The Intangibles

Author: Aaron Johnson, Ph.D., CFA

Position: Professor and Entrepreneurship Center Director

Sometimes, students surprise you.

In addition to specific subject matter, it's always nice to try to instill some of the intangibles in a classroom experience; things like responsibility, ambition, creativity, critical thinking, and leadership.  

Arguably these things are more important to professional success than some of the minute details of a particular curriculum anyway, and so I tend to view them as priorities when I can include various lessons and opportunities in these areas. 

Last year, I was surprised to have a student, Jakub Malota, arrive in class with an impressively developed sense of all of these things.  It made "teaching" him rather easy (I quote that word, as he was so self-directed to make my efforts largely moot; he started at the top of his class and stayed there).  Mr. Malota not only quickly mastered the material, but he took me up on a separate offer: why not join me for the UNYP math lab each week and make himself available to others in the capacity of an informal tutor?  I tutored several subjects as I was proceeding through my undergraduate program, and doing so not only provided me with some gainful work, but I also found how powerful it was in aiding my mastery of various subjects.  Teaching something to someone else forces you to make some crystal clear connections in previously blurred areas. 

So to the math lab he came.  Each week, Mr. Malota aided fellow students (in multiple languages, when appropriate) to better understand the principles of microeconomics, and many of his classmates were beneficiaries of these efforts, translating into better scores in my course overall.  This is the direct and obvious effect, but there is much more underneath the surface that intrigued me.  Much of my contemplation of this case study is due to my own academic experiences in my youth.

Anyone reading my LinkedIn profile will see something rather atypical.  I lay out a long list of my past failures and academic weaknesses to highlight the journey that led me to my professional life today.  I have no words which could convince the 20-year-old me to suddenly gain the skills of responsibility, drive, ambition, and self-determination that I feel I possess today.  Those things simply took time, and I acquired them later in life than did many others; much later than this current UNYP student of mine. 

This leaves me with many unanswered questions for the future.  When I think about my own professional development, I cannot think of how I could have accelerated the process, which leaves me with no suggestion as to how it can be developed or taught to anyone else.  Are we powerless to engender these traits in others?  Can we not facilitate this growth, or affect positive change in these dimensions?  I am too much of an optimist to say no.  I have to believe that there are answers out there for educators and mentors who desperately want to provide their students with the best chances possible for their future.  The conversation from here clearly moves toward questions of parenting and early-age influences, but I don't explore that simply because it is beyond my control as a university professor.  Obviously some students arrive to our classrooms more prepared for the world than others, and Jakub clearly has more options in the near future than others because of his own strengths and development, wherever that came from.  I'll make sure of it. 

For now, I am left to marvel at successes and bemoan failures, hoping that my influence is positive in the classroom, but looking for those independent variables which can bring about a positive change.  For all of my students past and future, I won't stop looking; that's something to which I will clearly attest.  For all of my fellow educators, I believe that we can't afford to stop looking.  The minds that we are sending out each year into this fantastic, terrible, ever-changing, and never-changing world of multicultural, multifaceted, and multiparadigmatic opportunities is just far too important.

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