Case #4: Learning in Three Dimensions: How Collaborative Learning Takes Root
S. NOUMAN ASHRAF, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, CANADA
DISCIPLINE: Higher Education, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
RESEARCH AREAS: Organizational design, emancipatory leadership, social innovation, not-for-profit governance, educational leadership
Nouman teaches Emancipatory Leadership within the Global Executive MBA program, Leading Social Innovation with the second- and third-year MBA programs and Leading Across Differences within the Rotman Commerce Program. His teaching practice equips students with the tools necessary to create impact within their organizations and society-at-large. By engaging students in practical application of classroom discussion, readings and content, Nouman exemplifies the importance of collaboration as a learning tool.
At the Rotman School of Management, the student-consultant model (Bovill, Cook-Saher, & Felten, 2011) has been operationalized as a tool for curriculum development. The student-consultant model asks graduates to provide insights from end-user perspective and co-create the next iteration of the course to maximize learning across three dimensions: teacher to learner, learner to learner, and learner to teacher. This model allows Nouman to assist students in operationalizing their agency through collaboration. As students become agents of their own learning, they recognize that through this process, they are taking on the roles of “holders and creators of knowledge” (Bernal, 2002).
By nudging students to move outside the classroom and apply their learning to complex, real-world problems, the three-dimensional approach provides an opportunity for active learning. Rather than approaching problems as subject matter experts, students learn how to leverage their skills, curiosity, and empathic abilities to explore diverse perspectives and approach problems creatively. Through a combination of journaling, feedback, in-class sharing and co-consulting, students learn about their own strengths, blind spots, and ability to lead social innovation locally and globally.
CASE EXAMPLE OF EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP
In the Leading Social Innovation MBA elective course, the student-consultant model is operationalized to engage students within communities and contribute to the development of innovation opportunities at scale. Students are asked to engage with real-life questions being faced by organizational partners through a social innovation lens. This approach builds students’ capacity for developing a deep understanding of the context within which partner organizations operate, leveraging a business design methodology that emphasizes empathy and continuous iteration. Rather than coming in as subject matter or process experts, students bring a combination of academic rigour and genuine curiosity.
REFLECTING ON AND APPLYING THE LEARNING IN THREE DIMENSIONS MODEL
Learning in three dimensions emphasizes and encourages members within the learning community to utilize their agency in making the learning experience active and meaningful for all. Active learning, broadly defined, is “student’s efforts to actively construct their knowledge” (Carr, Palmer, & Hagel, 2015). To enable learning in three dimensions, the instructor should be able to 1) nudge students out of their comfort zone and establish a safe space within the learning environment, 2) insist on feedback after every interaction with a member of the learning community and, 3) measure what has been learned through the course and how it integrates with existing knowledge and skills, and furthermore, can be applied in current and emerging contexts. A major benefit of learning in three dimensions is that it requires the learner and the teacher to be reflective. Reflective practice is key to effectiveness because it is through reflection that learners and teachers develop a genuine curiosity for their respective subject matters. Furthermore, they can witness the evolution of their thinking and doing.
One technique of enabling and assessing comprehension, extension and application of the material is an entry in a learning journal after every interaction. Through a combination of journaling and in-class sharing, students learn about their own strengths, blind spots, and ability to lead social innovation locally and globally. Partner organizations are consistently impressed by students’ academic rigour and thoughtful, genuine curiosity. Crucially, the end results of students’ consultation with partner organizations do not follow a strictly linear format or template. This focus on purpose over process and prioritization of impact over format and marks is essential to pushing students towards meaningful work and active learning. In fact, the most successful students and teams are those who are willing to ask questions, get out of their comfort zones, and critically engage with partner organizations to address their consulting problem. While initially uncomfortable, this discomfort enables students to learn from their differences and engage in deep learning. This innovative active learning pedagogy is grounded in the work of Bain (2004) and Bernal (2002). Both these thought leaders espouse that risk-taking in professional and social contexts is absolutely essential for growth. With risk-taking and discomfort comes humility, and with humility comes an open and ready mind for deep learning (Bernal, 2002). Actively creating a space in the classroom where students feel discomfort, but safety, is the only way to facilitate risk-taking and thus create an ecosystem where students not only become knowledge holders, but knowledge creators (Bain, 2004).
