Concepts — not Cookbooks: Business Education in the 21st Century

Long long ago, educators had certain expectations. One of them was that business teachers taught skills such as proper forms of business letters and reports as well as bookkeeping, good typing posture, and telephone etiquette. We prepared students for the business world primarily to be effective secretaries, and we were good at it. We knew what concepts students had to master to succeed in the career of their choice. We used textbooks that reinforced the knowledge we already had.

Then our lives changed. Computers took over and we had to teach new things for which we had no preparation, so we used books that taught the topics we did not know. The books provided us with a way to teach skills such as how to open and save a file, how to change a font, how to insert an image, and how to mail merge a series of addresses.

The books we used looked more like cookbooks than textbooks. One could almost imagine the list of ingredients, followed by the steps, and then the instructions to bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes for a perfect newsletter. The skills our students acquired with these recipes made it possible for them to learn to use a computer and business software. We were satisfied that we were meeting the needs of our students.

However, along the way we lost something. We lost the idea that we should teach concepts and not just instructions. We lost this idea because we were so inundated with the need to learn new and unfamiliar skills that we had no time to worry about concepts. We did what we had to do.

But the world has changed again. We now know how to make text bold, how to add a table to a document, and how to create a bulleted list. Our cookbooks are still useful, but they should no longer be our only instructional choice.

Today  our focus must return to concepts, but not the concepts of the past. Templates for business letters reduce the need to have students carefully measure margins. E-mail etiquette is now at least as important as telephone etiquette. Spreadsheets have altered bookkeeping. And secretaries are now administrative assistants.

In today’s world we must teach students a whole new set of concepts. For example, in a business multimedia class, we must address the qualities of a good digital photograph not just how to take a digital photograph. We must discuss what constitutes a professional PowerPoint design not just how to add images to a slide show. We must address issues such as what typography can do for a sales proposal instead of limiting our instruction to ways of changing fonts.

As a result, our task has become even more challenging. Instead of relying on cookbook textbooks alone, now we must choose textbooks and materials that respond to this new set of needs. So the next time you are previewing a textbook, look for the concepts it includes. Ask yourself, “Is this book just a series of recipes or does it provide my students with significant concepts that will prepare them for all the changes they are to encounter in their careers?” Only when we can assure ourselves that the books we choose are concept driven will we know that once again we are meeting the needs of our students.

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