How Do You Teach Values?

by Sanjoy Mukherjee - Jun 5, 2015 08:47 PM +05:30 IST
How Do You Teach Values?

There is a fundamental flaw in the concept of “changing the mindset”. It goes against the very nature, design and constitution of the mind.


I have now spent more than two decades as a faculty at the IIMs. However, my domains of expertise were not part of the dominant mainstream business school curriculum. The courses I taught were qualitative in nature with a lot of thrust on subjective perception and covering issues that have a whole lot of grey areas characterized by uncertainty, unpredictability and ambiguity. They included Management by Human Values, Management and Indian Ethos, Business Ethics, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Management through Enlightenment.

Initially, the teaching experience was challenging, as there were no easy and quick solutions to the problems. More so because the mind of the students and even the business executives were trained all along to find answers with the aid of models and formulae! The level of interest generated in the sessions was far short of what is usually observed in a session on Marketing, Finance or Systems. Mainstream courses were “hard” and utilitarian, while these courses were perceived as “soft” and philosophical.

Some questions would haunt us from time to time. Business leaders are forever concerned about capturing marketshare, but how does one capture the “mindshare” of the youth? Or, to use a common cliché, how can we “change the mindset” of the students (a phrase that has an inherent flaw that I shall discuss later)?

So one concentrated on enriching the course material with insightful articles and current case studies. This resulted in a temporary change in interest levels but that was only short-lived. Back to square one, I started questioning my whole approach to teaching. Gandhi’s voice rang aloud from within: “Be the change that you want to see in the world around you.” I got my first spark to resolve the impasse. Mere innovations in teaching method and material would not serve the purpose. One would have to undergo a 180 degree shift in one’s role perception—from teaching to learning. One must be able to convert every session and interaction in class or even with an individual student into a rich learning experience. This realization prompted me to expand the horizons of my experience by attending lectures, seminars and conference on these areas even beyond the ambit of business schools to social, cultural and spiritual organizations where topics like values and ethics were being discussed and debated. And it was a revelation.

In all these prestigious fora, there was no dearth of good speakers who had sound knowledge of their subject. They also had genuine intentions of making a positive change in society and the world around. But who were in the audience? The average age of the people in the audience would be no less than 60, if not more. Now when an organization or society at large looks ahead towards transformation by values, it has to depend largely on the dynamism of the youth. Where were the young folks in the audience? One would sometimes spot them occupying the back seats, either sporting a bored look or chatting among themselves on topics of their interest. Then how would the movement  of values and ethics become a reality? Surely the people with values as a post-retirement engagement could not be the vanguards of these movements? Bulk of their vital energy or life force had already been spent in their working life!

This kindled in me the second spark. One had to find ways to attract the youth. I needed to make the inputs in my courses “interesting” to the students so that their participation became lively and spontaneous. They must find this journey or rather adventure of values and ethics an interesting engagement. This was probably the surest way to ensure their involvement in this movement.

But what was the first prerequisite for generating their interest?

This gave me the third spark: unless the faculty found this movement of values an interesting journey, there was no way he could interest the students in the subject. I turned the finger around and pointed to myself. I must first find it an interesting voyage. Then only would I be able to ignite interest in them.

What would the second prerequisite for the preparation of the faculty?

This struck the fourth spark: enriching my fund of knowledge is important but not enough. One must be able to understand the mind of the recipients—their choices and preferences, likes and dislikes, life goals and worldviews. This is one of the most formidable challenges of faculty members in any discipline. More often than not, the faculty makes a tacit assumption of the level of intellect and receptivity of the students and disseminates his knowledge accordingly. What he delivers is primarily born out of his own mental position and worldview. But here remains a big lacuna. The student perceives the delivered inputs from his own mental vantage position.

When there is a major disconnect between the two mental positions—that of the faculty and the students, the session has no impact. Knowledge assimilation takes the backseat and the effectiveness of teaching comes into question. Did we finally succeed in “changing the mindset” of the audience? This brings us to another vital issue.

Can we at all change others’ mindsets?

Now comes the fifth spark. Since the days as a student in IIM Calcutta, one had been listening to stalwarts from academia, corporate leaders and consultants highlighting the importance of changing the mindset in a fast changing world confronting us with new realities and fresh challenges. I always had a fundamental discomfort with that oft-used phrase—“change the mindset”. From wisdom literature worldwide as well as from our own experience in life, we find that the nature of the mind is continuous movement—from the past to the present, here, there and everywhere. Across space and time is the infinite span of mind travel that surpasses the speed of light.

Its position changes every moment; it abhors stagnation or fixity. When the mind is posited in a particular pattern or set, it initially resists and finally revolts. This is the nature of the mind. Now when we claim to achieve a change in mindset, we only shift it from one fixed position to another. This goes against the very nature, design and constitution of the mind which is always in motion. This has made me realize there is a fundamental flaw in the very concept and claim of changing the mindset.

What then can we possibly do? What is the alternative for us as teachers?

Here is the sixth spark. Creation and dissemination of knowledge is aimed at mind enrichment. This enrichment leads to expansion of the mind. As a teacher, what we can probably achieve is first expansion of our own mind and then expansion of the mental space of the students, whereby they can accommodate multiple and diverse viewpoints in the mind and generate several alternatives to a single problem considering a number of situational outcomes. This not only results in “expansion of the mindspace”, but also develops the leadership competence to deal with different kinds of people with myriad mental positions.

What then is the use of “focusing” the mind on a single object or problem?

This is the seventh spark. The movement of the human mind is multi-dimensional. It has the capacity to focus in a linear movement as well as to expand or spread in a lateral movement. Focus is the capacity which helps us in problem solving by channeling all our mental energy at one point. Expansion helps in spreading our awareness across multiple dimensions that helps us in cultivating the ability to look at a problem from different angles and generate multiple options for a comprehensive solution. Focus sharpens our linear thinking while expansion helps us develop lateral or inclusive thinking. One is complementary to the other for holistic development.

Of late, one sees a growing acceptance of the practice of “meditation” in management courses and leadership/ executive development programmes. So the question is: What happens to the mind in a state of meditation?

According to classical Indian wisdom, in the state of meditation (dhyanam), the mind is at its highest and deepest level of awareness. Without going into details that may be discussed sometime later, it may be mentioned here that our capacities to focus as well as expand are at their best in this elevated state of human consciousness.


And now, the final spark! “You know, we cannot really meditate. When the mind reaches a certain state of heightened consciousness, meditation or dhyanam happens automatically.” This is what I learnt from a wise man in my journey of life. “We can only prepare the mind through a series of well-defined stages and wait for meditation to happen,” he added. After that, I have never asked anyone to “go and meditate”.

Sanjoy Mukherjee teaches Business Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility at IIM Shillong.
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