My teaching focus is helping students think critically about the topic at hand, and its relationship with their personal and professional growth. Helping students become more self-aware is central. This approach is informed by the Critical Pedagogy of Paulo Friere (1970) and Erich Fromm’s discussion on alienation inside capitalism (1961).
In his Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), Friere suggests the conventional approach to teaching often communicates knowledge as codified expertise, and sets the instructor apart from students through a highly stratified classroom. Friere calls this situation the “banking concept of education.” “In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry” (1970: 58). From Friere’s perspective, the typical classroom is adversarial rather than cooperative, and leaves the student alienated from the instructor, other students, and their own learning. At best, the student may memorize knowledge given to them, but its context and use in their own lives remains abstract.
At Westminster College, I have supported the Management and Leadership faculty for over five years teaching MBA students “Executive Development” and “Senior Leadership.” There are generally two approaches to these courses. The first, essentially in line with Friere’s “banking concept,” presents management topics as a set of normalized knowledge akin to natural science. This sense is heightened by the generally positivist approach in the business school, where the best practices of successful leaders are distilled into generalizable factors. This implies that this knowledge is scientific, codified, and replicable with exposure and practice.
The second approach, which I employ, asks first what the student seeks to gain from their studies, second, in what contexts might the student use this new knowledge, and third, to what end does the student seek to learn more about leadership and management. This context provides a richer foundation for learning than the banking model, and anchors their learning in their own desired outcomes. It is more concrete. Importantly, the students and I are a team; we approach the material jointly. Self-awareness is central to the process. It provides the context required for enriched learning, but is also a mainstream argument seen, for example, in Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence (Goleman and Boyatzis, 2017) and Rosenbach’s, “leadership starts with self-awareness” (2018).
This second method also honors the diverse interests in the classroom. While MBA students can broadly be assumed to use the new knowledge in corporate life, the reality is often very different. This is often missed in the “banking” model. Many students are looking for a career or lifestyle change, and as Fromm detailed in his 1961 discussion of alienation inside capitalism, many are deeply cut off from their own lives and work. If a student does not learn and begin to address this alienation, they are not likely to benefit from their MBA. The instructor’s role is the drawing out of such insight, from which the adult learner gains greater liberation, the purpose of education. The point echoes what Friere referred to as, “conscientization,” or an emphasis on aligning learning through self-awareness and goals with the topic at hand.
Friere’s project was socially driven, and he viewed the main function of education as liberatory. In business education, usually employing the banking model in order to move students through curricula at scale, this can be challenging. Martin Parker (2018), a noted CMS scholar who teaches at Bristol in the UK, suggests the business school must ask itself if its purpose is to reify capitalism by teaching students to be “simply” better capitalists, or if the purpose is broader, perhaps involving Friere’s project. Parker’s question could help business schools have a greater hand in social and environmental improvement above organizational performance -- things often claimed in recruiting and motivational materials -- and provide a liberating experience for many involved. This perspective on business education notes that management scholars have a central hand in student awakening beyond their development into more efficient and effective managers.
Like most critical theory, the confrontational tone and rhetoric can be difficult. Surely a mainstream business school is not simply uncritical promoter of capitalism’s lesser features, or so intent on scale that it rejects higher student learning. The utility of critical theory in this context however is to audit and take stock in a dialectical manner. That is, if mainstream notions of teaching Leadership and Management represent a general thesis, how might Friere’s “banking concept” critique yield a productive and innovative synthesis? One that could even be purposed into a business school’s value proposition and differentiated from other schools? Critical Pedagogy can produce this exchange.
I have found that this type of reflection inside and outside the classroom is invigorating for students and colleagues. It is also useful for consulting in industry. In my experience, most business students, scholars and practitioners do not set out to enhance capitalism’s exploitative features, however, we do naturally act in accordance with knowledge presented as normalized and scientifically justified. This heightens the call for Leadership, Management and Organizational Behavior specialists to take utmost care in the presentation of their field, and to marshal tools to critique and refine their offering. This clarion call, combined with a focus on increasing student conscientiousness, represents my teaching philosophy.
Adler, P. S., Forbes, L. C., & Willmott, H. (2007). 3 Critical management studies. The academy of management annals, 1(1), 119-179.
Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing, USA.
Fromm, E. (1962). Alienation under capitalism. Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society, Eric and Mary Josephson, eds. New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc.
Goleman, D., & Boyatzis, R. (2017). Emotional intelligence has 12 elements. Which do you need to work on. Harvard Business Review, 84(2), 1-5.
Parker, M. (2018). Shut down the business school. Pluto Press,.
Rosenbach, W. E. (2018). Contemporary issues in leadership. Routledge.