Teaching Business for the Real World: Combining Theoretical AND Practical


by Keith Dickinson


THERE SEEMS TO BE A CONTINUING CONTROVERSY IN ACADEMIC CIRCLES about the role of university teaching and the true purpose of a university education.

Should it be about knowledge for the sake of knowledge…learning for the joy of learning?  

Or, considering the economy, should the focus be purely on practical applications?  Should it be about vocational training and forget the artsy-craftsy stuff?

First, let’s acknowledge the fact that there are no guarantees in any career field, regardless of the degree.

Six years ago, law and education were considered recession-proof and students flocked to both.in the hopes of a guaranteed job after graduation.  For some, for the truly talented and dedicated, this may have worked out.  For those who chose the fields only because of the promise of employment, the outcome was most likely bleaker.  (And the recession has led to teacher layoffs as school districts faced years of budget cuts.)

As a business instructor, I believe that it’s not an either/or situation.  It’s not that I have a choice of emphasizing theories of management vs.  hands-on case studies of management in real businesses.  It’s both.

The theories–of pricing, economics, employment, management, marketing, ethical decision-making–are the foundations of a basic business education.  

But merely requiring the rote memorization of, say, the differences between Theory X, Y and Z managers is pointless.  This is just another form of teaching to the test, and students will conform to a formula with which they’re already familiar with from grade school on.  They will memorize precisely what they need to get by and no more.  And I guarantee it will all be forgotten ten minutes after completing the quiz or exam.

That’s why I have always worked to engage students by showing how the theories work in the so-called real world–right now.  If it’s about different management theories, once they understand them, I challenge them to give examples of bosses (or teachers) they’ve encountered in the civilian world or the military.  Were they successful?  Why or why not?  Who was your best boss–and why?  The worst?  Why?

It doesn’t take long to get a class speaking up on the topic, whether in online discussions or in the classroom–with a range of experiences and opinions.

What I hope to teach, ultimately, is critical thinking that meets the students where they are.  Just as there is no “one-size-fits-all” management style, there is no one right way to get a class engaged.  An older class, with a decade or more of work/military experience will have a lot to say, often unprompted.

Younger classes often wait for me to give hints as to the “right” answer.  I have to emphasize to them that I don’t want them to think like me or make the decisions I would make.

They have to learn think for themselves and learn to have confidence in their own opinions and decisions–and to learn from the inevitable mistakes.  Just as I did.

It takes more work to connect textbook concepts with current/recent examples from the business world, but it demonstrates to students how they can use the concepts to make informed decisions when they are in charge of a project, a team, or a business.

Keynesian vs. Chicago/Austrian economic theory becomes a lot more relevant when the opposing viewpoints are connected to public policies and political positions in the US and Europe.

LIBOR was just another meaningless acronym, until I pointed out that it’s used to set the interest rates for student loans and credit cards–their student loans and credit cards.

Maybe a student will never work in marketing.  But every student will have to market him- or herself via resumes and job interviews. 

It’s not theoretical OR practical.  It’s both.   Ideally,simultaneously.  When students learn to use the tools and see how they’re being used from case studies and business news stories, when they take on the roles of the heads of the IMF, the ECB and the Federal Reserve in a classroom debate, they ARE learning by doing.

And dare I say it, maybe actually having fun in the process.  Image


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