Bringing the Spiritual Mind to Business Education and Pandemic Pedagogy Design

By Long S. Le

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In Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future, the synthesizing, disciplined, creating, respectful, and ethical minds are prescribed as cognitive capabilities for students to effectively navigate and positively impact a fast changing world. Our world is paradoxically embracing and resisting digital disruption, increasingly overwhelmed by information and disinformation, and seemingly interconnected by diverse cultures but disconnected by national differences at the same time. Amid the need to limit his prescriptive list, there were additional candidates that Gardner considered. This included the spiritual mind, which was seen as interlocking with the more analytical and sensory minds like gears in a clock.

To be sure, consideration of the spiritual mind – one that is contemplative in being opened and activated through a range of religious and non-religious worldviews in order to connect one’s interior awareness to one’s external actions – is not at all surprising. In fact, there is growing body of evidence that the spiritual mind balances and enriches the analytic.

The spiritual mind has been correlated with heightened performance as well as deepening character and leadership qualities – both in the classroom and the workplace. Additionally, there are effective spiritual or contemplative practices based on secular pedagogies that have been employed in various classroom situations and academic disciplines. These pedagogical techniques include mindfulness, the beginner’s mind, and the “daily examen.” Studies have found that the spiritual mind can indeed enable students to develop an inner purpose and drive in their life and their future careers, rather than being driven by unproductive habitual responses. Such growth, of course, enhances other college outcomes.

Notwithstanding, contemporary business curriculum and its pedagogy generally exclude the spiritual mind from any viable role in favor of the more rational and analytic approaches.

This exclusion is further exacerbated because business instructors are primarily expected to execute and build within the learning objectives that other curriculum designers have designed in the past. At its best, a design-down structure provides guidance based on best practices of business situations that have already occurred. Thus, the design-down model is more of a background than a springboard for new teaching moves and designs – especially in terms of innovating in messy, ill-structured, and ever-changing situations.

In order to augment the existing learning objectives, teachers can integrate their knowledge for action or “knowledge-in-action.” This can be done through instructional objectives, where specification of the teacher’s intentions could be explored in distinct areas of learning that are based more on abductive reasoning. Although the teacher’s instructional objectives require good judgement and the willingness to be accountable, without them their courses may not keep up with transformational or disruptive changes that businesses are experiencing. Thus, students might be underprepared as they enter fast-changing environments and the pressure-cooker of the business world.

The Spiritual Mind: The Missing Link Between the Inner and Outer Life

I have utilized instructional objectives to integrate Gardner’s Five Minds into my undergraduate business courses. I started to embed them in class assignments that place students at focal points of complex, real-life decision scenarios. In complementing but making the learning objectives more realistic, I created case studies such as Uber in China, India and Mexico where students are asked to see themselves as part of Uber’s leadership team. Instead of asking students to look for the right answers or best solutions, they are asked to grapple with and creatively balance business tensions. These include synthesizing data in making Uber profitable but respectful to a foreign country’s formal and informal institutions as well as being in compliance with legal ethics and corporate governance at multiple levels and locations.

On the one hand, I have found that most students can explicitly connect with and engage enough to cultivate their Five Minds. On the other hand, I also became aware that perhaps there was a missing link. That is, the interior recognition of one’s purpose and knowing oneself is requisite not only to guide and drive one’s decisions and actions, but also in developing good judgement that powers one’s feedback loops for growth.

A recent example that I raise for class discussion is the pioneering innovation of Facebook. In short, Facebook is embodied by its slogan, “bringing the world closer together,” which could have a positive impact on society. Here, the discussion includes whether Facebook’s innovation can bring about the best for the world if there is a growing gap between Facebook leadership’s interior beliefs of building enough common ground to make progress together and its exterior actions (or lack thereof) to address privacy issues without abandoning the core problem that funds their business.

There are, of course, mindsets and practices that evoke and awaken the interior self. In this regard, I suspect that Gardner’s earlier consideration of the spiritual mind was because it could provide an inner compass in terms of direction and destination for the other mindsets. Gardner’s early work on multiple intelligences considered the existential – the wrestling and living with big questions involving the meaning of life – as a possible ninth candidate. Thus, the spiritual mind is essential to activate a more deeply and authentic becoming of the “whole” business leader – one who is compassionate, self-aware, and purposeful.

