Don’t Ask People What They Want

Cross posted at the Huffington Post.

Steve Jobs never believed in focus groups. Guy Kawasaki, who worked for Apple and Steve Jobs said, "Apple Market research is an oxymoron. If you ask people what they want they'll tell you "Better, faster and cheaper"- that is better sameness, not revolutionary change. Many other innovators have echoed similar sentiments. This flies in the face of the idea that the customer is always right. Jobs also said "people don't know what they want until you show it to them" No doubt he was a brash visionary that designed some very innovative products that many people adore. 

In education I hear this sentiment a lot lately: "Involve and engage all stakeholders". That sounds lovely. Why wouldn't we want input for parents and the community? All stakeholders in this case probably means every parent and taxpayer. That's a lot of people with a lot of ideas about what school should look like.  There's a desire to be transparent and be collaborative. These are words I use with great frequency to describe learning. But I'm beginning to question these ideas when it comes to making bold moves in education. 

I think of Zac Chase's tongue in cheek post a few months back about turning off his phone on the plane. He writes about whether turning off your phone will or won't impact the flight:

 

But I don’t know.

And that’s the key.

I don’t understand the system. Aviation, engineering, electronics – all these are outside the areas of my expertise.

In this system, I have an amazing amount at stake. I am thoroughly invested and committed to its success.

Entire sub-systems and interactions are beyond my understanding. Thus, I keep my mouth shut. If I decided to study aeronautics, become familiar with everything involved in the process of moving a plane from one side of the country to another, then would I have a space to speak up.

When my life and the lives of others are on the line, it’s probably best not to disrupt a system I do not understand.

I see all the ways in which flying planes and running a for profit business is NOT like a public school. They don't have a public directly paying for all kids. And yet, like Zac I try and show some humility when it comes to many government decisions. I vote people I think we represent me well and wait 4 or 5 years to assess and determine if I think they should continue their work or not. We have many persons and public people very invested in education and very knowledgeable. However when it comes to envisioning something new and different it's more than just fear that holds them back, it's ignorance. I don't say that in a demeaning way. I say that in the same way I don't understand many systems and don't spend anytime envisioning and experimenting with new ideas. Add to that those that don't care.

 

So as the conversation and dreams of a new place of learning happens in staff rooms and even district offices, who should really be involved in that process? I'm well aware that in many cases, these conversations are not happening but I have been part of these in schools, in our district and even at the provincial level. In these discussions, the topic of stakeholders always comes up. Even suggesting students be part of the conversation. My caution is that depending on the students, they too aren't seeing and picturing many new ideas. I realize that it's our job to engage students and parents in conversations like this but at some point, someone needs to do something. Maybe without full consensus. 

Will we really be able to create something awesome by asking people what they want? I think the average parent, taxpayer, student and even the average teacher just wants a system that's better. Higher "student achievement" (i.e. test scores) and lower dropouts. If schools did this, most people would be happy. But I know I wouldn't necessarily want those things. We can do better, we have to do better. I'm looking to be part of creating something different and I don't think it can involve all stakeholders. 

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nimboo/105368831

 

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