Why Business Schools Must Foster Lifelong Learning

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Wednesday, May 26, 2021
By Wilfried R. Vanhonacker
Photo by iStock/Matjaz Slanic
Committing fully to lifelong learning could be the only way for business schools to ensure their long-term sustainability.

Many working professionals today pursue continuing education, but very few of these professionals—even those with multiple degrees—are lifelong learners. Lifelong learning encompasses far more than continuing education. It refers to the process that occurs when people assess their own natural talents and use critical thinking to continually grow and learn in all aspects of their lives.

Unfortunately, the current model of formal business education fails to help students develop this mindset. With technology advancing and new information emerging all the time, people who aren’t true lifelong learners will not be able to keep up with the accelerated pace of change.

Let’s look at three shifts business schools must make to design programs where lifelong learning is the norm rather than the exception. Then, we’ll discuss practical ways to achieve each one. If business educators do not make these changes, I believe their current educational model will no longer be viable.

Shift No. 1—Foster Curiosity, Not Success

First, schools could take steps to stoke students’ inborn curiosity. Humans are born eager to explore and ready to learn. As young children, we naturally and playfully explore the world around us.

Then, when we enter a formal educational environment, we are told what to learn but not how to learn. In the process, we are transformed from learners into students.

There is more than a subtle difference between being a learner and being a student. A learner seeks knowledge, but a student seeks only success. Most schools reinforce this success-seeking mindset by teaching children from very young ages to collect stars, smiley faces, or whatever incentives it takes to mold them into displaying compliant behaviors.

In this process, a child’s natural inclination to learn is supplanted by an artificial process where painful application is the way to acquire knowledge. Learning in the traditional education system is somewhat akin to solitary confinement, where students obligingly finish their homework in solitude. It is as if play must make room for pain! 

When we teach children to prioritize only individual success, rather than shared discovery, we kill their curiosity. However, when we help each student develop a sense of curiosity, we plant the seed from which a learning mindset can develop. That’s the mindset that drives lifelong learning.

Shift No. 2—Provide Learning Support After Graduation

Second, schools can create co-learning ecosystems, which I believe are necessary to lifelong learning. By co-learning ecosystem, I mean a system in which alumni continue to learn with and from each other on an ongoing basis—in which they are consistently encouraged to collaborate to help each other learn or to introduce each other to new ways of thinking. This approach doesn't just benefit alumni. It also provides schools with strategic opportunities in an increasingly competitive higher education market.

But alumni-based co-learning ecosystems are currently rare in traditional business education. Consider for a moment that very few business schools provide learning support for students after graduation day. Instead, schools view their alumni networks as targets for public relations campaigns, donation requests, and guest speaker engagements.

There is more than a subtle difference between being a learner and being a student. A learner seeks knowledge, but a student seeks only success.

That said, well-functioning alumni networks are quite dynamic and responsive. Almost entirely on their own, these networks have become evolving ecosystems that provide individuals with opportunities for career development, career enhancement, and talent deployment. What if institutions reinvented the way they viewed their alumni networks? What if they promoted them as the means for rich, collaborative learning?

Shift No. 3—Commit to the Change

Finally, higher education institutions could commit fully to lifelong learning in their business models, with the intent to own that space in the market. This shift would require a business school to overhaul its very structure in major ways. Even so, such an overhaul would be an opportunity for formal business education to reinvent itself—and, in the process, secure its sustainability.  

To make this shift, institutions would need to change both the length and the nature of their relationships with students. For example, because lifelong learners never really graduate, the learner-institution relationship would have no set endpoint. It would evolve and mature over time, and ideally last for a student’s entire career—perhaps even for an entire lifetime. Likewise, schools would have no alumni. Instead, their co-learning ecosystems would be far larger than their current alumni networks, which would change the scale of their operations.

In addition, institutions would serve students in a much wider age range. By bringing more generational perspectives to the learning process, schools would enrich learning for everyone in the ecosystem.

