In this months article supplied by MIP Politecnico di Milano School of Management, we hear about the experiences of MIP Professor Andrea Sianesi as he teaches joint degree courses between Politecnico di Milano and two leading management schools in China.
This year, as in past years, I have taught as a visiting professor in China. I was involved in teaching two courses as a part of a double Bachelor degree between the Politecnico di Milano and Tongji University in Shanghai and also another course of Supply Chain Management in the International MBA at Wuhan University, one of the best recognized schools of management in China.
The experience is always an interesting one in that it allows me to evaluate the various learning models that present themselves in different contexts. The multicultural nature of many of the classes makes it possible to hold interactive lessons and use international cases studies. The difference does not lie so much in the experience in the MBA classroom, rather, when you teach in China, it is very important to have case studies and examples that are applicable to the daily life in China. This is something that really requires a certain amount of experience living in the country, given that most of the successful brands of the companies that produce consumer goods are virtually unknown in the “Western” world, for example, Nonafu Spring in the food and beverage sector comes to mind, as does Li-Ning sportswear or Gree, producers of home appliances, and the list goes on.
What I found to be extremely different, however, is the teaching experience in mono-cultural classes where the “students” are all Chinese managers. Here the strategy applied to teaching needs to be reviewed completely as the learning processes are extremely diverse. First of all, it is difficult to achieve a good level of interactivity without resorting to “question-answer” with each single student while discussing themes that are connected to their company or specific industry. A generic question directed at the class as a whole unfailingly goes unanswered. This is because Chinese students do not have a habit of speaking up individually to answer a question that is not directed at them personally. One-to-one dialogue, on the other hand works and, if the topic is of common interest and there is some familiarity between students and the professor, in the following lessons other students may also begin to get involved a Q&A session, bringing their own experience to the table.
The second difference of particular importance is case study discussion methods. The discussion must be prepared and structure down to the smallest detail. Unstructured brainstorming sessions or open questions are a source of embarrassment for the student, not because they are not capable of responding, but because these methods are not in line with traditional norms of case discussion. Once the case has been structured (groups must be defined by the lecturer and the questions must necessarily be detailed), one finds that group discussion takes on a different flair than that of a multi-cultural MBA class. Rather than discussing all together the answers to the various questions, the Chinese group spends 5 minutes organizing their work and dividing up and assigning tasks amongst the group members. Each person must provide a response to one or more questions and this work is done in autonomy, without interacting with their colleagues. At the end they take five minutes to put together the contribution of each member and the solution is ready. This is effectively a different teamwork process than the one we are used to, but in the end, it passes the test and brings solid results, as long as the work is well-structured by the lecturer and well planned by the group from the outset.
With great pleasure, I will be returning to China again to teach in the near future. While I am not sure of the role I will take, I always find the experience culturally and intellectually enriching; just as much “life” as “teaching” experience.
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