I had a wide-ranging conversation over coffee the other day with David Timony (@drtimony on Twitter). One of the things that came up was the idea of students as consumers. David is doing research about what constitutes an expert teacher, focusing on teacher behaviors that influence student perceptions of expertise. It got me thinking about how we treat teachers and students in the big picture and the business of education today.
For a long time, educators have been told we need to run schools more like businesses, that the students are the consumers, and we need to let the market drive our methods. We should measure student performance and student reaction like corporations measure consumer preference and adjust our methods to produce the outcomes (increased sales) that we are looking for.
I have a problem with this approach, though. It presumes that the students are passive recipients of the education we are producing. It also leads to a market where many of the producers (schools) resort to manipulative and deceptive tactics to increase the numbers. We only need to look at recent news on Wall Street to see that reliance on one metric to judge performance can not only cause problems but it can affect the entire economy. Is this really what we want for education?
What if we turn the model upside down? What if we think of the students not as consumers but as the producers?
In the marketplace, corporations have a lot of control over their product, their methods, their advertising, but they are ultimately dependent on the consumer to judge their products and make them successful. The consumers also provide a great deal of feedback to the companies about what works, what doesn’t, and how they can improve their products to make them more successful. In addition, corporations have to work within an existing environment that dictates much of what they must do to succeed: laws, tax structures, suppliers, competition, investors, and so on.
If students become the producers, they will have to work in the environment created by the schools and teachers, including curriculum, standards, and so on. The teachers become the consumers, providing feedback and guiding the learning process (roughly parallel to R&D in the corporate world).
This model is far from perfect, of course. There is a great deal about learning and about school that doesn’t fit into the business approach. But if we’re going to be asked, or even required, to do business like a business, then let’s really examine that model and think hard about what it means for kids.