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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Critical thinking at business school?

There's a NYT article about how leading business schools are putting more emphasis on critical thinking and less on accounting and finance type subjects.

Predictably, the article begins with a case (anecdote to those not in business school):

A DECADE ago, Roger Martin, the new dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, had an epiphany. The leadership at his son’s elementary school had asked him to meet with its retiring principal to figure out how it could replicate her success.

He discovered that the principal thrived by thinking through clashing priorities and potential options, rather than hewing to any pre-planned strategy — the same approach taken by the managing partner of a successful international law firm in town.

“The ‘Eureka’ moment was when I could draw a data point between a hotshot, investment bank-oriented star lawyer and an elementary school principal,” Mr. Martin recalls. “I thought: ‘Holy smokes. In completely different situations, these people are thinking in very similar ways, and there may be something special about this pattern of thinking.’ ”

That insight led Mr. Martin to begin advocating what was then a radical idea in business education: that students needed to learn how to think critically and creatively every bit as much as they needed to learn finance or accounting.
 This is an amazing non-sequitur. Because there are patterns of successful leadership, we then conclude that these are the only patterns, that these are the patterns that should be taught in business school, that these patterns should replace other parts of the curriculum, and that business schools are particularly good places to teach them.

The skeptic in me might note that many students in business schools earlier went through liberal arts educations. If they didn't learn critical thinking in four years of a liberal arts program, what makes it likely that they will learn critical thinking in the much shorter stint in business school?

Further, one might note that many business school students want to learn specific skills that prepare them for (and make it more likely that they will get) jobs 1,2,3 steps farther up the ladder -- where it's often important to know the specific skills taught in specific classes, and get exposure to the specific skills known in related areas (finance, sales, marketing, accounting).

It would be important to learn critical thinking, should a business school be able to teach it successfully to people who have not learned it in their previous 16+ years of education. Failing that, they might has well teach the 4 P's of marketing and how to determine an asset from a liability.