However, the spiritual mind is not really about the internal technology necessary to completely resolve every business problem. Instead, it is a humanistic capacity to live and balance within the tensions of interior and exterior being in both the professional life and corporate life. In the effort to do so, “creative tensions” or “sweet spots” could emerge as an opportunity to do something impactful that hasn’t been done before. Still, when one activates the spiritual mind, one’s path or journey will entail more pressure, obstacles, and uneven success.

Additionally, I remind students that the spiritual mind is not the same as the ethical mind. In the rough and tumble world of business, they will wrestle with the temptations of hubris, they will make small and big mistakes, and they will work and collaborate with an imperfect cast. Nevertheless, if students can become more spiritually matured, they develop an inner foundation to admit failures when ambitious projects do not work out, invite others who they sense can share both bad news and good news, and do not shy away from the serious and complicated trends within business and the moral and societal issues that these present.

In promoting the spiritual mind that accounts for a culturally diverse classroom, I have introduced spiritualities that have a distinct religious influence as well as non-religious inspiration. These include:

  • Jesuit Spirituality, which is explored through the 480-year old “Company of Jesuits” whose experiences included suppression and expulsion in several countries. The focus is on St. Ignatius, the founder, who delegated responsibilities in a time when strict hierarchy prevailed. While strategic decision-making was centralized, he delegated considerable autonomy to local subsidiaries to scale the mission to educate young men and women to serve others. However, local managers were trained and expected to use discernment and self-knowledge to correct things. Without technology or staff meetings, subsidiaries around the world were bounded together by shared purpose and values that St. Ignatius had designed.
  • The Buddhist philosophy of Kazuo Inamori is explored in which Inamori, as a Buddhist priest, became a billionaire in Japan by placing the intellectual and material growth of his employees above concerns of his shareholders. From his own life, he saw his misfortunes and hardships as catalysts to make people around him happy. Unlike some other Buddhist priests, Inamori believes there is no need to be isolated from the world to find enlightenment, because one can and should find it in one’s work.
  • The humanist philosophy of Muhammad Yunus is explored. Yunus won a Noble Prize through his belief that microfinance could make everyone an entrepreneur. He founded Grameen Bank and pioneered microfinance that has provided loans to more than 150 million impoverished entrepreneurs. Although he was ousted from the Grameen Bank by the Bangladesh government, and the microfinance industry he inspired has become commercialized with high interest grades, Yunus continues to innovate a social business model that offers a dignified hand-up out of poverty for millions of people.

In general, I find teaching the spiritual mind can indeed increase appreciation and tolerance for spiritual beliefs in the classroom, as well as instilling the idea among undergraduate students that business is a noble vocation that could meet the world’s needs. Not surprisingly, in the context of business needing to take on a broader role to “serve society,” there are recent initiatives to revise business management as a calling, specifically at the MBA level. Thus, while it may take some time for educational leaders to systemically design the spiritual mind into the business curriculum, teachers who already see the value of spirituality should think toward integrating aspects of spirituality in their classroom.

However, it has been said that new forms of teaching usually come from the willingness of teachers to take imaginative leap. For example, teachers who are driven by “artistic” ideals will make teaching moves that haven’t been done or take teaching risks that others might advise them not to take. Many refer to this as the artist-side of teaching. In contrast to the craft of teaching, artistry in teaching is representative of individuals who develop and skillfully execute imaginative new practices regardless of one’s disciplinary domain. In fact, there is consensus that the artist-side-of-teaching will be more frequent when there’s an educational climate that permits or expects experimentation in educational practices.

Finding the “Creative Spirit” in Pandemic Teaching

What has evoked my artistry in teaching is my recent spiritual journey as a scholar-teacher, inspired by a former colleague. This journey has heightened my spiritual mind to develop deep relationship and connection between knowing myself, my students, and my course content. Having a spiritual mind in the classroom, I move away from teaching to student assessment and course evaluation. I have also learned to detach loyalty from my rather narrow disciplinary training that had little to say about teaching as scholarship.

