Issue-centered learning

September 30, 2012 | By | 3 Comments

One of the core pillars of management education for the future is to turn current functional-based, single discipline teaching into issue-centered, trans-disciplinary learning. The development of a question-based, creativity-focused approach that enables critical and divergent thinking is an integral part of this.

Future learning environments will be established both inside a classroom and as collaborative learning platforms for action learning and research (collaboratories) in business and other organizations, as well as in communities. The choice among all of these different learning settings depends at what stage a student or participant is in their journey towards mastery. As such, different settings are needed to acquire awareness and actionable knowledge needed for guided practice and independent application.

Embedding business and management education in its larger context is an important way to ensure that students perceive the necessity of engaging multiple disciplines and develop the skills required to successfully apply knowledge. Historically, some business schools have attempted to do this through the case study method. Innovative business schools are increasingly complementing the case study method with action learning projects. In this sense they are following the lead of medical schools – as well as engineering schools that require field-based, engineering capstone projects.

Through learning and skills development conducted within a context selected both for its potential learning value and for its potentially positive impact on the problem being addressed, the role and purpose of business, the state of the planet, and awareness of existing and emerging societal issues is dramatically enhanced. Teaching disciplines in isolation may be an efficient way to transfer knowledge, but it misses the opportunity to develop a deep understanding of when and how to apply knowledge, and the skills to do so effectively. Disciplinary expertise is a necessary but insufficient condition for success. It must be complemented by deep understanding and leadership skills if students are going to develop the competencies required to solve complex , multi-disciplinary problems.

Issue-centered learning is organized around existing and emerging societal and environmental global issues (i.e. water, health, poverty, climate, pollution, migration, energy, renewable resources) on a global and local scale, ensuring that students develop the following characteristics, skills and competencies that complement the functional knowledge they learn, thereby enabling them to become leaders for a sustainable future:

  • A global, holistic, long-term and visionary perspective
  • Clarity, focus and intensity of commitment
  • Highly motivated to do good – and to do the right thing (ethical thinking translated into action)
  • Highly evolved capacity for creative, critical, holistic, ethical and systemic thinking and decision making
  • Ability to navigate through uncertainty, ambiguity, setbacks, challenges and problems
  • Action and results oriented. Self starter with a high need for achievement
  • Patient (with respect to staying the course) and impatient (with respect to being driven to achieve results as fast as possible)
  • Highly skilled in learning by doing, adapting, making and learning from mistakes quickly and inexpensively
  • Integrative: skilled at boundary spanning problem solving
  • Skillful in figuring out root causes, determining critical success factors and focusing on what is most important

An issue-centered education integrates disciplinary knowledge (finance, marketing, strategy, HR) as appropriate in the learning journey of attempting to resolving a specific issue (water, migration, climate change, poverty, etc.). Conventional wisdom is challenged by uncovering underlying assumptions of the dominant discourse – in any domain. We need to develop innovators who will question the status quo and challenge current assumptions. Issue-centered learning is critical for ensuring that graduates are able to embrace the larger context within which their organizations operate.


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Comments (3)

  1. The shift in focus from function, dating to the Foundation Reports of the late 1950s to issues, is long overdue. An area that has done this successfully is public policy. Perhaps there some lessons to be learned in how schools of public affairs (e.g. frame and develop policy solutions.

  2. Katrin, you are providing us all with a wonderful and timely challenge. So much of the present educational approach “fragments” and “disconnects!”
    I’ve been experiment with you approach for several years and in the last three have been successful with a Discovery Mapping process using the World Cafe setting of four per table to move things forward. In my 9 day intensive session in the MBA program in Bangalore, the students learned to use powerful questions, deep listening and reflective dialoguing to discover multiple aspects of an organizations dynamics. I’d be glad to share some of this work with you and the others on the 50+20 team.

  3. Dear Dr. Muff: Hi and thanks for this great piece. You are exactly on point. So much of higher education attempts to focus researchers into narrow niches. Such a focus often means researchers miss what is taking place in the larger environment and in other disciplines. And changes in the larger environment or other disciplines often has a direct impact on what is being researched. So I applaud you for highlighting this fundamental but extremely important matter in better educating our students and researhers in the necessity of undertaking a well rounded and cross disicplinary education and research approach. John Nugent

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