By Kevin Meyer
The business school at our local university, consistently ranked one of the top public universities in the west, is going through a minor brouhaha over a guest lecturer. That person is none other that Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko's, and whose major donation led to the Cal Poly business school being named after him. I've heard Paul speak before – he's very dynamic and inspirational as he had to overcome some significant barriers before he became successful.
So what's the big problem? His course, International and Cross Cultural Management, will be offered to only 25 students, food will be catered in, there are no written exams or textbooks, and every student will receive an A. Oh, and the minor issue that he was invited by the dean without the traditional agreement of other business faculty – but that's beside my point.
I could see where that sounds a bit strange, especially to education traditionalists. All A's? Food? No exams? Obviously nuts.
Until you ask why – which no one did. Paul Orfalea himself finally decided to explain, which gives us not one but two examples of the power of "why?"
Recently, some instructors at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
questioned my qualifications for teaching a business seminar. This issue drew
plenty of mockery (for both sides of the argument) in the local press.
Since the predominant theme of all my seminars – at several universities
– is the importance of asking useful
questions, I'd like to answer one that none of the critics has bothered to ask:
Why do I teach the way I do?
Of course, that question breaks down into several others:
Why do so many students receive "A" grades in the class? Why do I provide a
meal for the students? Why do I not require exams? Why do I give rudimentary
geography quizzes to seniors in a Global business class?
Lots of whys. First, think about what he says about his style: the importance of asking useful questions. We've often discussed the power of "why" in this blog.
Now let's see what he says about the controversial aspects of his course.
I give rudimentary geography quizzes because most Americans
– and too many Global Business students – cannot identify the Straits of
Hormuz, yet when we see it on a map we understand instantly why our entire
economic future is tied to this narrow waterway.
I do not require exams because I am interested in what
people know, not what they can remember for a few hours after cramming. The
students are tested every week through their required participation in class,
where each must ask three questions related to selected stories in the news.
Many students make it through four years of college without ever raising their
hand to ask a question. Not in my class. Every student learns to look me in the
eye, speak clearly, and ask intelligent questions about the news of the day.
I provide a
meal for the students because four hours is too long to go without food. I
treat my students like human beings – why should I not? Moreover, many of the
most important conversations in business and life occur over meals, and it's a
great pleasure watching students hone their conversational skills in a relaxed
atmosphere, sharing ideas and learning about each other's business concepts and
The most controversial and most often misreported aspect of
my class seems to be the fact that I guarantee an A to each student. This is
not correct. First of all, this only applies to surviving students. A failing
grade on any quiz/assignment is grounds for being dropped from the class, as is
arriving late or missing class more than twice.
Still think he's nuts? Probably not. In fact, I bet your opinion has shifted about 180 degrees. Instead of cramming information into a brain and expecting it to be regurgitated, he teaches problem solving – real world style.
My class is a bit more like a
real world business: you either make it or you don't. I also find that grades
often say more about our measurement system than what is being measured.
Successful managers know that you get what you measure, and too many schools
measure their students' ability to game the grading system. I don't want to
deal with students trying to get a good grade. I want to deal with students who
can fearlessly engage, debate, discuss, teach, and learn with one another.
At most schools, my classes are composed of seniors. I like
to think I'm giving them a little taste of boot camp for entering the real
world. Because, make no mistake, college is not the real world. As artificial
worlds go, it's one of the best.
But the transition from grade-grubbing to problem-solving shocks many
straight-A students. In the real world, you must apply your education. In the
real world, your intellect must find relevance. In the real world, you must engage.
And most of all, in the real world you must abide by Cal Poly's motto every
day: learn by doing.
My responses about grades, exams, food, and geography
summarize how I teach and why. I concede that my critics have a point: I am not
qualified to teach the way many professors teach. Most students consider this
my best qualification.
But you'll note from the comments on his blog and to the articles in the paper that faculty – a couple of which were paid thousands of dollars to settle a union grievance over the "unauthorized" guest lecturer – continue to bemoan "violations of rules" and such. Instead of focusing on what's best for the students.
Perhaps that also demands a question of "why?"