The Educator and the Businesspeople

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Image by Jane Hoffer

On June 22 and 23, I, Scott Noppe-Brandon, executive director of Lincoln Center Institute (LCI), rode downtown to New York City’s Grand Hyatt Hotel to attend the 2010 New York Forum (NYF), which brought together business leaders to address current challenges facing the global economy. What was I doing there? Knowing about my belief in the power of imagination to transform the American workforce—which I express in Imagination FirstRichard Attias, the event’s founder and producer, had invited me. I found myself perhaps the only educator, certainly the only arts educator, among a high-powered group of CEOs, economists, policy makers, and other prominent members of the business community.

My assumptions going into NYF were not unlike those you might expect a person with my background to hold. First, I was acutely aware of the distinction between nonprofit organizations like LCI and private companies: the former are primarily concerned with the public good, whereas—although certain practices and initiatives in the for-profit world are designed with the greater good in mind—the latter usually set their sights on the bottom line, on profit. I wondered if this fundamental divide would be an obstacle to my fruitful participation in the forum. Second, as someone outside the business world who has recently, in Imagination First and elsewhere, suggested ways that economic success may be achieved, I half-expected to have my perspective challenged by the other attendees of the forum, who would have very different ideas about the path to prosperity.

Assumptions seem to exist to be proven wrong, as mine were at NYF. I was astonished by how closely the business leaders’ discussions about creating environments for innovation paralleled discussions that go on in education. Three key notions that sprang up in this regard were: differentiation; “win to win”; and empathy. “Differentiation” in business refers in part to the practice of being highly responsive to individual clients’ or users’ needs rather than offering a one-size-fits-all product. The analogous educational concept of differentiation has existed for quite some time and has to do with tailoring pedagogical approaches to individual students’ needs rather than asking them to conform to a way of learning that isn’t natural for them. “Win to win” is a business mindset in which one thinks not only about one’s own “winning,” but also about helping one’s “competitor” thrive; this collaborative spirit leads to better use of resources, and systemic, as opposed to isolated, prosperity. Such thinking has been essential to public education, where widespread excellence is ultimately more important than individual success stories. Finally, empathy is vital to effective business leadership because managers must understand employees to know how to motivate them. Empathy, as anyone acquainted with Lincoln Center Institute’s philosophy knows, is a major goal of certain approaches to arts-in-education, which use the arts to prompt students to delve into the experiences of others.

What did I make of all this conceptual overlap between my sector and that of the majority of NYF participants? It showed me that in terms of the overarching goals of improving quality of life and achieving great things in the 21st-century global marketplace, the needs and wants of thinkers in education and in business are not terribly different. And, it seems to me, each group’s thinking on these matters is equally valid and interesting. Acknowledging this common ground, this lack of separation, creates an opportunity for both sectors to engage in dialog and learn about each other’s ideas for solving the problems facing us today. For instance, one powerful lesson that I gleaned from the business leaders at NYF continues to reverberate in my mind a month after the event.

This lesson concerns accountability. In business, as I was reminded time and again during my two days at NYF, the signs of success are clear: shareholder satisfaction, profit, etc. So we in education must ask ourselves: what is our equivalent of these criteria? There are challenging questions that we need to confront: What does it mean to make something measurable or accountable? How can something maintain its integrity while withstanding hard scrutiny? How can we measure students’ growth while adhering to our educational values? It is our responsibility as educators to do so.

I was an educator among a crowd of businesspeople at NYF. So, in addition to energizing and stimulating me, the event reaffirmed a feeling I’ve had for quite some time: that all of us are most productive when we inhabit points of dynamic tension rather than comfort zones. This is how change happens. The most exciting forums, in my experience, are those that bring together divergent thinkers from multiple sectors. Counterintuitive as it may seem, people outside of a field are often uniquely equipped to provide perspective necessary for dealing with a given challenge. LCI’s Imagination Conversations, a nationwide series of discussions in which panelists from across the professions debate the role of imagination in work and life, is our attempt to generate this kind of game-changing discourse—which a quick look at your daily newspaper will tell you is needed now more than ever.

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