I began to cultivate my creative spirit to artistically express and purposefully change my course design. This includes designing my classroom situations into preferred ones where the needs of “the whole student” are foremost. As mentioned earlier, I utilize my cumulative “knowledge-in-action” and have taken small bets in integrating Gardner’s mindsets that could further enrich student leaning, linking the mindsets to business pedagogy that supports learning objectives. Overall, I became more authentic and artistic in my teaching and started to engage and invite students both inside and outside of the classroom to share their aspirations, frustrations, contemplations, and fears.

However, since mid-March we all are living through an unanticipated pandemic that is disrupting every major institution without certainty as to when the crisis will reside. Some have conceptualized teaching in these extraordinary times as emergency remote teaching and learning. The shift from in-person instruction to remote classes with a mix of synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous (by next class) activities – along with the prospect of teaching in blended classrooms of one day in-person and the next on Zoom – is being popularly framed as pandemic pedagogy.

This on the fly shift to remote instruction has led teachers to ask: How do I survive teaching remotely or rapidly get better with online teaching? How do I balance compassionate teaching with high academic expectations? How do I teach and lead students through anxiety? And how do I get ready for a blended, hybrid, technology-enabled student-centric future?

Like many teachers at universities with a quarter system, I suddenly switched to remote teaching the last two weeks of the winter quarter. Within a week’s time, I quickly designed and transitioned my spring courses to be remote with synchronous Zoom classes and asynchronous activities like case studies and discussion threads. Also like many teachers, I’m remotely taking a summer faculty development program on effective online teaching through my university. Although I find the online training to be very valuable in learning and harnessing the best practices of digital pedagogy, it is based on pedagogical strategies and techniques from before the pandemic crisis.

From the above experiences, I find that the more artistic teaching moves – or their absence – are essential as we teach in these pandemic times. That is, we would need to:

  • discern ways to create a learning environment that is compassionate and flexible to students’ current intellectual and emotional states;
  • discover the silver-lining or light within these turbulent times for ourselves so that we can authentically connect and engage with students and our courses;
  • observe meaningful changes in the business world today that we can learn from and introduce to students;
  • identify what works in balancing the competing demands of our time and energy so that our courses can promote social solidarity in a context of social distancing;
  • and find ways to invite our students to innovate remotely by utilizing their creative gifts for the common good.

On the one hand, in teaching remotely I was acutely aware that my whole-self was fragmented into parts that were competing for priority. My course preparation was also fragmented. The on-campus intensive experiential activities that I thought couldn’t be taught remotely I put aside for the fall quarter – believing the pandemic would end by then. Additionally, I sensed early on that students had their own particular sufferings, but they weren’t sure how to express them through Zoom because, in part, I initially didn’t share my own struggles.

On the other hand, I began to utilize reflective practices before, in, and after each Zoom class. Here, my spiritual mind served as the core of my feedback loops, where I began to frame the overwhelming shift to remote teaching as a ladder – getting better in connecting my teaching to what students were experiencing. I also became more agile with content sequencing and grading, as students were experiencing the impact of Covid-19 as well as the Black Lives Matter movement. At the same time, I required a significant amount of work that I felt would contribute to students’ holistic learning: the intention was that students who could put in the work would have a transformative understanding of the subject.

In embracing the creative spirit that could lead to innovative ways of teaching, I realized that my remote teaching was not nearly as good as my in-person teaching; and most likely not as good as similar courses available to students in high-quality online programs. As I prepare for the fall, I’m “pausing” to rethink and reconceive the intensive service-learning projects I had developed that could be carried forward online.

For example, I previously created a faculty and student social venture where students in my international business course would engage in entrepreneurial activities so as to generate revenues. In turn, marginal revenues would then provide zero interest loans to micro-entrepreneurs at the bottom of the economic pyramid. This requires students to engage in “focal” relationships where they are connected in real time, people, and places so that zero interest loans can be allocated around the world.

Although I wish my creative spirit would generate innovate ideas more quickly, it has helped me to see the pandemic as a catalyst if not a gift; that is, to renew ourselves to do the best for those we touch through our scholar-teaching whatever the difficult circumstances that may arise. Always look for the next innovative teaching moves and designs, even when it is not clear what is possible.

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