Using creative industry skills to teach business, management, economics and accounting

Published in November 2016

The use of skills from the creative industries such as art, poetry, drama and music to teach business and management skills has been an interest of mine for a number of years and is the focus of my Brookes Teaching Fellowship. Many would ask though, what can this add which ‘normal’ teaching methods cannot?

I would answer it adds a mixture of things to do with learning, personal development and thinking differently, perhaps more broadly. It also adds an element of fun to the classroom and brings another dimension to studies. The skills we are trying to teach are similar, but in the creative industries are often at a much higher level; such things as communication skills, reflection, leadership, and team working. For example drama teaches how to put a point across in a strong, interesting, and vital way. It teaches the importance of such things as body language voice, and ”presence”. Making music involves vital teamwork, skills in listening, and leadership. Working with poetry and art encourage looking at something in a different way, analysing it to find its true nature and underlying meanings. These all are vital skills in business.

Some also argue nowadays one skill a University should teach its students is how to deal with uncertainty or ambiguity.  In a paper in Teaching in Higher Education (2010), Diana Loads states: “University lecturers need to help their students to develop ways of being that will allow them to flourish amidst uncertainty…. In order to thrive in a super complex world, university students need to develop particular ways of being. They must be able to deal with the unpredictable, intricately interrelated and every changing situations.” Engaging students in new and unfamiliar situations or tasks is one way of doing this. For example asking them to sing when they came to learn accounting or economics certainly puts them out of their comfort zone and encourages them to think more broadly and differently about their subject.

Finally, students have often to undertake a recruitment assessment centre when applying for jobs, especially in large companies, and these involve activities aimed at putting students into unfamiliar situations in order to test their ability to think laterally and be creative. Such scenarios can be difficult to deal with, especially if you are not used to it and, it can be argued, made easier if you have experienced something similar and perhaps unsettling before. For example in our drama workshop for business students, they are invited to ‘perform’ a firework display. As one student commented.. “After you’ve been an exploding firework in front of your peers, I don’t think you could get embarrassed at anything” (Tickle 2007). Later the same student said the workshop had taught her that “the way to be more confident [in this sort of situation] is by preparing and then believing in yourself” (Tickle 2007).

It may seem strange to us at Brookes to incorporate the arts into our business and management curricula, however, using the arts to teach business is common in many American business schools and has been for some time (Steen 2013) and such techniques are increasingly being used in UK business schools for the reasons identified above. We have to keep up!

My interest dates back to 2005 when teaching economics and business at Brookes. Specifically I was teaching a first year module in macroeconomics and second year module on the business side of sport and entertainment. As part of the latter module, I took a group of students to the Old Vic Theatre in London and we were asked to take part in a project with the theatre, sponsored by Morgan Stanley, called Soapbox. This project was aimed at the local schools, in Tower Hamlets and mainly, aimed at improving the communication skills of local children. All the actors taking part came from the Old Vic Theatre and they went in to provide workshops at the schools. However Morgan Stanley wanted business students involved and this is where we came in.

Four of my students spent the summer working on the project and then undertook independent study projects about elements that were relevant to business. One, for example, wrote about leadership and communication.

I visited the project and watched the actors working with the children. A few days prior to this I had sat through some poor presentations in an economics class. Not poor in content but ruined by poor presentation and communication skills and I wondered if these actors could help my students. Working together with one of the actors we created a presentations skills workshop which involved: learning to stand (being grounded), using the voice (learning to work with different levels of volume by shouting ‘hello’ and whispering ‘hello’ cross the room), and finally providing a fireworks display or tableau. In such a display you would use your voice (not words apart from ‘bang’ and ‘whoosh’, but still using your voice), using your body (leaping across the stage) and I felt that one of the most important skills in this exercise, was learning to start with a few seconds of silence, gathering your audience, and finishing with a couple of seconds of silence so that they knew you had finished. It proved a very effective skill. At the end of the workshop a mini-presentation was done as a group, and critiqued by the actor in terms of presentation skills content.

We trialled this workshop with first-year economists and it proved to be very popular.  We could certainly see the results in the improvement of the level of presentation skills. We also realised this would not have worked with the tutor doing the same workshop; we are too close to the students and they are too concerned about whether we are marking them (even if we were not). However, perhaps due to the fact we live in this celebrity culture, they reacted differently to an actor. Telling them how to stand, not to jangle change in their pockets etc., seemed much easier for him to do.

