05 Apr 2024

Classroom Culture and Norms Working Group Q+A


by Shona Simkin

Professors Joseph (Joe) Badaracco and Suraj Srinivasan are the co-chairs of the Classroom Culture and Norms Working Group. Established by Dean Srikant Datar in the fall of 2023, the four working groups—including Antisemitism, Islamophobia and Anti-Arabism, and Free Expression and Community Values—aim to address the issues that arose on campus following the events of October 7. We talked with Badaracco and Srinivasan about their priorities and the work underway to ensure that students across Harvard Business School’s (HBS) academic disciplines engage in respectful, productive dialogue both in and outside of the classroom.

What are the main issues your group is addressing?
Joe Badaracco: Our community values and other aspects of our educational programs were stress tested after the October 7 attack and the aftermath. We wanted to see what we could learn from a variety of different parties about what they observed over that time and make recommendations about how to improve the ways in which we create and support the conditions for learning. We’re taking a broad look at how we go about encouraging community values—looking at the RC, the EC, and Executive Education—to see if there’s a better approach.

Suraj Srinivasan:Our learning model (the case method) is discussion-based, and builds upon productive conversations. Students also interact in social situations, and in pedagogical but non-classroom settings like course spaces. In the MBA Program, projects where students work in groups are a big part of the learning experience, especially in the EC (Elective Curriculum) year. Some groups are self-selecting, but we need to think about all the ways groups are formed and how people can engage productively with a cross section of their classes.

How are you going about this?
JB: We started last fall with an online survey of the section leaders and the faculty who were teaching in the RC (Required Curriculum) at that time. We asked what issues they faced, what was helpful in dealing with those issues, and what recommendations they have going forward. We wanted to catch their thinking while it was still fresh. We did a similar one for the EC sections.

We’re now interviewing about 20 different individuals with the same questions: What have you observed and what do you recommend, either with the sharper focus on the events of the fall or more broadly?

We learned a lot from the survey and have had some excellent discussions in the working group. We’ve distilled this into a very preliminary draft of recommendations that we’re continuing to refine with the input of some of the folks we’re interviewing—asking what we got right, what we should change, what we should add.

SS: One of the key things we did was collect information about all that we currently do, which is quite substantial. Much of it held up under the pressure test of last fall. We’ve had section norms and classroom norms for quite a long time—everything from attendance to punctuality to how to engage in class. It’s important to establish that the baseline and foundation is already high—we’re closely examining and learning, and finding specific cases where there might be a chance to do better.

What are some examples of community values and norms that we already have in place?
JB: Before MBA students even arrive on campus, we have a system for them to understand and commit to our community values. Once they get here, their first week is spent in the START program, which emphasizes the importance of these values and helps students to develop their own versions within their sections. Faculty then work through the fall to inculcate these values. We’ve been refining this approach for decades—it really is a full-court press. We have some remarkably dedicated folks serving as section chairs who both help individual students and work to build sections that are strong learning communities—that involves getting all sorts of values and behaviors right. We’ve worked hard at that and it's something we’ve been doing and doing quite well for a long time.

HBS is arguably the premiere case method institution in the world, and we ought to set a high standard for open, honest educational dialogues on challenging issues in our classroom. We’re talking about where we can do better, areas that may need correcting, and where else we ought to set our aspirations higher and help students learn how to have these kinds of dialogues.

What outcomes are you hoping for?
JB: We would like to have students, under both normal and stressful circumstances, do an even better job of treating each other respectfully, listening to each other, and making efforts to learn from each other. We want students to engage and develop skills towards productive dialogues–skills that they can use here and in the workplace. We have a remarkable group of students and Executive Education participants, all of whom bring their identities and life experiences. When challenging issues arise, it’s important to have the skills to express yourself clearly and respectfully, to listen to others, and to maintain a deeper dialogue. This work builds on our values and takes case method learning to a higher level.

SS: The cases we discuss in the classroom all deal with tension—we learn best from the issues at the edges, not from routine business as usual. What happened in the fall pushed everyone out of their normal comfort zone. So it’s very helpful to reflect on how the entire community responded and what we can learn from it. How did we operate in the classroom, outside the classroom, and with different identities? Do we create sufficient opportunities for learning to engage despite having differences? These are longer term things that we might ask the School to think about.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities unique to HBS and to this moment?
JB: Typically, we’d look within a single academic program when addressing a concern. But here we have students in the MBA Program, Executive Education programs, Comprehensive Leadership Programs, and Doctoral—all have common characteristics as learning environments, but there is a very different cohort experience, and we’re learning across all of them.

I would not be surprised if we made recommendations about closely examining our community values across all our classrooms and programs, including digital classrooms, and how we help students get better at discussing difficult issues. We have some real expertise and experience with how we prepare our RC students, and maybe that could be a basis for guidance on other programs and participants.

SS: There’s a layer of similarity across all the programs and a layer of difference, even in the first and second year. What can we learn and transfer between them? It could be as simple as reinforcing some of these values and norms established in the first-year experience for the second year. It’s an opportunity to revisit, even if just a reminder, what’s similar and different. In the EC year students aren’t in the same group anymore, but it’s the same case method and the same community.

Our working group has people from different parts of the School and in various leadership roles, and we’re continuing to collect information, share our knowledge, and have productive conversations.

How will you measure success?
JB: Measuring success is tough. You end up with aims like “a better, more thoughtful, personal dialogue”—but how do you know that’s happening, and how are you going to measure it? One measure of success will be to the extent that we can make some practical recommendations for starting points or initiatives that would move us in that direction. For example, how might we try new things and have a more thoughtful focus for the upcoming START program in August. I think we’ll find some measure of success by the quality and range of initiatives. Outcomes are tough to specify and assess.

Our mandate has the word classroom in it, but as a residential educational institution, the physical classroom is just one piece. If we do this right, we’re not just thinking about what happens when students are in the classroom for 80 minutes, 12 times a week—that’s just the most visible part of what we do. Increasingly there’s the digital classroom and experience, and then there’s the whole campus. We don’t have walls around Harvard Business School, so if things are challenging, disruptive, or troubling elsewhere in the world, the country, or even across the river, there are reverberations here.

SS: One of the requests from Dean (Srikant) Datar was that we not just report on what to do in the long term, but how we can make immediate improvements and changes even if they’re small. I think we’ve already had some success with that.

When MBA classes started this spring, the topic of values, norms, and culture was elevated to the forefront for every faculty member. We’ve always had a high bar on values, but the process we’re undertaking now, including surveys and intensive conversations, means that everybody is thinking actively about what they can be doing to foster a more productive campus. In the EC kickoff we explicitly talked about issues that get in the way, or the things we’ve presumed went well—we’re revisiting them and making sure that they still do. We are discussing values and norms every semester to remind ourselves that this is continuous work—we can’t let it just be an unstated aspect of our culture. Norms are strengthened by repetition, by celebrating what works and being keenly aware of what doesn’t. This is a chance for us to keep reflecting on it.

One measure of success is the process itself. Success is in having the group, thinking about these issues, and engaging the community collectively and individually.

Post a Comment

Comments must be on-topic and civil in tone (with no name calling or personal attacks). Any promotional language or urls will be removed immediately. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.