We Must Deliver Transformational Education

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Monday, February 19, 2024
By Vikas Rai Bhatnagar
Photo by iStock/Cesar Okada
Why a psycho-socio-technical model of transformational learning will better prepare students for a rapidly changing world.
  • Gen Z students are seeking business programs that offer flexible delivery, meaningful social interactions, and humanistic approaches.
  • Jack Mezirow’s theory of transformational learning can serve as a foundation for delivering student-centric curricula that require self-paced learning, incorporate peer evaluation, and encourage self-discovery.
  • To answer the global call for inclusive lifelong learning opportunities, business schools can design programs that transform students’ perspectives and encourage them to serve society.


When I think of our role as educators, I often remember a certain 11th-century Vedic verse. Its rough translation from the original Sanskrit is the following:

    Students learn 25 percent from the teacher,
    25 percent from their own critical thinking and reflection,
    25 percent from other students,
    And the balance from their experiences.

This statement from a thousand years ago is doubly true in the 21st century. Students today must be prepared to work during a time of great upheaval. They must navigate labor markets that are being reshaped by the emergence of new technologies such as artificial intelligence and the prevalence of hybrid and remote work. They must be attuned to the changing expectations of stakeholders, who expect organizations to place greater emphasis on employee-centricismorganizational societal impact, and organizational ecological sustainability.

Students also must learn to be entrepreneurial thinkers, as the number of freelance, gig, and contractual workers rises. This trend is being driven by nontraditional companies that are eschewing “person-job fit” and “person-organization fit” in favor of person-skill fit. These companies are adopting an aggregated model in which they hire workers temporarily to complete particular tasks or projects.

Given these market shifts and re-oriented business models, how can business schools add long-term value to students’ lives, create a positive impact on society, and ensure ecological viability of business and the world? How can they maintain the relevance of management education?

Drawing on my experience as a researcher, educational consultant, and peer evaluator for national accreditation, I have concluded that business schools can amplify their value to students by offering transformational learning experiences. With such a model, educators do not just impart knowledge. By integrating psychological, social, and technical components across the curriculum, they also inspire students to become self-motivated learners.

Meeting New Expectations

As we consider what transformational learning looks like, we must recognize two things. First, the success of our students depends on how well we help them achieve “person-skill fit” at work and in life. And, second, younger students have different expectations of higher education than past generations.

Today’s learners expect schools to deliver the following five benefits in particular:

Flexibility and versatility. Having experienced the swift transition to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, progressive learners want to maximize the benefits of online classes. They want not only more flexibility in how, when, and where they learn, but also greater versatility that allows them to take courses across disciplines, change courses mid-stream, take breaks, and reenter programs as their schedules require.

We might think of it this way: When mixed with the right proportions of carbon, nickel, or manganese, iron can be turned into steel, an alloy with greater strength and versatility than its component parts. Similarly, when we take a multidisciplinary, or “alloyed,” approach to education, we can increase the strength and versatility of our business programs for students and employers.

Efficiency. Learners realize that if they can acquire more education by investing less time, they will receive a better return on their investment. Therefore, they want more efficient paths to completion—whether through shorter learning experiences or stackable credentials.

Learners are keen to move away from merely informational learning and toward meaningful learning that encompasses not only their intellectual development, but also their personal and social development.

Meaningful social interactions. The digitalization of higher education has made online learning more flexible, but it also has removed some of the socialization that in-person learning has to offer. This has deepened learners’ need for meaningful personal interactions.

Consequently, learners are keen to move away from merely informational learning and toward meaningful learning—a concept brilliantly explained by Robert Kegan in his book In Over Our Heads, which focuses on the idea of “meaning-making” in education. According to Kegan, it’s important for students to have a holistic view of their education, prioritizing both their intellectual development and their personal and social development.

An emphasis on ethics and sustainability. Gen Z learners are more concerned about ethics, social causes, and sustainability than learners from past generations. As McKinsey & Company points out in a November 2018 report, about 65 percent of learners inquire about the origins of products they buy or services they consume, and 80 percent refuse to buy goods from companies that have been involved in any scandal.

These findings imply that young learners will want to know about the internal practices of a business school before they seek admission. Once enrolled, they will remain observant of a school’s values and actions.

An emphasis on humanism. Gen Z learners are seeking personalized education that identifies, hones, and employs their strengths so that they can make meaningful contributions to society. They want to acquire diverse skill sets and enriched perspectives, not just mere degrees.

And yet, most business school administrators still adopt what Paulo Freire terms the “banking model of education,” which views learners as containers into which teachers pour knowledge. Moreover, as Leo McCann and colleagues note in a 2020 paper in Management Learning, many academic leaders still exercise a form of toxic leadership that values mutually supporting “groupthink” more than pluralist principles.

