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mercredi 25 janvier 2017

A self reflection

by Xavier Wilain 

In SHMS Leysin, I am teaching Yield Management Strategies and Managerial Accounting. These two topics are strongly linked with Accounting as well as strategic management. We want our students to be able to know the consequences on the most popular operational strategies in the Hospitality industry, to compare them in regards to their benefits and their side effect, and be able to reflect on their own operational strategies when they are working with the simulation tool we are using. In SHMS Leysin, we emphasise the importance of Student centred approaches of teaching, learning and assessing strategies and take each student’s individuality into consideration. Benefiting from the three observations which I had the opportunity to experience, I have realised that I were relying a lot on Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, and using positive reinforcement to motivate students at overstepping their shyness and actively participate in class.

The main objective we are following this year with the 3rd year Bachelor students is to push them harder on critical thinking, because the management of the school wanted to reduce the grading gap between the 3rd year level and the 4th year level of the Bachelor of Arts.


I am putting my students in challenging situations which are similar to the ones Yield Managers would have to deal with, as if students were already Yield Managers or General Managers in a Hotel. Although I fully understand that this might be confusing or scary, I follow closely each and every student during these real case studies. The reason why I am doing that is I want them to experience while in class the most popular challenging situation they will certainly have to deal with whether they will be Yield Managers after graduating. Therefore, when they have to deal with similar issues, they will be able to remember the strategies and recommendations we had discussed in class. This learning process seems to be strongly connected to the behaviourist approach as defined by Qi Sun Haijun Kang (2015) as “to learn how to adapt quickly and successfully to this fast and ever changing environment”. 
Indeed, the Hospitality environment is in a constant evolution and Yield Managers need to be able to react very quickly to things like the variation of demand, or the guests’ expectations in order to succeed in maximising sales or profit. This is a gradual step by step process in which the case studies and the situations students have to reflect upon are more and more complex and need an increasing amount of recommendations, as referred to “Skinner’s operant conditioning” cited by Karin Tusting and David Barton (Models of adult learning : a literature review, 2003). 

When I was debriefing the first class observation, my tutor made me realise that I was strongly using Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1978, reprinted in Gauvain and Cole, 1997), associated with a humanist follow up on the students who were struggling out of this zone, and positive reinforcement. 

A synthesised definition of Vygotsky’s development method has been stated by Yaroshevsky as for the learner to "run ahead as the adult helps the learner to climb the next step”(Shabani and Al., 2010).

Moreover, a clear visual definition of Vygotsky’s theory has been drawn by Matt Bury ( 2014) in his blog.

As cited in Shaman and Al. (2010), Vygotsky was himself aware of the fact that every learner has a different comfort zone, in which everyone is able to learn by himself, and stated that if learners are being pushed away from their comfort zone to their zone of proximal develoment, by mutual assistance they might be able to navigate back in their comfort zone. Therefore, using collaborative learning (define) students could within a back and forth cognitive process, strengthen their own zone of proximal development and would consequently be able to do the same challenging task on their own. Already important when preparing students for the Hospitality world, where team work is dominating, collaborative learning becomes then even more ubiquitous. Within teamwork, a strong bound appears then between Vygotsky’s zones and collaborative learning, defined by Barbara Leigh Smith and Jean T. MacGregor (1992) as an active and socially contextualised process in which students are constructing a part of their own knowledge individually, and diversity is emphasised. The teacher is therefore becoming more a facilitator or a guide than a traditional lecturer. The role of others in each individual’s learning has been emphasised by Vygotsky himself  (cited in Jones and Brader-Araje, 2002) with “social constructivism”, as “all higher mental functions are social in origin and are embedded in the context of the sociocultural setting” (Jones and Brader-Araje, 2002). This social mentorship role, which could also be defined as community guidance is also known a as scaffolding and was introduced by Wood, Bruner and Ross in 1976 (cited in Verenikina, 2008). Gordon Wells also identified three components of scaffolding when working on extending learners’ zone of proximal development : The discussion with others when building one’s knowledge socially, the relevance of the learning task, and the association of each learning components like peers’ advices or teachers’ hindsights (Verenikina, 2008). I have realised then that the first component is related to teamwork, the second one to the design of the case study on which students reflect on, and the last one to the feedback the teacher is giving about the case study which has been covered.

