Learning Velocity: From Zero to Hero

By Martin Binks, Former Dean, Nottingham University Business School
August 1, 2016

Man sprinting on track

Another piece of jargon is among the last things business schools need right now, especially amid evidence of a long-overdue move toward greater clarity and transparency in debates about teaching and learning. Even so, I have become quite a fan of the expression “learning velocity.”

The term is relevant for two reasons: first, it actually means something. Generally, velocity refers to both speed and direction; applied to education, it indicates the pace at which students learn, and the outcomes—good or bad—that result. For this discussion it might usefully be repackaged as a question: How rapidly are our students approaching the point at which they have the skills required for life after graduation?

The second reason learning velocity is relevant, at least in my opinion, is that it is an area in which business schools routinely fall short of reasonable expectations. Let me try to explain.

Ideally, every element of a curriculum would prepare students for the challenges awaiting them after they graduate. There would be no gap between what they learn and what they subsequently discover. This would produce an optimal learning velocity of one.

If a curriculum were to bear no relation to students’ ability to meet such challenges, as is too frequently the case, learning velocity would be zero. And if a curriculum were actively to reduce students’ capacity to cope in the “real world,” as sometimes also happens, learning velocity would be negative.

How many business school curricula generate a learning velocity of one? How many lend themselves to a speed and direction of learning entirely geared toward readying students for each and every eventuality the realm of business might throw at them? The answer is undoubtedly none, because perfection is impossible.

Yet the realization that a learning velocity of one is, in all likelihood, unattainable should not blind us to the value of striving to get closer to it. There are numerous weaknesses we might seek to address with this goal in mind, but three in particular seem to me to demand particular attention.

1. SHORT-TERMISM

Business schools often exhibit the same short-termism as the businesses they study. They tend to take into account only the prevailing financial environment, legislation, policies, and market circumstances. They stay in the present, with a curt nod to an uncertain future and a brief wave to the lessons of the past.

Such an approach is hard to justify. While businesses’ short-termist philosophy usually stems from a relentless pressure to acknowledge and respond to ever-shifting conditions, business schools have both the luxury of being able to reflect on and analyze change over a much longer time horizon and a responsibility to report their findings and insights to students and the wider world.

Short-termism might be a defensible position when technological and market conditions are relatively stable and predictable, but it is potentially damaging when change is endemic and accelerating. Uncertainty calls for a much broader sweep of understanding. Imagine trying to explain the nature and impact of the Second World War without reference to decades’ worth of causes and repercussions. A long-term view places short-term developments in a different and clearer perspective, without which learning velocity can suffer rapid decay.

2. METRICS

Another business trait that business schools habitually emulate too keenly is an unwavering focus on the bottom line. Although there are exceptions to this trend, including the greater consideration of ethics and the benefits of social enterprise, students do not generally experience learning that is based on the need to question all aspects of business; instead, they are merely expected to accept many of those aspects as given.

We seem content to confine ourselves to incredibly narrow conceptualizations of wealth and, by extension, growth. These notions are seldom—if ever—subjected to the intense scrutiny and criticism they deserve. It is true that assessing utility has always been difficult, but this is no excuse for repeatedly defaulting to such tissue-thin metrics at the expense of all others.

In endeavoring to picture what a learning velocity of one might look like, we should be able to get much nearer to capturing the essence of genuine value than we can by employing measures as uninspired and constraining as price, cost, and income. These metrics serve only to restrict learning velocity because the choices of direction they allow are so hopelessly limited.

3. EXPERIENCE

In the year 2000, my colleagues and I redesigned the entrepreneurship module at Nottingham University Business School so that our students would create their own brainchildren. The aim was for them to evaluate the opportunities available, concentrate on those apparently most viable, attempt to raise funding, and go on to sell their ideas to the community. Not many would succeed, but recognition of failure would itself provide an important lesson; and later, drawing on their experiences, they would try again.

Our overriding objective was to close as fully as possible the breach between what we taught our students and what they would find when they left us to embark on their careers. We wanted them to be completely immersed in entrepreneurship and to gain the tacit knowledge necessary to make decisions amid uncertainty. Overall, the key was that their learning should be hugely experiential, allowing them to appreciate the pivotal distinction between “know-about” and “know-how.”

Did we achieve a learning velocity of one? Surely not; but we might have come close. I at least like to think learning velocity increased significantly for all concerned, particularly those who were almost carried away by the exercise. Even today one of the best gauges of learning is to identify what sticks in the mind from the distant past: for me the selection would include measuring the speed of sound by using a starting pistol, demonstrating reflection and refraction with a ripple tank, and beginning to think in German while staying with a family in Hamburg—all three episodes made memorable because, like those of our entrepreneurship students, they were experienced rather than learned in abstract isolation.

The fundamental problems highlighted above might best be tackled by tapping vast resources of innovation and imagination that are largely untainted by the conventional wisdom that underpins our present curricula. This is not to imply we should forget about finding the solutions ourselves, but at the same time we must not ignore the tremendous worth of alternative viewpoints.

Ultimately, we would do well to remember that the very essence of creative problem-solving is that answers lurk everywhere. With this foremost in our thoughts, we need to start looking. Maybe we might even ask our students; it is, after all, their futures that are at stake.


Martin BinksMartin Binks is the former dean of Nottingham University Business School and a professor of Entrepreneurial Development at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.