Teaching Ethics, Learning Ethics

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Publication date:

February 15, 2021

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Teaching doesn’t necessarily lead to learning, and learning doesn’t necessary require being taught. That is something we are all living examples of. This reminds me of an experience I had in Russia, one that brings more than a few legs of learning with it.

One day, a young British reporter from The Economist came to see me at MSM SKOLKOVO in Moscow. He wanted to write an article about the school and what we were teaching in our MBA program. At some point in the interview, he asked if we offered a class on ethics. Without hesitation, I said “no” because we did not. I hadn’t learned yet (will I ever?) to be careful with short answers that, out of context, can be turned into powerful sound bites for the wrong message.

The reporter was taken aback by my answer. In his mind, it was obvious that if there was one place where ethics should be taught, it was Russia. I tried to explain why we did not teach it but his opinion was already interfering with his listening. In his head, he was already writing a piece along the lines of ” here is a brand-new business school in corrupt Russia that refuses to teach ethics!” . The only other thing he did hear me say, because it added ammunition to his sensational piece, was that we did talk about corrupt practices. The article haunted me for a while as it ridiculed SKOLKOVO and me. Here we were developing entrepreneurial talent talking about corruption and not about ethics. This of course had nothing to do with reality. Let me set the record straight, as it is educational in its own right.

It is a fact that no ethics class showed in our MBA curriculum. And there we good reasons for it. First, we had a very short curriculum with few courses being taught in the traditional way. In contrast to most MBA programs, our program was an experiential learning journey built around 5 projects that were executed in different parts of the world (Russia, US, and China or India). Hence, our students only spend about 4 months in class in Moscow before scattering in teams all over the globe.  Because of this, the in-class module focused on critical knowledge and skills which our students would need during their project work. The short in-class module also functioned to align the admitted students who had very diverse profiles and came from all over the world. As I explain and discuss in my book “Rough Diamonds. Rethinking How We Educate Future Generations”, beyond basic competence, we maximized the variance in profiles to enable rich co-learning opportunities for those in the program.

A second reason why we did not have an ethics class in the short curriculum was that I was not at all sure how to teach that effectively. It has absolutely nothing to do with my beliefs; anybody who has ever worked with me knows that my moral compass points Norh no matter what happens or goes on. As an educator, I just never saw my role as one of telling students what to do. That is what missionaries or preachers do, not educators. I have always felt that my role was to equip students so that whatever choices they make, they knew what they are getting into, knew the consequences, and could live with those consequences. As a role model, I certainly conveyed my views on what I would do and why, but I never saw myself as an arbitrator of right or wrong. I did of course give my students a complete picture of what was going on out there in the real world. That naturally involved talking about corruption in all its shapes and forms. This is where I had lost the The Economist reporter; all he had heard was “we do not teach ethics, we teach corruption”. A perfect headline for a story coming Russia!

As the mission of MSM SKOLKOVO was to develop entrepreneurial leaders for difficult environments, we had an obligation to teach all aspects of those difficult environments. Sugar coating reality would benefit no student. Just teaching a standard ethics class without mapping out the true reality was not going to be of any benefit to the students. If  there was any learning in such a class, it would be fragile as it would not be tethered to anything they saw happening around them. It would only have made the The Economist reporter happy.

Profound learning requires that one lays out the raw and grim reality and that one then works back from there. That is what we at SKOLKOVO cared about and did. Let me illustrate and explain how we achieved that without resorting to the standard ethics class.

One of the field projects the MBA students worked on was a project with a federal agency in Russia. One team went off to Kaliningrad to work with an official there. For obvious reasons, I will keep the identities of the actors vague. The SKOLKOVO team had 5 students: an American girl, a German, and three Russians. Shortly after they arrived on the ground, I got a frantic call from the American girl. In a bewildered voice of disbelief, she told me how, upon meeting a federal official there, he had told them how he had bought his election! She just couldn’t get her head around this happening and that he would relate it so proudly. More distressing to her was that her Russia teammates were OK with all that. For their part, they could not understand why she got all bend out of shape over this. To them, this was Russia and this is what happens in Russia. The German student just sat back and watched the emotionally-laden verbal ping-pong between his teammates. The stage was set for some valuable learning and it was for us to waste the opportunity.

All five students were on an ethics learning journey, but a different one because of different reference frames. Despite different (and possibly opposing) starting points, there was much room for collective discovery besides individual self-reflection. The best (and deepest) learning always occurs in a natural process of discovery. But it requires careful monitoring and coaching. If managed and supported well, it becomes a learning experience the students will never forget. In my view, no standard ethics class can top that.

Learning has more to do with questions than with answers. In fact, I believe that the quality of questions raised is more indicative of the depth of learning than the quality of answers given. In the situation these students found themselves in, the questions that map the learning journey are: Why is it this way in Russia? How has that evolved and why? Why don’t we see similar practices elsewhere? What are the consequences? Etc.

At SKOLKOVO, all learning opportunities were managed with great care. Each student had an individual learning coach who worked with that student all through the program. It was a co-learning partnership as the coaches were professionals but often with limited knowledge of and/or exposure to Russia and the Russian mindset. Each team of students also had a team learning coach who worked with the team as it executed each field project (teams were created by us and changed with each project). In the background, team coaches and individual coaches compared notes and coordinated their individual and collective learning support for maximum effectiveness. No traditional teaching faculty were involved in this at all.

Unfortunately, the The Economist reporter missed the real story and wondered off on a line that fit the stereotypical Russia label. In the process, he deprived his readers from knowing the truth and the learning it contained. Indeed, teaching ethics and learning ethics are not one and the same.

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