Can Schools Learn from Business?

The following article was first published on LinkedIn, 4 July 2019.

I recently had the great pleasure of listening to Peter Twining (@PeterT) from the Open University speak on the topic “If School is the Problem, What is the Solution?”

He raised all the traditional concerns and shortcomings of the schooling system in which there is a focus on getting good grades for the school, rather than educating or teaching the students to learn. The purpose of school has largely been forgotten and it has turned into a bureaucracy aimed at demonstrating the statistical value required by the authorities who allocate grants and funding.

In the 19th century, something similar happened to businesses, as a new life-form evolved on planet earth: the corporation. While businesses in the past were created to offer a service or product to neighbours, they evolved into creatures whose sole purpose was to grow, eat and reproduce. The corporation’s main ambition is to kill off the competition in order to maximise profits. Those profits are then not spent on the community or the service, but on increasing the wealth of shareholders and owners; the original concept of service to neighbours is largely forgotten.

During the past few decades, a flotilla of new concepts have come into existence for businesses, concepts that are promoted by management consultants – sometimes to the benefit of the business, sometimes to the benefit of the business’s staff or clients, sometimes solely to the benefit of the business consultant. One of the key players in this field was a man called Dr.Deming. Dr Deming’s best-known contribution to the world is probably the “plan-do-check-act” cycle, that has been used, misused and abused millions of times – mostly by people who restricted themselves to only reading the four words and believing that they understood the underlying principles.

One of Dr Deming’s more fundamental business recommendations were his “14 points for the transformation of American industry” (“Out of the Crisis“). It is my belief that it is high time the education system start considering the same solutions. I am listing them hereunder in their shortened form with some explanation as to what this might mean in education:

  1. Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service – it would, of course, be necessary first to identify what are the purpose, product and service of the education system. Is it really just to train people to succeed at tests and exams? Is it to provide a steady stream of potential employees in industries and jobs that may be obsolete in a few years? Or is it to create people able to think for themselves, to generate a thirst of knowledge? As long as there is no clear understanding and commitment, the very concept of “improvement” remains impossible to achieve.
  2. Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age, we must accept the challenge, learn our responsibilities and take leadership for change – in a world where all information is at your fingertips, in your pocket, in the world of Google, does it still make sense to teach facts and memorise dates? Isn’t it time that we start teaching our young people to understand historical causes and consequences, how to differentiate between facts and rumours, how to understand what is propaganda and what is science? In a globalised world, isn’t it high time that we eliminate the parochial aspect of national education and work at establishing a generation that understands other cultures, speaks many languages and can accept differentiation without disdain?
  3. Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality – quality needs to be designed into the education system, with an understanding that different people have different interests and that it is the responsibility of the education system to create the variety required to progress society rather than trusting exams to demonstrate conformity to theoretical principles.
  4. End the practice of awarding business on the basis of the price tag – nothing is more valuable to a society than the education of the next generation, yet governments continue to scringe on basic needs because of short-term costs; we cannot build a solid future for the world if we allow the education system to be undermined by bureaucratic bean counters; we need to understand the value of education and prioritise this over vanity projects by politicians or devising more interesting ways to kill people and break things.
  5. Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs – the education system needs to analyse the manner in which things are being done and delivered; lessons need to be learnt as to why one school or educator is more successful than another – instead of rewarding the successful school with extra grants, we should be using their experience to educate the educators.
  6. Institute training on the job – this may have to be inverted in the case of education: it would be good for people who have been in the education system for a long time to have a break from the classroom and actually go into a different job, related to their teaching, in order to get them to understand the relationships between their theories and the real world.
  7. Institute leadership – the education system in many countries is bogged down by administration and management levels: management focuses on the budget and stability, respect of rules and processes; we need leadership, focused on change and inspiring people to the “pleasure of finding things out” – leaders are people you want to follow, managers are people you have to obey.
  8. Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively – the education system is run with the constant stick and carrot of grants and ratings; fear does not promote efficiency, fear promotes compliance to whatever the authorities say, even if that is visibly counter-productive.
  9. Break down barriers between departments – one of the more successful education ideas I know is the idea that “secondary” courses are taught in a foreign language, by a native speaker instructor: teach geography in Swedish, teach PE (physical education, gym) in Arabic – you will help young people understand how other cultures think.
  10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations and targets (…) they only create adversarial relationships – no comment, this is self-evident.
  11. Eliminate quotas, management by objectives, management by numerical goals. Substitute leadership – exams and tests are valid tools to determine where the system is failing the students, they should not be used to determine success or failure of students or the relative value of schools and universities, they should be used to determine which students are requiring more assistance and support. Today’s league tables encourage schools to exclude students that are failing in order to raise the school’s average, instead, the measurements should be used to identify what additional support and guidance they need.
  12. Remove barriers that rob [people] of their right to pride in their workmanship – an educator’s job should be focused on educating rather than filling out forms that nobody will read. Dr Deming’s point continues to say this means inter alia, the abolishment of the annual or merit rating.
  13. Institute a vigorous programme of education and self-improvement – every teacher, instructor and educator, should be on a continuous training programme that allows them to improve their personal value; this is not the same thing as closing down the school once a year for “teacher in training” sessions during which they learn of the latest government initiatives, rather this is increasing the value of the teacher, demonstrating the thirst for knowledge that they should be inspiring.
  14. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation – people working in the education system know better than anyone else why the system is failing, certainly better than government officials in offices far removed from the institutions. Let them speak up.