In 2014-2015, we engaged with Manchester Business School to test our theory in a year-long pilot programme, integrated as part of the ‘Auditing and Professional Accounting Practice’ class of Penny Clarke. These monthly seminars introduced the tools of philosophical inquiry and facilitated discussions to a room of 45 first-year undergraduate accounting students.
Coupled with new methods of dialogic inquiry, the sessions integrated topics that worked to contextualise and broaden the knowledge that students had gained from other classes. We further integrated topics from sociology, psychology and philosophy in order to open up the scope of knowledge in accountancy. The aim was to provide the larger social context and purpose of the profession as a key to developing commitment and passion in students. Throughout the year, we witnessed how students’ reasoning skills progressed and how their interest and engagement significantly improved.
- The importance of philosophy and the liberal arts. Introduction to the importance of philosophical inquiry in the liberal arts education tradition and the skill set it develops within young professionals – judgement, critical thinking, professional scepticism.
- What is professionalism? Challenge students to think beyond knowledge and skills – to address fundamental normative questions, such as ‘What should the profession and society look like?’ using philosophical inquiry tools to unpack the concept of professionalism.
- The public interest. To build on ‘professionalism’ as a concept, and begin to consider the larger purpose and value of audit. Unpack concepts such as – public versus private interest, discretion and decision making. Address the question whether accountants have moral responsibility and, if so, to whom and for what?
- Ethics and decision making. Examine the underlying factors, values and principles that shape our behaviour as professionals and people. Engage with topics in philosophy and psychology to understand how our behaviour is shaped and what makes us do the right thing.
- Behaviour and moral reasoning. Delve into philosophy and behavioural psychology to understand how our behaviour is shaped and how we could and should act in moral dilemmas. Introduce moral philosophy and problematise the concept of ethics codes and norms.
- Rethinking organisations. Introduce topics of sociology (organisational theory) to address how values shape and change organisational structures. Open the discussion to current models and processes of work and encourage reflection on the individual and collective purpose.
- Complexity and systemic thinking. Further develop critical thinking skills by considering the dimensions of society, environment, and economic complexity. Engage students in thinking how companies operates within a larger complex system, in order to help internalise the ethical dimensions of their role as professionals. Explore the concept of complex and complicated ‘systems’ and the need to consider wider problems.
- Design thinking and activity theory. Explore concepts of creative and critical thinking and why this matters for accountancy practice. Introduce the concept of empathy as the core of design thinking, and why empathy matters.
Evaluating the impact
Using surveys, observations and interviews, we have examined how this method of teaching and learning has impacted young accountancy students in developing practical wisdom and independent critical thinking. The year-long programme has given us the opportunity to engage with students on a more personal level and impact their progress and development, which has involved the following measures:
- shift in thinking patterns
- degree to which the individual engages in principled thought
- tolerance of ambiguity
- ability to think hypothetically and abstractly, propose creative ideas
- value change
The philosophical inquiry method was shown to help the majority of students develop and engage in principled thought, as the year progressed. By engaging tools for critical thinking, students improved their ability to critically unpack and question key knowledge concepts, such as professionalism, public interest, ethicality, values, virtues, professional norms and codes. Nevertheless the cultural diversity within the classroom, we were pleased to witness that the open circle discussions helped students improve their self-esteem and willingness to voice and change opinions.
The overall success of the programme was evaluated by students in the interviews conducted at the end of the academic year, and here are some of their inspiring insights:
I think that the education system is a bit broken, because you expect to be forced down all these textbooks and expected to memorise answers, and this is why students probably hate exams because you don’t bring life into the subject…
The way that this programme could be assimilated into other courses, could be to let students actually think about why in practice we do things in a certain way. I think that by making students understand the reasons and the principles behind these practices,they will be actually looking forward to going to class.
It’s nice to have these discussions, because you can share your ideas. You can sit in a circle and see each other…whereas [in other courses] you are just behind a desk, while listening to a speaker lecturing with slides.
The P4A sessions challenged us to think outside the box, which helped us in other modules as well.
As part of our collaboration with Manchester Business School, we filmed a short documentary which captured reflections and insights from students and teachers. The film offers unique blend of candid conversations and discussions.