Moreover, the ultimate goal of this behaviourist approach is by using realistic and challenging case studies, students will extend their zones of comfort and of proximal development, and as shown below in my adaptation of figure 1, be able to reach tasks which were originally unattainable.

I truly and hopefully believe that at the end of the module I am teaching, my students will be able to  deal with managerial situations which seemed to be unreachable for them at the very first class. With this constant back and forth movement between their comfort zone and their zone of proximal development, both learning zones would have been maturing. Parker-Rees and Al.  (2010) refers to this as a “process of maturation”, in which some of the learners’ functions are strengthened by the learner himself and alone or with the guidance of a knowledgable guide.

Hereafter is detailed my adaptation of Vygotsky’s development zones :    

The zone of distress : 

One issue arises with Vygotsky’s model of development, which could be called the zone of distress. In this zone, students are completely lost with a task or a case study too hard or too complex to be examined, even with the help of others or the guidance of the teacher. As stated in the model of “the flow channel” developed by Brandt Redd (2012) in his blog about game design and the zone of proximal development, engagement and enjoyment are maximised through right and relevant levels of challenge and competence. These two components are the ingredients of an effective task as the teacher should carefully balance between pushing students’ limits and being aware of their abilities when designing in class activities or case studies. 

Therefore, Vygotsky’s method of development can only be efficiently implemented with the right dosage of challenge and competence, so the learner just as a video game user is still having fun while learning and gaining new competencies or abilities. Too much competence will lead to Boredom, too much challenge will lead to anxiety, and both of them will bring frustration.

Moreover, as letting a student in the zone of distress would not be effective in term of development and every learner has his own area of proximal development, there is here a loophole in Vygotsky,s development scheme. As a teacher, I could only organise a set of different activities in term of challenges and competences, and then follow up on every struggling student who has found himself directly in his zone of distress with a personalised guidance. In other words, a distressed learner could be pulled back to his zone of proximal development by a humanistic and hand or a personalised guidance, whether this comes from his teammates if the challenging task is a group work or from his teacher if it is an individual case study. The humanistic approach fits in the purpose of avoiding the distressed zone with personalised learning, as defined as “the development of the competence and confidence of each learner” (OECD, 2006). Pushing the limits of our students, and challenging them are definitively a great way to reveal students’ strengths but no one would feel comfortable in a threatening environment. As stated by Margaret Anderson (2016) “once students feel secure, learning becomes easier and more meaningful”. That is why the Vygostky’s behaviourist approach needs to be completed by a humanistic and personalised teaching. The challenge of this humanistic compensation relies in the variety of each indivudal’s personality and learning style. As explained by Howard Gardner (cited in Northern Illinois University, Faculty Development and Instructional Design Centre, 2016) each individuals personality is the results of nine whole intelligences. Therefore, each students’s way to understand and appropriate a case study or a managerial issue will be different so the teacher will have to adapt the guidance to each students way of thinking. One of the questions concerning the summative assessment in Yield Management individual examination is letting students to choose the approach they feel the most comfortable with, and compare three hotels’ Yield Management Strategies : Sales and Marketing, Financial, or Guest satisfaction. With this type of exercise, the summative assessment let students express themselves in regards to their preferred abilities and tend to be more humanistic.

Designing tasks and case studies with Vygotsky’s zones of development :

When I am designing the case studies we then discuss in class, I always look for an easy one to apply straightforward the concept we have discussed in class, and a second one which is calling for a wider analysis or a deeper critical thinking. I am aware, though, about the fact that with this gradual difficulty, just like in video game design (figure 3), students who have a higher competence level might feel bored about the first task because they would remain in their confirm zone, but the least competent students would then be able to catch up their level and when we are doing the most challenging task, everybody would hopefully have better chances to be located in their zone of proximal development. 
I feel like designing case studies to develop students abilities is like cooking with two ingredients : the level of challenge for the task itself and the students’ level of competencies as detailed in figure 3. More competent students would need to train with tasks challenging enough or they might feel bored, and less competent students would need to train with tasks matching their level of competencies or they would feel distressed.

