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Talk-ED: Changing the world

Stuart Middleton
11 June 2012


Over the summer I read the recent biography of Steve Jobs (Walter Isaacson). It was a good read about a uniquely eccentric, effective leader who changed our world in so many ways. There are lessons here for education I thought as I read it. Often I find books not about education teach me more than those that are! It would be good to summarise those and now Isaacson comes up with a little summary of those ideas (HBR, April 2012). (The bold works at the start of each paragraph is the Steve Jobs thought – the rest is my musing about their application to education.)

Focus.   From time to time we need to stop and have a serious rethink about direction and emphases. We need to withdraw regularly and renew the focus, not keep on doing the same old thing, working out what we want the education system to do, expressing it simply then doing it requires such focus.

Simplify.    Get the focus right and we find that what we need to do is simpler than we thought. I have long argued that education is not the complex process we make it out to be. What we want is simple and achieving it could also be simple.

Take responsibility end to end.   This is one that education might use to plan its attack on educational failure. Just as Jobs sought seamless integration in the devices he developed, so too should we be seeking seamless integration in education. With the current disintegrated system no-one can be responsible for educational failure because there is no oversight “end-to-end” of a learner’s journey.

When behind, leapfrog.   Thinking of the step to take after the next one and then going straight to it gave Jobs an advantage in business. Perhaps in education we need to think of the next big step and then the one after it and go straight there. Perhaps tinkering inside the existing sectors is not as profitable as thinking about what comes after the current sectors.

Put products before profits.   Seemingly this belongs better in a business world than in education. But, as a colleague reminded me recently, if we were to see that the products are our students (and the community is our customer) this becomes somewhat applicable.

Don’t be a slave to focus groups.   Public opinion and mob-think is not a good basis for planning. Jobs epitomised the freedom of the free thinker and the daring of some-one who was not afraid of be ahead of the general thinking that guided his industry. We need this sort of leadership in education, not the status-quo seekers

Bend reality.   Steve Jobs was described by a fellow employee as having a Reality Distortion Field (so-called because of an episode in Star Trek where aliens could through mental effort change the thinking of others). Having a capacity to think clearly (and forcefully) about what might be takes “impossible” out of the lexicon. We generally say “that’s impossible” or “that can’t be done” when really we mean “I am having trouble thinking that through.” Leadership in education needs to “bend reality” at this time more than ever before.

Impute.   The messages we give to the wider world about education have a profound impact on how they see our world. Jobs ran plenty of honest, hard-hitting sessions behind closed doors but his communications to the world imputed all the right things about what Apple did and what Apple produced.

Push for perfection.   What is perfection in education? Simple. Each and every student succeeds.

Tolerate only “A” players.   This seems obvious. But to achieve this we need to have greatly increased focus on professional development throughout a career in education, tight and high entry standards, a focus on achieving equity in teaching standards across and between schools and a clear notion of what constitutes an “A” player when it comes to teaching and educational leadership.

Engage face to face.   Education is good at this generally. Communities can engage face to face to their school. Education leaders have skills of such engagement. The quality of this engagement is genuinely two-way. That’s the goal.

Know both the big picture and the details.    The best leaders know both the big picture of education and the details of getting it right at the level of that individual student. It could be that we are better at the second than the first – we know the skills of the trade but are less clear about the business, strategy and performance, the bottom line.

Combine the humanities with the Sciences.    But overall the Americans maintain the ideal of a general education more successfully than we do – it’s just that so many students in the US fail. Successful educations systems have sorted out what a general education means and as a result have programmes that are broader yet more focussed.

Stay Hungry, stay foolish   This is the key. Those Apple advertisements in the 1980s and the exhortation to “Think Different” introduced us to the concept. Since walking into the Apple HQ in Cupertino CA in 2000, and seeing the Apple Creed splashed large across the entrance wall I have found it to inspire and encourage.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see the world differently. They are not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.





Beahm, George (2011)      I, Steve Jobs: Steve Jobs in his own words, Hardle Grant, London

Isaacson, Walter (2011),    Steve Jobs, Simon and Schuster, New York

Isaacson, Walter (2011),    The Real Leadership of Steve Jobs in Harvard Business Review, April 2012, Cambridge MA




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