Forget the Major (Part 2): A New, Theme-Based Approach to Education

December 11, 2017 Zach Richardson No comments exist

Be sure to begin with Part 1.

“Every one of you should become an executive one day,” the engagement partner said to my audit team.

No professor, no student, no coworker had ever spoken to me like that. It was the first time in my professional life someone emphasized focusing on life after the entry-level. To get an entry-level job at a big 4 accounting firm, I needed to be skilled in accounting. What, I wondered, did I need to become an executive?  

Most of my interactions nowadays are with executives. My board of advisors consists of a people who have built very successful companies. My contacts at clients, prospects, and strategic alliance partners typically hold VP-level positions or higher. I am fortunate to interact with – and learn from – executives on a daily basis so early in my career. Those interactions have helped me come up with an answer to my question: what do I need to become an executive? The answer is not more skills and domain knowledge. Domain knowledge is important, of course, but many people acquire sufficient domain knowledge and never become executives.

I’ve found the core difference between executives and non-executives to be that executives learned how to think. By learning how to think, they also learned five themes of professionalism that enabled them to lead others successfully. They learned how to ask questions, approach solutions, solve problems, make decisions, and communicate effectively.

I call these “themes” because – unlike skills – they are subject-agnostic. Effective executives ask questions, approach solutions, solve problems, make decisions, and communicate effectively, regardless of the domain. They simply do so much better in domains in which they are skilled.  

Teaching students how to think is not just a durable competitive advantage for universities, but the key to producing graduates that become executives.

So, how might universities redesign curriculum to teach students how to think?

Asking Questions: Arts, Humanities, and Business

Inquisition is the most important of all the themes. Professionals that never learn how to question themselves or others become liabilities in the workplace. They fall victim to answering questions they never ask with the infamous, “… because that’s how it’s always been done.” Their inability to ask questions leads to an inability to learn new skills, new ways of doing things, and missed opportunities. Their fixed mindset renders them incapable of innovating, their high salary demands make them uncompetitive, and their careers regress.

In the first year of theme-based education, students learn how to ask critical questions in life and business. Arts & Humanities equip students with a generalized approach to asking questions. History teaches students about the consequences of failing to ask important questions. Literary studies teach students how to evaluate the world through multiple lenses. Philosophy teaches students how to ask a higher quantity of higher quality questions through those lenses. A program like Harvard Business Core (HBX) equips them with the skills they need to ask similar critical questions in business.

Approaching Solutions: Physical Sciences & Side Hustles

Perhaps the most important of all questions a person can learn to ask is: “is it true?” Is it true that our current year-end process is the most efficient approach? Is it true that our customers will adopt this new feature? Is it true that cutting these programs will lead to greater outcomes in the long-term? By asking these questions, we realize the importance of learning a reliable process to identify truth. There is no better process than the scientific method.

In the second year of theme-based education, students learn how to approach solutions to the questions they ask by mastering the scientific method. This theme is imparted unto them through coursework in physical sciences, such as physics, chemistry, and biology. To succeed in these courses – and future ones, they must also learn foundations of algebra and differential calculus.

Just as they learned how to ask questions in business in year one, students learn how to apply the scientific method in business in year two. This is done by building their own side hustles. Lean startup is a modern approach to entrepreneurship that is effectively a business adaptation of the scientific method. A recent study found that half of millennials have side hustles. By teaching them how to build side hustles, universities impart students with the theme of approaching solutions in business, and assist students in improving their financial situations.

Solving Problems: Engineering & Design Thinking

A reliable process for identifying solutions is inconsequential without the ability to generate solutions in the first place. That is why solving problems is the theme of the third year. There are two approaches to solving problems: analysis and design. The best solutions often require elements of both. It has been my experience that students gravitate toward one or the other, and businesses, governments, and society become infected with unilateral problem solvers.

A common stereotype is that product-oriented professionals (e.g. engineers) tend take an analytical approach, whereas people-oriented professionals (e.g. marketing and salespeople) tend to take a design approach. Such unilateral approaches to problem solving have been proven ineffective. Apple demonstrated the importance of incorporating design into products and Google demonstrated the importance of incorporating analytics into people operations. To acquire the ability to solve problems using both design and analysis, students study engineering and design thinking in year three.

Engineering forces students to take an analytical approach to problem solving, and provides effective feedback loops to measure correctness of their solutions. Computer science provides perhaps the best paradigm for learning analytical problem solving. There are an infinite number of computing problems to be solved, a person needs only a computer to solve such problems, and the duration of the feedback loop is usually on the order of milliseconds for problems that have efficient solutions.

Design thinking equips students with processes by which to ideate and test solutions to problems. Design thinking requires empathizing with the beneficiary of the solution. By learning how to solve problems empathetically, students learn how to address the needs of others. The ability to address the needs of others is critical for any executive to possess, if they wish to be an effective leader.

