- The key finding is that in order to achieve excellence, teachers (must) strive to frame the "why" of the course.
- Professors continuously innovate in two dimensions: content and process. This requires an environment that constantly challenges you to update your material in order not to become obsolete.
- Teachers are incentivized to make their approaches constantly more efficient and effective, and to share these changes with the teaching community.
Nearly five months have passed since I left Babson, concluding a year as a visiting professor at the Lewis Institute for Social Innovation, to head back to Sweden. And, it’s no overstatement to say that my experience was professionally transformative. Spending one year at Babson has profoundly changed the way I think about education. Because Babson is not an ordinary academic institution.
The signs that Babson does things differently came even before I arrived: After a lecture at HEC Paris in January 2014, I was having dinner at a table where I was seated near Adjunct Lecturer Janelle Shubert from Babson College. She asked about my future plans, which were both to spend a sabbatical abroad and still up in the air. I told her of my frustration in applying to a prestigious U.S. university, a process that was taking forever. Her response changed my life:
“Anders, I know you love teaching,” she said. “Have you thought of going to Babson?”
Actually, the idea already had occurred to me, I told her. To which she replied: “Send me your CV and some ideas for what you want to do and I’ll pull some strings.”
It took only one week to get a welcome letter from Babson stating that I had an office at the Lewis Institute, and listing three ideas for research and teaching collaborations that comprised a mix of benefits for me and for Babson. The quickness in getting an answer was just the first of many things that I learned differentiate Babson from other schools teaching innovation. In fact, Babson has its own trademark for this: Entrepreneurial Thought and Action®
(ET&A™)—with the emphasis on action.
Having the opportunity to spend a full year in the Boston and New England area, the mecca of education, turned out to be the ideal place to study and find answers to my two sabbatical questions:
How do teachers develop excellence in their teaching?
What sort of environment will help them do so?
I used qualitative research methodology (Yin, 1994) to find out what teachers at Babson College do in order to achieve excellence in their teaching, and how the environment affects them. I chose to study Babson for two reasons.
First because, despite operating in a highly dynamic and competitive environment, it has consistently outperformed the market. The school has ranked No. 1 for entrepreneurship for 19 consecutive years (undergraduate teaching) and 22 consecutive years (graduate).
Secondly, Babson prides itself on its entrepreneurial ethos and approach (Greenberg et al., 2011); it expects, if not demands, that teachers change and develop continually. Teachers are incentivized to make their approaches constantly more efficient and effective, and to share these changes with Babson’s teaching community. This offers a natural setting for studying how excellence is created and the role of the environment.
Using an inductive approach, I examined how teachers developed, conducted, and followed up their courses. I did so through formal interviews with teachers from a variety of scientific fields, but I also sat in and observed classes. In addition, I conducted informal discussions with many teachers in order to grasp what makes Babson so good. Based on my observations, I developed a process model explaining the dynamics of how the school creates excellence in teaching.
Below, I will elaborate on course preparation and the environment at Babson, being two of the major findings in the study.
What makes Babson stand out begins with course preparation. Teachers prepare for courses in two ways.
They start by identifying the “big question” that the course will answer. During the interviews in the classroom, and also from course syllabi, I observed that teachers’ ambitions almost transcend the nature of the course itself. For example, one syllabus told students: “You will be able to apply this knowledge and assess the probable ecological impacts of your own lives … and the major global developmental trends of human society and technology.” It also was evident that teachers strove to make the course content personally relevant.
One professor told me that a course must be practical and usable. A course syllabus put it this way: “Regardless of your ultimate objectives, you are invited to participate on this journey to discover how you will think and act entrepreneurially in your professional lives.”
The second aspect of excellent course preparation is that teachers think carefully about the “story” or “flow” of the course. Many spoke about the importance of painting a coherent picture, framing the course as a dynamic journey in which every class also is a journey in itself. Several noted that the “story” needs a beginning, middle, and end, and that the teacher’s job is to play the role of the storyteller. And, although some key points and theories remain constant, the way the story is told, and the characters within it, change over time. As one professor put it, “[The] final goal of what they have to learn is the same, but the process is different.”
The key finding is that in order to achieve excellence, teachers strive to frame the “why” of the course. The “why” might change slightly over the years, but it is always there. This “big question” must be addressed by a compelling story that is reflected in the flow of the course. All these elements are decided before a course, and the decision to change them can have profound effects on how things are executed during the course—that is, routines may or may not change depending upon these decisions.
The environment for course development and updating is equally critical. Students’ learning journeys are under constant scrutiny. Professors continuously innovate in two dimensions: content and process. Concerning content, everyone in the study referred to the need to keep material up to date. Some are very systematic, and said they deliberately change 20–30 percent of the content every year. At the extreme, one professor literally threw everything (cases, teaching notes, etc.) into the trash every second or third year in order to have an up-to-date course. Others spoke of the need to drop content whenever they felt bored with it; sometimes that meant small changes, sometimes a radical overhaul.
The key point professors made was that nothing is set in stone; content is constantly refreshed. Concerning the process, i.e., what takes place during a course, some professors made changes during a course by asking for feedback from participants. Some sent out midterm surveys, some asked for feedback on each class, and others talked about the importance of informal discussions with students.
Professors in the study also explained how excellence is achieved by engaging with other teachers at Babson. For instance, many revealed that they would attend other people’s classes for inspiration. Others said they learned a lot by co-teaching. Some said a key for learning was to study other people’s slide decks, and then discuss them with their author. A few professors were very systematic in evaluating their performance after each class, and also when the course ended, focusing on one simple question: If I teach this course again, how can it be improved? Finally, some teachers spoke about discussions with colleagues after classes and at the end of courses, which helped them see what to keep and what to change.
Though we often talk about the importance of learning objectives and takeaways, it was not until I came to Babson that I realized exactly how important that is. The amount of hours teachers put into identifying the “why” of a course here is more than impressive. Furthermore, being in an environment that constantly challenges you to update your material in order not to become obsolete reminds me of my days competing at a top level in athletics; there every practice was a step on the way toward the Olympics. Similar for teachers at Babson, every session is a step toward perfection.
Easier said than done, if you ask me, but the constant effort is highly inspiring and something all teachers should strive toward. Indeed, I believe that if one is serious about improving as a teacher, or as a school, there must be positive answers to these questions: Do we know where we want to take our students? Are we ready to train hard every day? My year at Babson tells me that’s exactly what Babson and its professors are doing to create excellence in teaching.