Different pedagogical styles at Harvard

I am a pathological shopper. Not a shopper, in the traditional sense of buying clothes, gadgets, and all of that. I am a shopper in the context of academic courses at Harvard. Harvard lets you sit in courses for the first week or so before you decide on your final courses for the semester. So I always use that time of the semester to survey the different courses of interest to me, across different graduate schools at Harvard. In the process, I have observed an amazing range of pedagogical techniques being used by professors.

I might be a bit biased but HKS probably has the widest range of pedagogical methods being used by the professors. Prof. Heifetz, who teaches courses in leadership, uses the classroom as a social lab, where the students are encouraged to see the class itself as a microcosm of society. With that context in mind, he guides you in understanding how group dynamics work, how you relate to a group, how authority is given and acquired in groups, etc. At any point, anyone can interrupt and change the direction of the class, and Prof. Heifetz might take a backseat for the rest of the class. From that point onwards, the class discussion is completely being led and facilitated by the students themselves.

Another interesting tool he utilizes is that of the case method, but with a twist. Instead of assigning pre-written cases, he gets all students to come up with a case that usually revolves around a leadership failure for them.

Then there is Professor Marshall Ganz, who teaches courses in Public Narrative, Story-telling and Organizing. Professor Ganz has an uncanny ability to inspire and bring out the students’ inner selves. The Public Narrative class revolves around the art of story-telling where students work in small groups and sections to craft their own narratives based on values, choices and challenges they have faced in their lives. During the class, and even in the breakout groups, you see how Ganz and the TAs help you tease out such intricately crafted narratives. The pedagogical tool used most frequently is that of inquiry (why, why, why), practice (repeated refining of your narrative) and coaching (asking the right questions).

Nicco Mele, who teaches Media, Politics and Power and another course in the use of technology in political campaigns, emphasizes “doing” as a tool to help students really learn. His class requires you to set up and manage your entire digital presence – from a blog to a Twitter handle to a LinkedIn page to Google Adwords to your own website. The class has a distinct focus on keeping track of and analyzing current events in the field of internet/technology and its implications for politics and power (the last class was a discussion around the emerging economy of bitcoins). In addition, the entire class tweets using the hashtag #mppdigital.

Prof. Ricardo Hausmann, as a trained economist, uses largely a combination of interactive lectures (using slides) and problem sets to help students understand the reasons why some countries are poor, unequal, and volatile (which in my opinion is simply an interesting angle on teaching you theories of economic growth). His class provides an economic history perspective – the different theories and factors that have been used to predict and explain economic growth variations – as well as outlines the view of what I would call the Kennedy School model of economic growth. The course serves as one of the foundation courses that is very popular amongst non-MPAIDs.

Polling and Public Opinion, taught by Peter Hart, is yet another example of pedagogical style. Hart basically brings real survey results conducted by his firm (on issues ranging from Syria to healthcare reform law) and gets the class to basically serve as the Advisors to the decision-makers. He pits one group against the other, so that the students get to see different inferences being drawn by the different people based off the same data. He tries to mirror the actual environment and dynamic between pollsters, advisors and decision-makers – it helps that his firm (and he personally) have provided polls to WSJ and NBC news and represented over 40 US Senators and 30 governors.

Design Thinking, taught by Prof. Srikant Datar at HBS, adopts a totally different way to help students imbibe the principles of design thinking, and to start being “design thinkers.” This class is designed around the pedagogy of practice – in some ways similar to the one used in Ganz’s class. A bit of theory (and sometimes presentations by design firms such as Frog Design, IDEO and Continuum) followed by practice in small groups of the principles, individual exercises and finally small group discussions. The lecture part of the course is probably the least interesting, whereas the presentations by design firms are probably the most instructive because they walk you through real examples of how they approached a certain design problem for a client. (i think the course might be similar to the one taught at Stanford’s D-School).

Strategy and Technology, a course taught at HBS by Prof. Hagiu, is a fairly typical HBS class that uses the case method of teaching. Students read a case, written usually by HBS professors or professional case writers, that outlines a certain business situation and poses questions around a certain decision point for the protagonist in the case. The class discussions in case-centric classes can be very dynamic, where students argue for their points of view, backing it up with evidence presented in the case and sometimes supplementing it with lessons they might have learnt from their own professional experiences.

Finally, a word about the Negotiation Workshop at Harvard Law School. It was probably the best course I’ve taken at Harvard so far. This intensive workshop is led by the Program on Negotiation, which is a consortium of Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tufts University. The program boasts of some of the best negotiation thinkers and analysts in the world including folks like Prof Mnookin. The pedagogical style here is again a combination of theory (taught through lectures by the PON faculty) and practice (multiple negotiations conducted within small groups). Partly maybe because its been taught for several decades now, but I found that the key theories and lessons of negotiation were really conveyed effectively by the instructors (Robert Bordone in my case)and imbibed deeply by the students.

Any other pedagogical techniques that other folks have seen here at Harvard or at other schools that have been particularly effective?

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One thought on “Different pedagogical styles at Harvard

  1. A few years back Asim Khwaja taught a class called “Firms and Finance in Developing Countries”. It was a seminar-style course, where each week you read three academic papers and debated their findings, methodologies, and implications. The class was broken into modules, starting with the theory of the firm and working our way up to stock markets and VC/PE.

    The thing that made the class discussion so lively was that two students would prepare and lead each weekly discussion, which meant staking out an opinion on the material and risking pushback from the class or Prof. Khwaja if you missed something or misinterpreted findings. Fun mix between an academic style course and mixed with practical discussion of real world issues (exactly the sweet spot for HKS).

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