Moreover, I want these case studies to always be a team work. As our classrooms are set with group of tables to enhance team work, it encourages students to share their results and recommendations when working on case studies. Therefore, students can also learn from their teammates as well as from their teacher. As detailed by Anuradha G. Gokhale (1995), “the active exchange of ideas within small groups not only increases interest among the participants but also promotes critical thinking”, also called collaborative learning, makes totally sense in a 3rd year bachelor level when we emphasise the value of critical thinking.

Furthermore, I am using a simulation tool in both courses. In Yield Management Strategies I give students only 15 minutes whereas in Managerial Accounting they have 30 minutes but also have to link their results to the topic we would have discuss in the first hour of the class (each class is 2h).
The use of a simulation, as students are learning the consequences of their managerial strategies by implementing them in a virtual hotel and competing within the classroom against other teams, refers logically to constructivism and situated cognition, respectively defined by K.Tusting and D. Barton (2003) as “the learner’s own process of actively constructing these models through interaction with their environment”, and “learning as a form of participation in social practice”.

As the motivation of the students also comes from their comparison among themselves in relation to the ranking of the teams which is provided by the business game’s software, the positive reinforcement becomes highly social through cooperative learning (Karen Smith, 1995). 

Moreover, this simulation tool also refers to the gamification of the classroom. In order to exploit the students’ relation with video games and interact with this generation in which “everyone is a gamer” (Amy Jo Kim, cited in Rebecca A. Cay,2016) I am always referring to it as a business game. As stated by Jeffrey B. Holmes and Elisabeth R. Gee (2016), games can be used in teaching and learning strategies to enhance a descriptive approach, as I describe the effect of students strategies in a team feedback after each quarter, and also to enhance a generation of content as the business game provides students with financial data they have to rely on afterwards in order to critically reflect on their results in the form of a summative assessment. 
The authors developed a four parted frame based on the action which learning is based upon, the structure of how the game is integrated in the learning curriculum and outcomes, the bridge between student’s individual ideas, and the importance for the teacher of being able to influence on the design of the game by changing settings according to the class outcomes. (“A framework for understanding game-based teaching and learning”, 2106, p7 to p).

The business game is not only following the purpose of a situated cognition through cooperative learning, but is also used in the form of a summative assessment. At the end of the module, when one year (in Yield Management Strategies) or two years (in Managerial Accounting) of the business game has been done, students are required to write a reflective essay based on their own results at the end of the game. Through an introduction, a main body and a conclusion, students have to describe the operational strategies they have followed, then critically evaluate their effectiveness, and give recommendations for the next year. This reflective step by step process seems highly connected to Gibbs reflective cycle, as stated below (Oxford Brooks University, 2016) :

Conclusion : 

Throughout the process of the class observation and the debrief which has followed, I have discovered the relevance and the ubiquity of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development not only in my teaching style, but also when I am designing tasks and case studies by looking carefully after the best possible balance between tasks’ level of complexity and students’ level of competencies. As each student individually has a different set of competences according to a specific task, the teacher then needs to compensate the danger of pushing some students out of their zone of proximal development with a personalised guidance in a humanistic compensation. Though, the usefulness of Vygotsky’s approach in students’ academic development is that we want them to reflect of real case studies or potentially dangerous situations before they would have to deal with these issues for real. The behaviourist and humanistic approaches of teaching are therefore uniting themselves and compensating each other’s limitations. 

Moreover, as I am using a business simulation game, I realised the interactivity in the classroom and the benefits for students that social learning and collaborative learning brings. Then, thanks to the gamification of the academic curriculum, social reinforcement appears and galvanises even more students’ learning experience. This new trend makes totally sense with the generation of students, especially the generation Y, who keeps on playing video games. As the process of gamifying the learning experience is similar to adapting the academic environment to students’s contemporary way of life, it fits well into personalised learning and humanism.  


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