Teaching Critical, Open Thinking to Business Students

Dan Pontefract, founder and CEO of The Pontefract Group, tells AACSB and current business school leaders what we need to teach our current students to ensure alignment of workforce needs with future talent.


Dan Pontefract: [00:16] Why is there this absence or decline in critical thinking with graduates? It really comes down to this, executives. They don't care. What they care about is pace, speed, and productivity. They're not thinking about the whole self, and that is those graduates that are coming into the organization.

[00:34] What they're doing is creating this freneticism. The senior leaders of organizations are scooping up MBA grads, master's grads, BCom grads, what have you. What B school deans need to think about is, "Well, what are they entering into?" They're entering into this pit of action. That's what executives want.

[00:53] There may be the problem. What you have are disengagement issues in organizations due to these executives saying, "Do more with less," my worst favorite term ever. That's something that really needs to be figured out for sure.

[01:07] I get this question all the time, "Should B schools, deans, and faculty do something different within the pedagogy and the curriculum so that graduates can be better open thinkers, critical thinkers, or even creative thinkers?" The fact of the matter is yes and no.

[01:21] The no part is I'm not sure unless those deans and the faculty can get into the executives, through executive education, for example, to say, "Hey, there's got to be a better way in which for you to lead." On the yes side, if we prepare the grads a little more for what they're getting into without the soft rose colored lens of, "Oh, it'd be great. You make a lot of money in that organization as you graduate."

[01:45] The problem is they're allowed, the graduates, that is, to creative and critically think. They're just told to do. If we at least prepare the grads for what that eventuality is and what they're getting into, perhaps we can cut off the disengagement, if not the disenfranchisement, right at the knees.

[02:03] What can a B school leader, dean, faculty do to help grads or students prepare to be that open thinker? I urge them to teach as though the students are the chefs of their own lives. What that means is, "How can a faculty member actually teach marinating in the moment, decision making through data, facts, and thoughtfulness?"

[02:29] Can we teach pause? Can we teach dream? Can we teach our kids, if you will, that there is something to be had and said about thoughtful thinking [laughs] first, rather than the doing? Yes, we teach strategic management and all of the actions that go with OODA, or a SWOT analysis, etc.

[02:53] There's curricula in an MBA, or a BCom, etc., that still needs to be there. Maybe, we can teach the valuable aspect of time. How can we be better time makers, almost repatriating our time so that we can be better at the creative and critical thinking first, and then still teaching what obviously needs to happen, which is to take action? It's this balance.

[03:15] Why chefs of our lives? Because chefs are out there wondering what the next menu has to look like. They're smelling the produce. They're talking to butchers. They're getting ideas. They're wandering into art galleries, etc. They're like, "Hmm, I wonder what we could do this month, this week with the menu?" They also have to make frugal decisions because there's a budget or it's time of season.

[03:38] That all has to be put into practice into the kitchen, and that's the action. When someone from the restaurant orders something, then they've got to actually put into execution the critical and the creative thinking. They don't jump in the kitchen, frenetically and frantically, trying to decide what to do when someone orders something. That's not the open thinker.

[04:01] How can a B school leader do better in terms of preparing those students with the open thinking curricula and the pedagogy? It's to be the chefs of their own lives. Teach that. Teach them to be chefs, analogously, of course.

Filmed February 2019 at AACSB's Deans Conference in Vancouver, Canada.