Friday, January 28, 2011

What Great Businesses Can Teach Us About Teaching

Generally, I hate comparing schools to businesses.  Why?  The comparison usually involves students playing the role of products and teachers, administrators, support staff, etc. playing the role of manufacturers.  The business analogy usually involves finances and is used to show the inherent inefficiency of schools.

This analogy is stupid for an obvious reason- as schools, we have no control over the raw materials needed to manufacture our "goods".  It would be akin to going to a junkyard to collect part to make 150 exact replicas of the same car.  It's simply not possible.  I view this analogy as a ploy by uninformed politicians with skewed anti-public school agendas.

Here's a better business analogy- students are our customers. The product we're trying to sell is the knowledge we're teaching

This model accurately reflects what we do as teachers.  If we are successful in "selling" the knowledge, our students benefit.  This model will allow us to utilize some lessons from the business world that will actually result in a positive outcome.  Furthermore, this success can easily be measured with the proper assessment.

Now that we have a workable analogy, let's look at how businesses sell.  Good businesses sell a lot of products, so we should examine good businesses.  How do they do this? 

One method is great advertising.  Some companies spend a tremendous amount of money to capture buyers.  Think of Coca Cola.  They spend billions of dollars per year on advertising.  In the teaching world, this could be analogous to window dressings like fancy bulletin boards, snazzy computer software, colorful textbooks, and other such gimmicks.  These items, while expensive, do result in some degree of success.  Humans like new, shiny stuff. 

The problem, aside from expense, is the novelty effect.  We get bored of shiny new toys.  We need a steady stream of new, expensive toys to hold our interest.  In an era of strained budgets, this approach is stupid because it is not sustainable.  School cannot and should not have to fork out huge sums of money to capture kids' interest.

Some businesses find success by offering awesome products.  A good example would be Apple.  Their products develop a huge following.  In the classroom, this would be analogous to great lesson plans that engage each and every student simply on the merit of the lesson itself.  This is great and should be the ultimate goal of each and every lesson we teach.  However, this also requires a ton of long, hard work.  It may take 20-30 hours of development to create a single awesome lesson. 

This kind of workload is not possible, so we have to develop a process to slowly craft great lessons year after year.  The idea is to slowly turn each and every lesson into an iPhone.  Unfortunately, this model has several problems. 

First, it doesn't help kids today.  Not all of our lessons will be perfectly crafted masterpieces.  Some will; some will not. 

Second, ever-changing curriculum and an ever-changing student population will slow the ability to craft perfect lessons.  The solution is to always assess what works and repeat it; assess what does not work and eliminate it.  It is also useful to perpetually experiment with new methods, including methods abandoned in the past.  Learn what works for you and what works for a very wide range of students.

This solution is a noble goal, and many will expect teachers to always have perfect lessons.  However, expecting constant perfection is simply foolish and ignores the logistical difficulty of this endeavor.  We should work towards this goal, but realize we will never fully accomplish it.

Okay, so these two methods, heavy advertising and creating great products, are two of the most popular models used by businesses.  Is there another solution?  You bet.  Best of all, it is perfectly suited for the classroom

Smart companies realize advertising and product development are expensive in both funding and time.  Despite these limitations, they thrive.  How?  They take advantage of an obvious but under-utilized element of human psychology... they don't try to build a customer base, they build an audience

A customer base has to be wooed with fancy advertising or exceptionally good products.  They have to be persuaded to buy products.  An audience, if properly nurtured, will buy anything.  Best of all, it takes neither advertising dollars nor expensive research and development.  The audience is hungry for anything and everything the company produces.

If we think of our students as our audience, our perspective changes immediately.  If we begin fostering this relationship with each and every one of our students, they will willingly devour anything we feed them.  There are other educational theories that attempt to teach this very concept, but they come off as cheesy, unnecessarily complicated, or fail to explain the direct benefits.  "Capturing Kids' Hearts" comes to mind.  The company sells seminars that basically teach teachers how to be human.  It's like the bottled water of education... making money off of something that should be freely available.  

How is this accomplished?  As it turns out, it's pretty simple... just follow these steps:

1. Generate excitement.  Excitement leads to intrinsic motivation.  If you're not doing something exciting, you shouldn't be doing it.  At the very least, pretend you're doing something exciting.
2. Inspire.  We love people that inspire us.  Nothing builds a loyal audience faster than inspiration.  The key- it doesn't really matter what you are inspiring kids to do, just inspire them to do something.
3.Occasionally engage each and every students in conversation, and really listen to what they say.  I accomplish this by asking kids if there's anything new going on in the world.  The conversation can go pretty much anywhere, and it is important to allow this freedom.
4. Make eye contact.  Use Bill Clinton's technique... make eye contact when talking with someone.  When you move on, reestablish eye contact for a brief second.  It dramatically increases that person's sense of importance.
5. Talk about interesting stuff completely unrelated to the class.  Everyone loves to learn about interesting stuff.  Engaging kids here will dramatically increase the likelihood that they will listen to you when presenting a lesson.
6. Be honest.  This is more difficult that it seems, but gives you immediate credibility.  Many teachers consciously or unconsciously give off a vibe of superiority which usually manifests itself as "I am an all-knowing expert; you are inferior".  Check your ego at the door and let kids see your flaws.

There are many more subtle techniques that can be used to create a loyal audence; I will attempt to list more in a future post.  Which reminds me...

7. Always leave your audience hungry for more. :-)

No comments:

Post a Comment