Educating Leaders: Participant-Centered Learning

Feedback from my participation in HBS GloColl

By Geneviève Helleringer, Professor at the Public and Private Policy Department

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of participating in the Global Colloquium on Participant-Centered Learning Program (GloColl) at Harvard Business School (HBS). It was a wonderful experience. I met colleagues from business schools located in more than 40 countries, and learnt a lot about the Harvard style of participant-centered learning (PCL) and assessment. I also had time to reflect on my own teaching and how to improve it.

In the present post, I will first share some insights on what the participant-centered approach involves, and how its use can be of benefit in educating our students, whether they are students in initial education, global MBA or executive education as “leaders”. I then briefly explain how I intend to apply these dimensions in my own executive classes at ESSEC. I intend to bring out the central insight I have gained from teaching legal issues in a business school, namely that sustainable long-term value creation depends upon a stream of decisions that are simultaneously legally, ethically and economically sound.

The Starting Point: Leaders are Responsible Decision-Makers in Ambiguous Contexts

Business school is about learning how to articulate thoughts under pressure, and how to craft well-supported convincing arguments. When our students find themselves sitting at executive committee or board meetings, they will find their ideas challenged, and there will be no obvious “right answer”, because information is insufficient and / or cues are contradictory. ESSEC is a safe environment for them to be pushed out of their comfort zone, without feeling attacked.

Quantitative or technical information, such as financial or legal advice, informs managerial decisions; but the advice does not dictate the decision, and the advisors are not the ones who take the responsibility. This is especially true in relation to the difficult decisions that involve ambiguous contexts and the acceptance of responsibility.

Designing Participant-Centered Courses

In this context, the scope of management education is three-fold as explained in a slide shared by HBS Professor Rohit Deshpandé:

As a corollary, the goal of courses is to fuel transformation by:

  • Whetting the appetite of the students and creating a demand for what we teach.
  • Equipping the students with the minimum, memorable, theoretical framework to navigate issues they will encounter (“less is more”), rather than informing them or giving them knowledge.
  • Inspiring the students (in particular for post-graduate education and executive education).
  • Including a trans-disciplinary approach to train students to rely on insights across the board; teaching them the art of integrating a variety of insights, particularly where they conflict.

Because transformation of the student’s outlook is the central objective, adopting a participant-centered approach is a powerful strategy. The course flow can starts from the participants’ own experience rather than being dictated by the logic of a subject being studied.

Using Case Studies to Educate Leaders

The case method puts students in the role of decision-makers. It confronts them with real-world business situations, with the constraints and incomplete information found in real life. Other than actual experience, case studies provide the next best way of teaching important lessons to business school students. They enable learning via individual preparation, small group discussions, and provide an opportunity in interactive class discussions to sound out ideas that may not command a consensus.

In the case method, the role of instructor is one of a “facilitator of action learning”. The instructor organizes the sequence of, and transitions between, topics (“pastures” in HBS jargon) and ensures a climate that lets participants try out ideas, provides clarification of issues, as well as supplying knowledge or information if it is missing. The facilitator does not provide “The Answer”.

Proficiency in questioning is one of the hallmarks of case method teaching. Asking a question entails active listening and a thoughtful response—often in the form of another question or follow-up probe. Good questions take into account the specific audience (What are the students’ needs, interests, and abilities?), the pedagogical goals of the class (What are the key learning objectives? Why should students care?), and the content and class plan (Which case features are relevant, surprising, confusing, etc.? How is the material sequenced?). For sample questions.

A case discussion class is not merely an intellectual exercise, but also an emotional and interpersonal experience that requires trust and collaboration. To develop and reinforce an effective case learning environment, instructors should arrive at the classroom early before every session, at least ten minutes prior to the scheduled start of class. This helps support the instructor’s transition from planning to execution, enhances the instructor’s relationship with students, and provides time to prepare the physical environment of the classroom.

An early arrival also allows the instructor to move psychologically and emotionally from the self-focused nature of the teaching plan (“this is what I am going to do”) and concerns about teaching performance (“how well am I going to do?”), to become immersed in, and connected to, the collective energy of the class. The additional time also strengthens the relationship with students. It sends a powerful signal that the instructor truly cares about the students as individuals, and not merely as anonymous members of the class. Talking informally with participants, instructors get to know them better.

For additional resources on the HBS case method

Application to Business Law Courses: “Leadership Through Legal Literacy”

I would like to share a few ideas about how I intend to apply this framework and insights to a business law course I teach at ESSEC for executives.

I am using the effort to redesign this course as an opportunity to also engage in an in-depth conversation with my colleagues who teach similar courses. I am also using the momentum as a powerful means of integrating new faculty members who are still adjusting to teaching to non-lawyers. I am hoping to help them develop their teaching capabilities and the level of satisfaction they derive from teaching. The exercise will also be useful for team building. It is also a useful time to integrate sources of insight (academic research, practical experience), and develop ideas and means of conveying them.

Business law is a technical (‘hard’) subject. My aim is to challenge students to improve their ability to identify and solve problems embedded in context, to think critically about approaches and assumptions, and to grapple with the managerial implications of an analysis. I plan to teach some case studies in the interactive manner described above, and to use others either as mere illustrations or as mini case-studies discussed without prior reading and preparation. This will give students the opportunity to read the case after class, and to develop the breadth of their culture in business history.

To support this approach, I will adopt a more descriptive title: “Leadership through Legal Literacy” and clarify the goals of the course:

  • Assessing the role of legal and ethical issues in leadership
  • Preparing to engage with the legal issues, in relationship with ethical and economic ones
  • Understanding your own relationship to legal and ethical issues
  • Leading a team in its rapport to legal and ethical issues
  • Creating the conditions for organizations to strategically engage with legal issues