When I meet with other professors and teachers, I often shock them by saying that I taught a first-year undergraduate class in management in 2018 without talking to my students at all. At first, they seem confused,Â the very idea of teaching without talking causes cognitive dissonance. Then, when I assure them that I meant exactly what I said, they become incredulous. They often challenge me on the point.
Most of us spent our entire education listening to teachers talk. We somehow became convinced that this was the best and only way for teaching to take place. Teaching might be supplemented by demonstrations, film strips, class discussions and exercises, but we understood implicitly that the teacher's job was to tell us what she knew so that we could know it, too.
My view of teaching was not much different, nor was my way of teaching. I tended to use questions more than the average instructor because I believed that the Socratic Method was superior to merely reading class notes. I also used humor and interaction to grab and hold the attention of my learners. However, my classes consisted primarily of me telling the learners what I wanted them to know.
"The fullest expression of my desire to limit my talking and let the students learn by doing came in my class, Management by Practice"
My view was challenged at a workshop on teaching adults. I was introduced to the work of Dr. Jane Vella, an authority on androgogy, which means educating adults (pedagogy,which comes from the same Greek root as pediatrician, refers to educating children). Dr. Vella wrote that adults learn better by completing tasks than by listening. Her strong lesson about teachers was memorable for me because it was so offensive: "The hardest thing for a professor to do is to shut up."
When I began teaching in institutions of higher learning, I put Dr. Vella's theories into practice as much as possible. I found that they work very well. My colleagues were more reluctant than I am to try these methods. That seems to be due to a cultural difference between India, my adopted country, and the US, the country of my birth. In India, young people are seen as children to be protected until they are well into their 30s. In the US, young people are viewed as autonomous adults as soon as they turn 18 years of age.
The fullest expression of my desire to limit my talking and let the students learn by doing came in my class, Management by Practice. The students had sat through traditional lectures on the principles of management in their first semester. In semester two, I gave them an opportunity to put those principles into practice.
My no-talking method was simple. I assigned each student a user ID and password to play an online management simulation. First, they played a simple game. Later, they played Traction, a more complete simulation developed by a business professor in Canada, where students had to manage every aspect of a start-up from product design to staffing, from manufacturing to marketing.
Each week, during our class period, the students were told to play a certain number of rounds of the game and to write about what they were learning. There were no lectures and no discussions. There were no exams. They only played the game repeatedly.
The students' game scores were not important, although they naturally did their best to succeed. I marked them on their weekly journal entries. At the end of the course, they had to write an essay about what they had learned by playing the games and how they planned to use this learning in their management careers.
Results varied considerably. The most thoughtful students in the class took away many lessons about planning, leading, organizing and controlling, the four primary functions of managers according to me. They realized the need to develop and manufacture products that meet customer needs. They understood the importance of a qualified team. They had to plan months in advance to balance supply and forecasted demand. They had to manage their company's capital structure and cash flow or go bankrupt.
Yet, even the less diligent students came away with valuable new knowledge. Some wrote, "Now I understand that I can get money from angel investors and venture capitalists." A number gained new appreciation for the vicissitudes of business and life whenthe game informed them that their recently-hired CEO had suffered a heart attack and would not be able to continue in office.
For most of the students, this was the first time that they had been placed in charge of their own learning. No teacher would spoon feed them or tell them how to figure out the right answers. The goal was not to score marks or to clear an exam. The goal was to learn how to manage. In other words, they experienced a taste of what managers face in the real world, far from the friendly confines of the academy, which stands, protectively, in loco parentis.
I have not taught any other classes without speaking since then, but I have taught several where the amount I speak is severely limited and the amount of work the students do is vastly increased. The students sometimes grumble about the workload, but they are excited about the projects they take on, the work they produce, and the skills they acquire by completing those projects.
When teachers object to my method, they usually cite the need to cover an entire syllabus in a limited amount of time so that students can prepare for exams. I sympathize. We are asked to teach too many facts and figures that will be largely forgotten, simply because the board or accrediting body, following long tradition, requires it.
If you are willing to try shifting some of your instruction from reading notes to assigning exercises, games, case studies, role plays, or simulations Â in other words, to switch from lecturing to task-based learning Â your students will assimilate the same syllabus more deeply and in longer-lasting ways that will help them long after the exam is finished. If it worked for my students, I believe it will work for yours, as well.