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Higher Education opinion

SA business schools must instil critical thinking among students

Business schools, even in South Africa, have taken an easy path and walked away from their intellectual responsibilities. Students are not being equipped to engage critically with questions of business at the senior level and, as a result, employers worldwide agree that MBA graduates are unable to take part in the business of the boardroom as they lack the necessary thinking skills required by high-level decision making.
vIt is up to local business schools to adopt a critical thinking approach that exercises graduates' ability to construct and take apart an argument. This will allow students to link various aspects of an organisation so as to understand the overall strategy of the business.

Dissatisfaction with MBA graduates

South Africa's employers, particularly, are not satisfied with the level of skills today's MBA graduates are taking with them into a company. MBA graduates are meant to be appropriately confident when presented with a situation or an argument. If they developed proper thinking skills during their studies at a business institution, they would not view an argument as confrontational. We all need to be humble enough to listen to an argument and engage with it before disagreeing with it.

Graduates and lecturers have a lack of appetite for the difficult. Scholars naturally want to be effective in their personal lives, so they will tend to gravitate to making fewer demands on students. As the custodians of the graduate's future, business schools need to engage students in critical thinking so that they can become leaders in their chosen professions.

In order to produce MBA graduates who possess these high-level thinking skills and the ability to plan for and handle uncertain situations effectively, both lecturers and graduates need to be encouraged to engage in approaches that promote these skills.

Critical-thinking approach

The USB implemented a critical-thinking approach 18 months ago by introducing student feedback forms, whereby students marked lecturers according to their ability to help them construct arguments better and to see problems in an integrated way. This method of reviewing has encouraged lecturers to challenge students to step outside of their comfort zones when constructing an argument.

Business schools have a long history of presenting complicated case studies to students, rather than grouping these case studies into subjects such as human resources, logistics and supply chain and accounting. By looking at the case studies from various directions and working on a set of problems in the company, they hoped that the student would somehow be able to make sense out of the strategy of the business.

There are roughly 6500 business schools in the world. This means that there is a natural market tendency to follow, rather than to differentiate oneself in the business of MBA teaching. However, business schools need to start innovating their teaching methods in order to stimulate their students intellectually and meet the changing needs of businesses.

Ability to argue and think is essential

No longer can business schools rely on an approach that relies on knowledge, whereby students simply absorb information, or the explanation of case studies only; intellectual skills - the ability to argue and think - are essential. Business schools need to adopt an integrated approach to their education, that is, encourage the student on the personal development journey, not just in leadership, but in an intellectual sense as well. By acquiring the ability to criticise and argue, formulate their own arguments and seeing the world as an ambiguous place rather than a single reality, students will develop into leaders who have impact at the senior level.

This is why our focus at the USB is on developing the critical-thinking capabilities of our students, so that they are better equipped to deal with tough situations in the boardroom.

About the author

Professor John Powell is director of the University of Stellenbosch Business School.
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