Since then most undergraduate students in Business and Management and within Economics, have had an opportunity, sometimes in their first year, sometimes in their final year, to do this workshop. We’ve also extended the workshop to Masters students and include one on interview skills for some.

I wanted to extend this idea of using creative industry skills to enhance our student experience and used my Brookes Teaching Fellowship to try and discover other ways we could use the creative industries.

The resulting poetry workshop used work already undertaken by my colleague Dr Louise Grisoni. This workshop has been used with staff and students to investigate work-life balance and other work-based dilemmas. The first group we worked with was our Masters in Human Resource Management students, and we used haiku, a form of Japanese poetry. Initially, the workshop met with strong resistance. One student hit her head on the desk saying “we have so much work to do, why are we doing this?” However once we got them working in groups, creating haiku, reading them out, gradually they realised that these different haiku showed the range of different views in the group, and revealed different angles of the same idea. This activity was then linked to the Brookes 150 year celebration at the Ashmolean, and when we asked for volunteers to help run the event, the ‘headbanger’ was the first and probably the most enthusiastic member of the group.

On the day of the event the Masters students, together with some of the Master in Creative Writing students, took words from the general public, put them on post-its, stuck them on the board, and then use the words to create haiku. At the end we ran around the different events in the Ashmolean flash mobbing them with poetry.

In the staff development week for the Faculty, we used the poetry workshop but a different form of poetry called Exquisite Corpus; you probably know it better as ‘Consequences’. First of all you pick a theme; in our case as it was the staff development week, we chose the topic of work life balance. Each person writes one line reflecting on how they feel about this topic they then fold it over, and writes a keyword from that line on the fold. The paper is passed to the left and the next person responds to that word still bearing in mind the theme. At the end of the session usually about five lines, it is opened up to see what poem has been created. They often do make sense and some are quite revealing. However, the final phase is even more interesting. Everyone takes their own line from the poems and they find out the poem they didn’t know they had written. Amazingly these are nearly always very revealing and informative bringing new insight and clarity to the question which each individual has been thinking about.

We recently used the same idea with one of our large first-year modules in business to get feedback on how the module was going. We asked students what they would tell another student doing this module next year about it. At first results were disappointing as there were no clear poems but then we realised within each poem there were real gems. These were highlighted and handed back to invite students to create another poem from the “gems”.

Finally music. Together with a natural voice singing teacher we created a workshop to build teamwork and leadership and also to build listening skills. We trialled the workshop with our Masters students in Marketing. A small group came, most of them very nervous but they all joined in and feedback was great.

We also did this music workshop at the staff development week with a mixed group of 20 to 30 academic and administrative staff. Two of the group were terrified because they have been told they could not sing at primary school. With encouragement from the facilitator the group settled and made a really good sound, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to create a learning experience. One of my colleagues summed it up brilliantly. He said: “When I first started singing, I realised I was only listening to myself and not the group. So I started listening to the group. Then I realised I was only listening to the group and not myself! And then I knew, I had to listen to the group but also keep my own “line” too, in order for it to work. This is the essence of team working skills – listening to others but also remembering your own ideas. If only I could teach the students this”.

I was also fascinated by the way we followed the lead of the singing teacher without her speaking, without exaggerated movements; we just followed. Was this leadership in practice?

It has to be said that using such different techniques does involve some resistance, by students (see earlier) but more resistance comes from staff who feel they do not have the time in their packed syllabus to consider such ‘luxuries’. They see it as an ‘add-on’ to what they are teaching, not an alternative way of teaching some of the syllabus. Without buy in from staff and a willingness to keep an open mind to different teaching styles, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Author profiles

Judith Piggott

Judith is a Principal Lecturer Student Experience in the Business Faculty and has taught on a variety of modules from International Economics to The Business of Sport and Entertainment. At present she leads the module, The Foundations of Business. Research interests focus on pedagogic research especially the use of drama, music and poetry to teach business skills. She is a Fellow of the Institute for Learning and Teaching and gained a Brookes Teaching Fellowship in 2013.