fully predetermining outcomes, the teaching notes support – even mandate – the development of partially discretionary behaviour. They favour questions rather than answers and scrupulously avoid codifying in writing a particular point of view.

The effect of all the extensive scripted preparation, paradoxically, is to create moments of unscripted “discovery”. With different instructors and the varying composition of a given class, sessions using identical scripts often end up being quite different. In one more surprising example, when discussing a fraud case, one student who was gently questioned by a faculty member openly acknowledged that she had personally taken part in a dubious accounting practice. The class saw that day that, in some circumstances, “good” people can exhibit very poor judgement – a learning outcome that was absent from the teaching note.

Harvard Business School’s model suggests that the scaling-up of higher learning does not necessarily stifle academics’ voices. It shows that carefully written scripts can create space or the needed silence for agency. Contrary to received wisdom, routines do not merely constrain; they can also enable. Moreover, venerable institutions do not always favour unscripted, instructor-centred education.

That said, the cost of filling the voids left by the script might prove higher for some than for others. We posit that teachers from backgrounds that are less represented on the faculty may want to speak in a way that resonates with the school’s broader culture but might find it more difficult to do so.

Not everyone might thrive in such a teaching environment, but the school’s example indicates that with sufficient resources it may be possible to scale up higher education without requiring academics to “give someone else’s speech”. Standardisation does not always rule out agency, and buds of freedom can still bloom in scripted settings.

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  • Patrick Welham opinion illustration (5 September 2013)
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