Why ask students to teach?

By Bob Bruner-

I guess you could say it’s an experiment.  But that would imply something less than the strong intention I have.  The question (in the title) was posed by a student who observed that in all three of the courses I’m teaching this semester, every student will have an opportunity to lead some of the classroom discussion.  “Do you always lead a course this way?” the student asked.  Perhaps the student wondered why I wasn’t doing the teaching.  In fact, coaching the discussion leaders before class, writing feedback to the leaders after class, and then liveblogging about the class takes more time and effort than just teaching the class on my own.  What was I thinking?  Let me explain.


In earlier posts (such as here and here) I’ve argued that:

·        You learn best that which you teach yourself.  This is my one-sentence argument for why learning by the case method is so effective.  But I can go even farther: you learn very best that which you teach others.  This is a secret that teachers the world over have discovered: if you really want to master something, try to explain it to someone else.  Thus, if the teacher really cares about student learning, then asking students to explain, teach, question, and guide the learning of others follows naturally.

·        How we teach is what we teach.  The format of the classroom experience is hugely important in shaping the capabilities of students.  If you teach by asking students to sit silently and take notes, they will become better and better at that.  But is note-taking what business leadership is about?  Active learning builds capabilities that are valuable in professional life.  Asking good questions is among the most valuable capabilities.  Therefore, I structured by classes accordingly this fall.

·        You can run a business by asking questions.  In one style of business management, leadership is command-and-control; the leader gives orders; and the employees are order-takers.  What this breeds is a passive organization of people who are drones, who work-to-the-rules, who adopt a checklist mentality and bring less initiative, personal investment, or willingness to question authority.  Such organizations are bureaucratic, slow, unresponsive to the needs of customers or other stakeholders, and dreary.  In the new style of management, the leader asks rather than tells.  Through questioning, the leader frames a problem or challenge, helps the followers to grow in awareness, and solicits their thinking.  The followers who are closer to the front-line of action are bound to have more clarity about the problem.  And the process of group discussion tends to build alignment within the group and commitment to a course of action.   Businesses really need such alignment and commitment so that authority can be delegated and action taken promptly and nimbly.  Good management starts with good questioning.  Our alumnus, George David, the former CEO and Chairman of United Technologies Corporation, had a practice that he called “fifty questions.”  When he visited a manager or a plant, he didn’t settle to listen passively to a set-piece presentation.  Instead, he actively engaged his managers in a curiosity-driven process.  Darden teaches you not to be shy about questioning.  The Chinese have a proverb: “He who asks a question is possibly a fool for a moment; but he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.”

·        Growth as a leader depends on growth in asking good questions and in listening well.  I want my students to grow as leaders.  Therefore, the assignment to them of leading discussions is an exercise in leadership development. 

·        Teachers also must learn—this was the mantra of a mentor of mine (C. Roland Christensen at HBS).  Though I have mastered the subjects I’m teaching, there is a lot more I want to learn about them.  In virtually every class this fall, student discussion leaders raise some unexpected insights. 


So far, the students are rising nicely to the challenge.  And the coaching I give them seems to help.  A week before they teach, I meet with the student discussion leaders to shape expectations—I don’t tell them what to do or say.  Instead, through questioning I try to help them understand what a good class discussion looks like and what they can do to achieve it. 

1.      Success starts with clarity about two or three important learning goals for the class meeting.  What are they?  And how do they link to previous classes and set the stage for class meetings to follow?  I refer the students to the readings assigned for that week and brief them on my aims for the course and on the importance of their class meetings to the course objectives.  In the coaching meeting, we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the readings and their relevance to the students.  Within broad parameters, I insist that the students develop the specific learning goals for the class meetings that they will lead.

2.      A teaching plan using the “ask, don’t tell” approach might look like a series of questions with rough time allocations next to them.  I emphasize that a discussion is a process, an unveiling of insights and ideas.  Therefore, the questioning should aim to structure the unveiling in a way that arrives at a good destination.  Trying to start at the destination usually results in disaster.  Also, I urge the students to pay close attention to the exact way they ask questions: those that start with “what,” “where,” and “when” will typically generate a short reply and less energy.  But questions that begin with “how” and “why” elicit richer replies and more energy.   And asking students to make a decision or take a stand may generate tension, and emulates the business world.

3.      I encourage the discussion leaders to develop mini-cases, games, simulations, debates, or competitions for use right in the classroom.  These give hands-on exercises that deal with the concepts of the day.  The resulting experiments have generated real energy in the classroom.  So have short and provocative video clips available from the Internet helped to challenge or reinforce student insights.

4.      Based on past experience, most students can summon up some attributes of a successful class discussion.  These might include breadth of engagement, energy, excitement or points of tension, and valuable insights.  There is always the temptation to close a discussion with a pronouncement by the leader of “here’s what this class meeting was about.”  It’s better to close by asking rather than telling: “in summary, what are some key points that you take from our discussion today?”

5.      Finally, I encourage flexibility.  Rarely does a class meeting go precisely according to plan.  To some extent, the discussion leader should follow the energy of the students: about what are they enthusiastic or troubled?  But a few outspoken students can lead the class far afield.  A key judgment of the discussion leader is when and where to guide the discussion back to the goals for the day.  One can’t explore every nook and cranny within the time constraint of a class period.  Anyway, open issues or questions are great fodder for student reflections outside of class. 


At Darden’s graduation in 2007, I said:


Learning and managing well are fundamentally about self-discovery.    The secret to learning is not to wait for someone to tell you the answers, but to figure things out for yourself.  What we teach at Darden is how we teach, a process of questioning and challenge, of debate and persuasion, of dealing with ambiguity, of running up and down blind alleys—because all of that is part of the essential experience of personal discovery. 


Great teachers ask a lot and tell little.  They ask a lot in the sense of stretching their students and they ask a lot in the sense of inquiring rather than telling.  …The minute that you unshackle yourself from the expectation that someone else is going to lay out the meaning of things for you, you become much more effective and compelling.  You enable all of the attributes of leadership: the ability to recognize threats and opportunities; to shape a vision; to enlist others; to communicate; and to take action.  Once you realize that learning is about self-discovery, you are ready to give the gift to others. 


The big implication is this: you should manage others in the same way you have been taught at Darden.  Like your professors, you should ask a lot and tell less: guide, help, goad, irritate, stimulate, and question.  Expect that your employees will explore, inquire, experiment, and analyze.  The greatest managers don’t tell; they engage others to learn.  The day of the corporate command-and-control generalissimo is past; in the best practice organizations today, groups of professionals work together like learning teams to figure things out.  Make knowledge important wherever you go; state problems and encourage pragmatism and experimentation. 


Conversation is transformational.  The leadership of conversation is radically transformational.  By my work with students this fall, I hope to strengthen them radically.