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Thinking and Acting: Simple Lessons for Designing Impactful Learning

Why does education and training fall short in preparing learners for the real world? And what are some enduring lessons we can gain from exemplary institutions for both young and adult learners?

In 2009, former US President Barack Obama publicly praised the education system in Korea, telling US educators to apply the ‘Korean model’ in US schools. Yet that same system has also been referred to by Korea’s Education Minister at that time, Ahn Byoungman, as the “nation’s biggest problem.”

Many Asians probably share Ahn’s view with regard to their own nation’s education system. Looking at Malaysia for example, the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) notes that about 240,000 fresh graduates enter the Malaysian job market yearly. But as of 2019, approximately 40% actually entered the workforce. Despite the changes in COVID, it’s safe to assume that the level of work preparedness of graduating students has not significantly changed. MEF advised job seekers to pursue soft skills, development courses to improve their English, and communication skills, all of which will make them more marketable, while they waited for job offers.

Why are education systems that brought many communities in Asia out of poverty now perceived by many to be the bane of the nation’s future?

Many pundits believe the fault lies in many of Asia’s exam-driven approaches to learning, in which students largely focus on memorizing static information without attaining a deep understanding of the material, and without the corresponding thinking and communication skills.

For solutions to this problem, we could consider how an institution like Harvard educates its students, ranging from college students to senior professionals taking executive programs. Having done extensive research on teaching and learning at Harvard, I’ve realized the core lessons are both simple to understand but difficult to execute.

What does impactful teaching and learning look like? 

Firstly, impactful teaching and learning must be inquiry-based. Smart, intentional, and multi-faceted questions designed around learning objectives posed to the learners empower them to think and act independently, a skill necessary for both critical analysis and creativity. Posing questions that steer lively and robust discussions among the learners along an appropriate learning journey, has been successfully employed across many different disciplines at Harvard and other world-leading institutions.

Secondly, it requires teaching and learning to be relevant and meaningful. From a design thinking perspective, one must begin with the learner in mind and draw connections to their own knowledge and experience of the world. This is not straightforward as possible, especially for abstract frameworks or ideas. But this can be supported effectively through the use of cases or real-life simulations. When the lessons are directly relatable, feedback becomes possible, which is the basis for making progress.

Thirdly, participants must be given the opportunity to solve problems in groups. In order to solve not just the technical ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers of a problem – participants need to practice the human side of challenges, discovering truth as well as creating new solutions. The need to work together encourages them to adjust their assumptions and treat both their peers and the subject material with open minds. Students also learn how to practice empathy and adaptability when they hear differing perspectives from their fellow students.

Although Harvard might be seen by some as the standard-bearer for education, teaching methodology is obviously not the domain of Harvard. With dedicated leadership and resources, good education and training can be designed and practiced anywhere.

With our Center’s endeavor to use such approaches in our leadership programs, a wide range of communities we have worked with have reaped great benefits. We hope to continuously provide a platform that ensures life-changing learning with actionable takeaways that can contribute to creating a more sustainable and equitable future.


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