30 August 2007

Letters to a Young Teacher

Salon's Mathew Fishbane interviews Jonathan Kozol, author of the recently published Letters to a Young Teacher, in which Mr. Kozol advises school teachers to adopt an "attitude of irreverence." Thank goodness at least one person who testifies before the U.S. Congress is saying it.

25 August 2007

Learning in time

Over at FutureLab, Jack Kenny has an article discussing the importance of time in learning environments and experiences. Kenny details the experiences a number of schools in the UK have had in changing the way that time and learning interact. Faithful readers of this blog will recall the post on thought/days, in which I suggested a supplementary time measurement for learning (in addition to the now-standard credit/hour).

I think the most important point raised by Kenny's article is that "a [rigid] timetable is restrictive when teachers are working creatively." Clock time and learning time are related, but they're not necessarily isometric. To illustrate this difference, you need only reflect on what happened to clock time during one of those magic moments when you became completely immersed in an enjoyable learning experience...

21 August 2007

The MBA: new, improved, or simply on steroids?

In Austin, Texas, a bunch of teachers at the Acton MBA program have uncovered the secret of American greatness (such as it is):

We believe that thoughtful, principled entrepreneurs are the secret to America's success, and her scarcest resource.
Anyone who doubts whether or not Acton's founders are correct in this surmise should stop and think about the meaning of the word entrepreneur. I hardly think it unfair to qualify Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, and King as entrepreneurs. It's just that their domain was politics rather than commerce. The US owes all of its greatness (again, such as it is) to its most entrepreneurial members. Better US entrepreneurs can only mean a brighter future for the US.

But setting aside for the moment the whole question of social entrepreneurship, Acton claims as its goal
to educate a new kind of MBA: one who is equipped to add value from day one, build successful businesses, raise a healthy family, and give back to his or her community.
Having considered business school in the past, and having cheered from the sidelines as a spouse paid her two years of dues, this sounds great. Your average garden-variety MBA program makes it a rule to thwart whatever entrepreneurial impulses its students may bring to its doors. So maybe Acton really does offer something different. At the very least, it has proven itself capable of convincing already successful entrepreneurs that it offers something worthwhile:
Acton is the only MBA program in the country that offers every student a $35,000 Acton Fellowship to cover the full cost of tuition, fees, and materials.
Seems like a hell of deal, if the curriculum is any good. And the curriculum looks pretty damn good to me. They use the the case method, but with a focus on entrepreneurial issues rather than managerial ones. They include hands-on experience in sales, complex simulations, and site visits as part of the package. And one of their core curricular segments is entitled "Life of Meaning," suggesting that they're not merely about enabling corporate greed. And to top it all off, it's all taught by seasoned entrepreneurs, not by researchers. It looks like a fantastic curriculum, and I'd endorse it wholeheartedly except for a few little details which set my nose to twitching.

(A) First off, the workload is 80-90+ hours per week. Now, it's only a one-year program, and traditional MBA programs seem to work their little serfs 50-70 hours per week for two years, so perhaps it's not so bad by comparison. It's just that that kind of workload sends several important messages:
  1. it suggests, by sealing people hermetically into their program so that they barely even see their spouses, that success in business depends upon sacrificing everything else (from the FAQ: "We offer several sessions throughout the year in which students and their significant others get together with the Life of Meaning teacher to discuss the contributions and sacrifices each has to make throughout the year-long program");
  2. it teaches the phony lesson that working harder is more important than working smarter;
  3. and because it lasts an entire year, it creates habits of dissociation (an addiction to work really is a spiritual disease) which can reappear at any time.
(B) Second, it looks like the school is staffed by only (or almost only) white males. Lord knows that a lot of diversity can exist beneath identical skin colors and genders, but it's nevertheless hard to believe that this kind of homogeneity doesn't reflect a certain homogeneity of outlook. Driving forward relentlessly has been a very successful strategy for white males, but I can't help but wonder whether or not there may be other strategies.

(C) Third, and most importantly, it's still a curriculum taught by faculty at a school where students come and sit in classrooms to "learn at the feet of the master." Acton notes that "traditional MBA faculty see themselves, not their students, as the customers," thereby suggesting that at Acton, students are the customers. That is to say, the students are the boss. But while "clear contracts and a competitive grading system" probably do provide for quite a bit of the pressure experienced by students, I fail to see how they "encourage... perspective, discipline and accountability." Perspective comes from broad understanding--not from narrow focus; discipline arises as a result of self-knowledge--not from external standards; and accountability arises from a sense of connectedness to other persons and things--not from abstract contracts, however clear.

From its website, Acton appears to be a smarter, leaner, and perhaps meaner MBA, but it's still an MBA. In many ways it returns to original intent of the MBA, which was to provide to rising managers (who already had some real-world experience) a suite of tools to help them manage more effectively. And in several ways it has outgrown its roots: its focus on entrepreneurship is welcome; its penchant for hands-on teaching is laudable; and its ability to support its students financially is breathtaking.

Without visiting the campus and conversing, face-to-face, with its students and teachers, I don't think it would be possible to render a more complete judgment. (I despair of the possibility of any student giving me any time for conversation.) It's an extremely exciting project, but I think it's still mostly a large step in the direction of faster and more, and only a small step in the direction of better.