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The Carpenter and the Gardener: Nurturing Growth in Business Schools

If you are a parent and, like me, anxious to get better at it, you probably know about the carpenter and gardener metaphor popularized by Alison Gopnik, a professor at the University of California Berkeley. Being a carpenter, she says, is about molding a child into an adult who has a particular set of characteristics. For gardeners, on the other hand, the idea is to help children be the best version of themselves and focus on creating an environment for them to flourish. 

The metaphor made a lot of sense to me and asking whether I was—and wanted to be—a carpenter or gardener turned out to be quite helpful. As the title of this blog suggests, I thought it might be interesting to apply the question to business schools. Does our approach to management education reflect the thinking of carpenters or gardeners?

My first thought was that it is essential to think like carpenters in business schools. Unlike parenting, education is a service that most often involves tuition fees. Whether we think students or companies are the customers, graduates (some might call them products) of a program are expected to possess the knowledge and skills for the jobs into which they’ll be hired. It’s not just the discipline of the market; schools hold each other accountable with accreditation standards that require explicit learning objectives and assessments of the extent to which they’ve been achieved.

Thinking like carpenters, we hire content experts to build curricula and teach students what they need to know and do in business. If they can understand the right concepts, discuss the right cases, and solve the right problems, students will gain everything they need to get hired for the right jobs. Then we use placement rates and test scores as evidence of success. Everything makes sense. 

Well, not exactly. 

As I thought more about the question and my recent experiences with business schools, I began to realize that it isn’t so straightforward. We live in a dynamic world and the best schools are not only providing what the market demands today, but also are preparing for the needs of tomorrow. Surveys suggest that companies are increasingly interested in a set of skills, such as creative thinking, curiosity, resilience, and agility, which seem to lend themselves to gardener-like thinking. To develop these skills, says the gardener, we need to provide students room to experiment and explore. Cultivating the environment, rather than managing the outcomes, becomes the center of our attention in business schools. Gardens are variable systems, and things won’t always turn out as expected. 

Many of the business schools I’ve been visiting are responding with curricula that are more flexible in the types of courses students can take, even beyond business. They are leaving room for more experiential learning and recognizing the important role extra-curricular activities, and the culture of the school, play in student development. Innovation labs are bringing people with different experiences together to co-create new ideas, while incubators are providing space and support for them to develop and test their business ideas. Newer classrooms are flat rather than tiered, making them more flexible and no longer centered on the teacher. 

The changes are not limited to “pre-experience” students and degree programs. I believe business schools have a tremendous opportunity to expand their contributions to lifelong learning. Gopnik explains that we tend to equate childhood with “exploration” and adulthood with “exploitation,” borrowing terms from computer science. That is, we spend the first part of our lives discovering new features about the environment and the second part taking advantage of that knowledge. Today we need to do both, explore and exploit, throughout our careers. 

Technology is also affecting how we think about business education. Advances are enabling students to access and use content more readily, better understanding their own needs and aspirations, and develop individual pathways to career success. Some view these developments as a threat, others see them as opportunities—not to personalize learning (with AI, for example) but also to (re)humanize it by building more diverse, variable, and uncertain environments. That’s why I tell people GBSN’s mission is about more than transferring knowledge and skills, it’s about expanding human capacity for development.

In the end, the answer to our question is “and, both” rather than “either, or.”  I should have guessed that before starting to write this blog, since it was my conclusion when I first encountered Gopnik’s metaphor. Our kids need—and have—both, a carpenter and a gardener, for parents. It does make for interesting household discussions.

Dan LeClair, CEO

Dan LeClair was named CEO of the Global Business School Network (GBSN) in February of 2019. Prior to GBSN, Dan was an Executive Vice President at AACSB International, an association and accrediting organization that serves some 1,600 business schools in more than 100 countries. His experience at AACSB includes two and half years as Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, seven years as Chief Operating Officer, and five years as Chief Knowledge Officer. A founding member of the Responsible Research in Business and Management (RRBM) initiative, Dan currently participates on its working board. He also serves in an advisory capacity to several organizations and startups in business and higher education. Before AACSB, Dan was a tenured associate professor and associate dean at The University of Tampa.

Dan played a lead role in creating a think-tank joint venture between the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD) and AACSB and has been recognized for pioneering efforts in the formation of the UN’s Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME), where he served on the Steering Committee for many years. Dan has also participated in industry-level task forces for a wide range of organizations, including the Chartered Association of Business Schools, Graduate Management Admission Council, Executive MBA Council, and Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program.

Widely recognized as a thought leader in management education, Dan is the author of over 80 research reports, articles, and blogs, and has delivered more than 170 presentations in 30 countries. As a lead spokesperson for reform and innovation in management education, Dan has been frequently cited in a wide range of US and international newspapers, magazines, and professional publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Times, China Daily, Forbes, Fast Company, and The Economist. Dan earned a PhD from the University of Florida writing on game theory.