Instructor Insights

Fostering Meaningful Discussions

In this section, Dr. Leigh Hafrey discusses how he facilitates meaningful discussions in the classroom by helping students appreciate and think deeply about their differences.

I will occasionally talk for maybe five, six minutes at the beginning of class, and sometimes later in the class. But, by and large, I see my role as the person who asks questions.

Since 50% of the material in the discussions comes not from the syllabus but from the people in the room, getting people to talk comfortably is really important. I don’t aim so much that everyone walks away with a better understanding of Hobbes and Locke and Milton Friedman, but a better understanding of themselves and their fellow students. There’s a wealth of experience in the average Sloan classroom, and it’s essential to tap into that. I remind people that they actually come from a different place than a lot of other people in the room. Each person has an interest in business, but it could be financial services, it could be manufacturing, it could be consulting. They might come from Germany, France, or Nigeria.

And those background elements warrant bringing out. People need to understand that no single idea or set of ideas is correct. Within the same two minutes in a 90-minute class, people can say diametrically opposite things and get heard. And normally when that happens, I will try to point out the relationship between the two comments, suggest that there’s a division and that we need, as a group, to consider what that distinction, that difference, means.

"What we do in the classroom really aims to help people see themselves, and see the differences between themselves and others."
— Leigh Hafrey

What we do in the classroom really aims to help people see themselves, and see the differences between themselves and others.  And they evolve. People say X at the beginning of the semester, not-X in the middle of the semester, and X plus Y at the end of the semester. Why does that happen? What’s going on? Is the group actually influencing the individual? Is he or she simply figuring out something that wasn’t so obvious early on? That’s what’s interesting.

But as a practical matter, you need to make people understand early on that if they care about their grade, they need to get in on the action. It’s in the syllabus: 40% of the grade is participation.

Getting familiar with one another helps. This is a small community. Everyone sort of knows everyone else. And so you figure out pretty quickly who’s who. Everyone has name cards, right? So the faster you can remember a person’s name so that you can call on them by name without looking at their name card, that makes a difference.

I also put a lot of effort into remembering what people say, and not just within a single session, but across multiple sessions. I try to remember from the first class session to session 23 or 24, what someone said. We’re there to have a conversation, for people to realize that their fellow MBAs are really interesting people and people of good intent. But that in spite of that good intent and shared intelligence, a student might actually wind up in a place totally different from anyone else in the classroom. So the class is more about helping people see themselves as other people see them, and seeing the other people in the room, who they thought were basically the same because it was convenient to do that.

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