The experience of a practical learning approach in a business school
According to the "classical" way of teaching, the teacher has all the knowledge and teaches with a certain number of established theories developed over time, with the help of illustrations and demonstrations while the learner, typically the student, merely sits and passively acquires knowledge.
In contrast, the "learning by doing" pedagogy consists of placing students in a practical learning situation where they learn from experience.
This learning process is very demanding for those who experiment with it as it not only gives a great autonomy but also breaks the walls of the classroom and redistributes the relation between the teacher and his students where he has to assume his responsibilities, priorities and decision.
This method was initiated for students starting the MSc in Management programme at the ESSEC Asia-Pacific campus in Singapore. On the second day at ESSEC Asia-Pacific, these students had to tackle/face real-life cases of organisations without having received a single lecture.
The students were divided into 4 groups, and given the challenge of helping two Singapore-based multinational companies (MNC) to define their positioning in a new market, and to analyse their clients' feedback/comments on social media. After a month, each group had to make presentations and recommendations to the senior executives of the respective organisations.
Without conventional course lectures, each group had a weekly discussion with the professor responsible for the programme who, as much as possible, advised them largely about the methods and organisation, as compared to the substance of the subjects treated.
The rest of the time, the students had to go and search for the information on their own from both the library and the Internet to solve their problems. It was up to them to find the right tools to enable them to make sound recommendations after analysing all the information available.
Obviously the groups made some mistakes during the presentations one month later, but the overall performances were impressive, with some groups making very robust recommendations.
In the second month, the students were divided into new groups and focused on two new organisations from the non-profit sector. One is located in the Philippines, the other is in Cambodia. As they had previously done with the MNCs, the students interacted with the leaders of the non-government organisations (NGOs) to understand precisely their needs and problems. A month later, the two NGOs' representatives came to the campus to listen to the groups' recommendations.
All the student groups largely exceeded the expectations of the supervisors by proposing pertinent, applicable, and well-reasoned recommendations. The good relationship with the NGOs that the students enjoyed shows that the confidence and autonomy that was granted to them in the pedagogy and with their external interlocutors was justified. The results shown were quite similar to a student who is already in his second or third year.
The last phase of this 'learning by doing' pedagogy focused on entrepreneurship. The groups were again changed; the students had to form new teams that were different from the previous ones. The challenge was to create something on campus that could benefit the public (not just those enrolled in the for instance).
They had to find and agree on an idea and then find the necessary funds, to contact the internal and external interlocutors if they needed specific help, and so on. The four groups had to develop original proposals or case studies from enacting three different situations.
The first group organised an event around the theme of "the hidden face of entrepreneurs", where young start-up creators came together to discuss the difficulties of their ventures. The second group set up a round table with a formal debate by students from different programs on campus. The third organised an evening of "understanding Singapore in two hours" by listening to different speakers talking about local food, religion, alternative medicine, etc. Finally, the last group developed a blog for the students of the school where they could find official information, as well as "tips and tricks" contributed by the student community.
By the 25th week, there was no doubt that the previous campus ecosystem had been shattered for the benefit of all. This method may have caused some confusion for the students initially and many, if not all, requested to be enrolled in a project management course during the first phase where they were challenged to help the two MNCs.
This was hardly surprising. Disconcerted by the autonomy that was offered to them, they sought a framework, or a method which they were more familiar with: not only were they seeking knowledge or answers but also the path to access it.
During the programme, the students had to guard against external distractions. Consequently the professor advising the students must be available most of the time and ensure the students had access to the adapted methods and tools. It was crucial that all the resources were available not only at the meetings, but every day, 24/7 with almost all the online tools available today: email certainly but also Whatsapp, Facebook, etc.
At the end of three months, with little knowledge of Asia, still less of Singapore, and without a single course in management, the students all succeeded in acquiring and developing a knowledge in marketing, project management, finance, human resources, etc.
The results were neither common sense nor intuition because they have, on the one hand, been supervised academically by a professor who guarantees the environment of knowledge and, on the other hand, they have immersed themselves in books, reference materials and "classics", making it possible to search for the most relevant information. Of course, it would not be accurate to say that they have mastered their disciplines, far from it.
"Learning-by-Doing" is a learning device, not an end in itself. This is, in a way, a new way of learning that ESSEC has tried to inculcate and which will undoubtedly be absolutely beneficial and complement the rest of the students' education as soon as they receive lessons in a more conventional format.
It is a good bet that the learning of the future disciplines will be facilitated by this "formatting", founded on the autonomy and the responsibility to learn. This approach perhaps articulates Aristotle's thought which is "learning is doing, learning by doing" and Confucius arguing that "Learning without thinking is vain. Thinking without learning is dangerous". The Singaporean context is certainly ideal for combining these thoughts.
Article by Prof. Xavier Pavie, associate academic director (MSc in Management), ESSEC Asia Pacific