These approaches conflict with the more community-oriented values of Gen Z learners. That’s why younger learners are likely to be very careful as they select where to enroll for business school. To attract this next generation, administrators will need to adopt more mindful forms of leadership and cultivate less autocratic, more empathetic academic cultures. 

Delivering Transformational Education

To appeal to the wide-ranging expectations of younger learners, business schools can design programs, curricula, and courses in ways that take each student’s individual needs, preferences, perspectives, and objectives into account. In other words, they can deliver transformational learning.

For this, Jack Mezirow’s theory of transformational learning is a very helpful model. Mezirow’s theory breaks education down into psychological, social, and technical components. He calls for a form of learning that provides opportunities for students to undergo psychological, convictional, and behavioral development that enhances their self-awareness and understanding of the world. By adopting such an approach, business schools can address the adaptive challenges posed by the changing world and address the shifting aspirations of learners.

Guided by Mezirow’s theory, I argue that a psycho-socio-technical model for transformational learning, which emphasizes lifelong learning and societal impact, would be valuable for the delivery of business education. This model rolls out in three stages and serves three audiences: candidates, learners, and alumni.

Stage 1—Informing Candidates. Before learners come to campus, the business school explains to potential candidates the importance of self-directed education and the ways that its programs will contribute to their continuous learning journeys.

At this stage, business schools are transparent about how they create value for learners, and they ensure that faculty, staff, current students, and alumni widely communicate their positive experiences via word of mouth. In this way, schools highlight their humanistic management practices and help students make informed choices.

Stage 2—Delivering Value to Students. Once students enroll, the business school intensifies its efforts to meet students’ expectations by delivering an impactful, innovative curriculum. The school can further meet their expectations by including three components in the curriculum:

    Self-paced learning. Also called “flipped” learning, this approach requires students to read assigned material and complete other forms of passive learning outside of class. Class time is reserved for active learning, in which students share perspectives, engage in social interaction, and derive deeper insights into course content. Students “learn to learn,” a vital skill for their future careers.

    Peer evaluation. When based on robust metrics, peer evaluation boosts learning for both students giving feedback and those receiving it. The peer evaluation process supports meaningful social interaction and a humanistic approach to learning. Moreover, it makes students more responsible for their educational journeys, increasing their productivity and employability

    Self-discovery. This component features activities, mentorship, and career counseling through which students learn to psychometrically identify their strengths and values.

Stage 3—Engaging With Alumni. Once students graduate, a school creates an ecosystem that continues to develop alumni into high-contributing members of society in two primary ways. First, the school invites alumni to return to campus (in person or online) to hone their capabilities via executive education. Second, it meaningfully engages alumni in shaping school initiatives, designing the curriculum, and keeping programs relevant and viable. 

Putting Learners First

Business schools that want to deliver transformational learning experiences can glean inspiration and insights from various future-of-work studies. For example, UNESCO’s Reimagining Our Futures Together report emphasizes that a prosperous society and a healthy planet will depend on whether academic institutions ensure lifelong education as an individual right that is essential to the common good.

In its Future on Education and Skills 2030 report, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development presents a framework called a “learning compass.” This framework incorporates “the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values that students need to fulfill their potential and contribute to the well-being of their communities and the planet.”

It is only through their personal experiences that students internalize what they’ve learned, implement these lessons in life situations, and enrich their learning, ideally in ways that benefit themselves and society.

Other helpful resources include national or global policies on higher education, such as India’s New Education Policy, which its government announced in 2020. This learner-centric policy provides schools with greater flexibility and encourages multidisciplinary learning.

As we look at where higher education is today and where it is headed, the 11th-century Vedic verse I mentioned at the start of this article becomes especially prophetic and relevant! In some ways, higher education is today as it has been for centuries. The teacher’s role is still to choose the content, bring it to life, and prepare rubrics for peer assessment. But that is only 25 percent of the process. Seventy-five percent of what students learn relies on their own reading, reflection, critical thinking, discussions with peers, and experiences in society.

It is in the last 25 percent—their experiences—where transformational learning resides. It is only through their personal experiences that students internalize what they’ve learned, implement these lessons in life situations, and enrich their learning, ideally in ways that benefit themselves and society.

If business schools embrace the psycho-socio-technical model of transformational learning, they will deliver accessible, learner-centric education that not only benefits their students and corporate partners, but also works toward the public good.

Vikas Rai Bhatnagar
CEO, Hyperspace Action Research Services, and Former Professor of General Management and Chairperson of the Doctoral Program, Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Management
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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