Perhaps most important, institutions that commit to lifelong learning would abandon the vertical teacher-student relationship that is the predominant model for business education today. In this vertical model, teachers are at the top of the hierarchy delivering knowledge and students are at the bottom receiving it. Instead, institutions would embrace a horizontal model for learning in which students and teachers are on an equal footing in an enduring, collaborative learning effort.

Implementing the Shifts

At this point, administrators might be wondering how actually to make the radical changes required to implement these shifts. Even schools that already support learning mindsets and offer ongoing educational opportunities might not be fully committed to lifelong learning.

There are multiple ways to implement this new model, unique to each school’s individual situation. But based on my experience, I offer the following ideas to help you get started: 

Foster curiosity and encourage learning mindsets. Today’s students are very entrepreneurial, and they love collaborative learning—in that case, why not make curiosity and collaboration integral parts of their learning journeys?

There are several ways to accomplish this objective. First, schools should assess the curiosity/learning mindsets of incoming students and use that information to create unique co-learning opportunities. For example, schools might form teams in which students can collaborate and learn from one another. Schools also can track students’ mindsets over time, via tools such as surveys and learning assessments; they can use the information they gather to build more intelligent support systems for lifelong learning that are responsive to students’ needs.

In a world driven by uncertainty and change, it will be far more important that students learn to ask insightful questions about the world than that they learn to recite rote answers.

Second, business schools should teach students what “inquisitive intelligence” is and why maintaining a sense of curiosity is so important to personal and professional development. Schools should show students how they can develop and nurture such curiosity in themselves and in others.

Third, schools should focus on enabling and stimulating horizontal learning. For example, they could require students to take a graduate-level class in disciplines such as neuroscience, computer science, or architecture and have them report back to their classmates to share what they learned.

Fourth, schools should move away from curricula that follow set “recipes” in the classroom, in which they teach students what to think. Instead, they should teach students how to think and how to ask good questions. In a world driven by uncertainty and change, it will be far more important that students learn to ask insightful questions about the world than that they learn to recite rote answers. 

Finally, schools must reward curiosity and creativity in students, faculty, and staff. The future will belong to those who stay hungry for knowledge. Faculty and staff cannot instill values of learning in students unless they are willing to do it themselves!

Provide lifelong learning support. Currently, many business schools primarily offer courses and degrees that focus on continuous career development. However, as technological advancement and an evolving market make each job more fragile and transient, students will need to optimize their professional agility by continuously perfecting their core identities—by identifying and highlighting their unique talents and personalities. They will turn to their business schools for intelligent, personalized systems that help them assess their strengths effectively and manage their lifelong learning journeys strategically.

Lifelong learning is a never-ending process of honing and strengthening that unique talent/person combination to perfection. It is a process that should be adapted to each individual.

Lead the change. This step might be the hardest. There’s no way around it—leading the change requires administrators, faculty, and staff to embrace a complete change in mindset.

Professional schools need to wake up to the reality that professions that exist today could change significantly or even disappear altogether tomorrow. If we want to secure our business schools’ sustainability, we can’t keep focusing on individual professions. 

Instead, we must practice what we preach. We must embrace out-of-the-box thinking, future-proofing, strategizing, reinvention, digital transformation, and experimentation. These all are skills we love to teach, but how credible is our teaching if our students do not see us demonstrating these skills ourselves?

Summing Up

Today’s market for education presents exciting opportunities for business schools. By embracing these shifts, business schools would solidify the credibility of their educational model and securely position themselves as lifelong-learning organizations. More than that, they would become driving forces that support students’ development throughout their lifetimes. 

Those of us involved in formal business education should be finding ways not only to make these shifts a reality, but to continue building on them. Shaping a meaningful paradigm for lifelong learning is the only way for business schools to remain viable in our ever-changing world.

The content in this article has been adapted from Vanhonacker's book
Rough Diamonds: Rethinking How We Educate Future Generations.

Wilfried R. Vanhonacker
Scholar and Academic Entrepreneur, INSEAD
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