Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Why I teach the way I teach

Recently, some instructors at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo questioned my qualifications for teaching a business seminar. This issue drew plenty of mockery (for both sides of the argument) in the local press.

Because the predominant theme of all my seminars at several universities is the importance of asking useful questions, I’d like to answer one that none of the critics has bothered to ask: Why do I teach the way I do?

Of course, that question breaks down into several others: Why do I give rudimentary geography quizzes to seniors in a global business class? Why do I not require exams? Why do I provide a meal for the students? Why do so many students receive “A” grades in the class?

I give rudimentary geography quizzes because most Americans — and too many global business students — cannot identify the Straits of Hormuz, yet when they see it on a map they understand instantly why our entire economic future is tied to this narrow waterway.

On a blank map, most Americans cannot identify Iraq. Or Missouri. Ignorance of world geography limits our understanding of other cultures, and that limits our ability to engage with other people. I want students to use their eyes, as well as their minds, to understand the lay of the land around them and around the world.

I do not require exams because I am interested in what people learn, not what they can remember for a few hours after cramming. The students are tested every week through their required participation in class, where each must ask three questions related to selected stories in the news.

Many students make it through four years of college without ever raising their hand to ask a question. Not in my class. Every student learns to look me in the eye, speak clearly and ask intelligent questions about the news of the day. Students are required to rephrase a question dozens of times until they can ask it cogently and clearly. My guest lecturers will confirm that I am relentless on this point.

Anyone with a basic knowledge of blood sugar knows you cannot nourish people intellectually if you starve them physically. I provide a meal for the students because four hours is too long to go without food. I treat my students like human beings — why should I not?

Moreover, many of the most important conversations in business and life occur over meals, and it’s a great pleasure watching students hone their conversational skills in a relaxed atmosphere, sharing ideas and learning about each other’s business concepts and future plans.

The most controversial and most often misreported aspect of my class seems to be the fact that I guarantee an “A” to each student. This is not correct. First of all, this only applies to surviving students. A failing grade on any quiz/assignment is grounds for being dropped from the class, as is arriving late or missing class more than twice. My class is a bit more like a real world business: you either make it or you don’t.

I also find that grades often say more about our measurement system than what is being measured. Successful managers know that you get what you measure, and too many schools measure their students’ ability to game the grading system. I don’t want to deal with students trying to get a good grade. I want to deal with students who can fearlessly engage, debate, discuss, teach and learn with one another.

At most schools, my classes are composed primarily of seniors. I like to think I’m giving them a little taste of boot camp for entering the real world. Because, make no mistake, college is not the real world. As artificial worlds go, it’s one of the best. But the transition from grade-grubbing to problem-solving shocks many straight “A” students. In the real world, you must apply your education. In the real world, your intellect must find relevance. In the real world, you must engage. And most of all, in the real world, you must abide every day by Cal Poly’s motto: Learn by doing.

My responses about geography, exams, food and grades summarize how I teach and why. I concede that my critics have a point: I am not qualified to teach the way many professors teach. Most students consider this my best qualification.

Paul Orfalea founded Kinko’s, a chain of office service stores, in 1970 and grew it to be the leading business services chain in the world. Orfalea is also a multimillion dollar donor to the Cal Poly College of Business.