Making Decisions: Psychology, Statistics, Behavioral Economics, & Game Theory

Decision making is omni-present in life. In the fourth year, students learn how people tend to make decisions, as well as how to make better decisions in life and in business.

To understand how human-beings make decisions, students gain foundational knowledge in psychology – especially biases that affect decision-making and the use of heuristics to make decisions. To lay the foundation for making better decisions, students learn probability and statistics. Students learn to identify [and quantify] risk in their decision making. Instead of asking, “Is it true?”, they learn to ask, “does the evidence suggest it is probably not false?” The difference may seem nuanced, but the implications are material. Seeking to confirm - instead of failing to reject - may lead to an indulgence in confirmation bias. Confirmation bias leads to making decisions that can have catastrophic consequences.

After laying the foundation in psychology and statistics, students explore ways to make good decisions in the real world. I have found two areas of study to be most helpful in that regard: behavioral economics and game theory.

Pioneered by Nobel-winning Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, behavioral economics does not try to model the aggregate effects of rational agents transacting in an efficient market. Instead, it aims to answer two questions: how might agents act irrationally within a market, and what are the implications to the market when they do? The keys to answering the first question lie in psychology. The keys to answering the second question lie in micro and macro-economics. Behavioral economics helps students understand how people tend to make decisions. Game theory then helps inform students what decisions to make. From product pricing strategies to diet and exercise, games appear in all aspects of business and life.

Probabilistic reasoning and game theory based on behavioral economics are powerful tools for making good decisions, consistently and reliably.

Communicating Effectively: Writing, Speaking, Debating, Negotiating, & Non-Verbal

The fifth theme - communicating effectively - overlays the other four. There are five forms of communication students ought to become proficient at before graduation: writing, speaking, debating, negotiating, and non-verbal.

In the current model, each of these is taught as its own subject. Students spend one or two semesters in an English class to advance their writing skills. They never think about how to improve their writing again, until their boss scolds them because their emails are unprofessional, their documents have spelling and grammar mistakes, or they forget to put cover sheets on their TPS reports. The same is true of public speaking. Most students only practice this skill in their first-year communications course. When they enter the professional world, they lead meetings and sales presentations that put audiences to sleep.

Nonetheless, at least students get some practice in written communication and public speaking. I have found students rarely learn how to debate, negotiate, or interpret non-verbal communication.

Failing to learn how to engage in mature discourse leads to an inability to constructively confront employees, co-workers, and bosses in the workplace. Such inability leads to spreading destructive rumors and complaints at the water cooler. 

Failing to learn how to negotiate leads students to accept salaries below what they could have received, and has material impact on their livelihood - especially in the face of high student loan debt. However, negotiations don't just occur in the job interview. They arise in many other areas of business and life. Sales is negotiation as a profession, software engineers negotiate every time they groom their backlog or plan a sprint, and any parent is quite familiar with the daily negotiation of bedtime.

Accurately identifying and interpreting non-verbal communication is perhaps the most important of all the untaught communication skills. Understanding body language, macro, micro, and mini expressions, and being able to recognize discrepancies between a person’s verbal and non-verbal communication are critically important abilities when dealing with others in business and in life. They become even more critical when dealing with people from different cultures.

To ensure students acquire these abilities to communicate effectively, I see no other way than for universities to change the function of professors from lecturer to facilitator. This may be done by curating or creating video lectures for students to watch before class, so class may be used for student presentations, discourse, and negotiation of ideas. Curating or creating video lectures will add work to professors’ schedules in the first year. In the long-term, however, it will greatly reduce their workload as they no longer prepare lecture material before each class. Instead, they prepare thought-provoking questions, and facilitate discussion and collaboration between students during class.



Though it may not be apparent in an environment of rising college tuition that outpaces inflation, subject and skills-based education is in a race to the bottom. It is not a question of if, but when will the current university social contract expire? When will subject-based education be disintermediated by employers who refuse to wait four years for their workforce to be trained, and students who refuse to overpay universities to train them? 

To deliver value and maintain a durable competitive advantage, universities must pivot away from a model in which they teach students how to learn subjects independently of one another, and offer majors that merely upskill students for entry-level jobs. They must adopt a model that teaches students how to think, and apply their thinking to the real world for the rest of their lives.

To achieve this, departments must shift their focus across campus. Instead of adding more skills-based curriculum, they must work with other departments to build robust opportunities for every student on campus to learn how to think. Professors must redefine their role in the classroom from one in which they lecture students on the material to one in which they facilitate students’ discussion of the material.

It is time for departments to stop competing and start collaborating. It is time for universities to stop preparing graduates for the first two years after graduation, and start preparing them for the rest of their lives. It is time to forget the major.



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