“As educators, we need to create conditions under which students learn from us, each other, and offer meaningful contribution to us as instructors around future contributions to curriculum and pedagogy. This requires the enactment and sustainability of an environment in which students experience psychological safety on the one hand and a level of accountability on the other. This combination enhances both academic learning outcomes and the potential of students’ own contributions to the field.”
Once students relate the subject matter to these larger questions, their orientation for learning shifts from being a ‘strategic learner’ to that of being an ‘active learner’. Within this mindset, the subject then takes on an enhanced relevance and captivates the interest and attention of the students with a view to developing personal mastery over a domain whose applicability they understand and value.As educators, we need to create conditions under which students learn from us, each other, and offer meaningful contribution to us as instructors around future contributions to curriculum and pedagogy. This requires the enactment and sustainability of an environment in which students experience psychological safety on the one hand and a level of accountability on the other. This combination enhances both academic learning outcomes and the potential of students’ own contributions to the field. In reflecting upon my decade of teaching within the management education space, my focus has been creating what acclaimed teaching and learning expert Ken Bain refers to as ‘adaptive experts’. These are individuals who go above and beyond simply regurgitating answers in a routine manner to adapting to unique and messy problems. Such an approach is particularly salient in my chosen twin areas of interest, and social innovation and inclusive leadership that values diversity and inclusion. In both disciplines, learners must link what they learn in the classroom to real world questions at the individual, organizational and societal levels.
Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bernal, D.D. (2002). Critical race theory, Latino critical theory, and critical raced-gendered epistemologies: Recognizing students of color as holders and creators of knowledge. Qualitative Inquiry, 8(1), 105–126. https://doi.org/10.1177/107780040200800107
Bovill, C., Cook-Sather, A., & Felton, P. (2011). Students as co-creators of teaching approaches, course design, and curricula: Implications for academic developers. International Journal for Academic Development, 16(2), 133-145. (doi:10.1080/1360144X.2011.568690)
Carr, R., Palmer, S.,& Hagel, P. (2015). (2015). Active learning: The importance of developing a comprehensive measure. Active Learning in Higher Education,16(3), 173-186. http://dro.deakin.edu.au/view/DU:30074350
Cook-Sather, A., & Abbot, S. (2016). Translating partnerships: How faculty-student collaboration in explorations of teaching and learning can transform perceptions, terms, and selves. Teaching and Learning Inquiry, 4(2), 1-14. http://dx.doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.4.2.5
S. Nouman Ashraf is an Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream within the Organizational Behavior area at the Rotman School of Management. He has a broad range of professional, academic and teaching interests, with a specialized focus on enabling inclusive and innovative practices within teams, organizations and boards. For the last decade and a half, he has held progressively senior roles at the University of Toronto. Nouman serves as a Teaching Fellow at the Institute for Gender and the Economy, is an Associate at Trinity College within the University of Toronto, an affiliated faculty member at the University of Toronto City of Schools and Fellow Emeritus at Massey College.
Nouman’s current roles include Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream within the Organizational Behavior area at the Rotman School of Management. An award-winning faculty member, Nouman teaches Emancipatory Leadership within the GEMBA program, Leading Social Innovation with the second- and third-year MBA programs and Leading Across Differences within the Rotman Commerce Program. He is also Academic Director of various custom leadership programs in partnership with Rotman Executive Program clients. As of July 1, 2019, Nouman assumed the role of Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, reporting to the Dean.
Respondent to AACSB Re-accreditation External Review of the Rotman School Committee, Rotman School of Management
Ludwik and Estelle Jus Memorial Human Rights Award Selection Committee
International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Conference Organizing Committee
Social Impact Working Rotman, Office of the Vice President, Human Resources and Equity Table