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Tag: Steve Jobs

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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Talk-ED: When the Apple is the Teacher

Stuart Middleton
10 October 2011

I recently wrote about the loose use of the term “drop out” to describe those few who leave college / university not through the bottom but out through the top because their aspirations take them more quickly to a higher and more sophisticated place.  Such people are “step ups” not “drop outs”. 

A shared characteristic of these people is not that they are failing in education – the key qualification for real drop outs – but that they possess knowledge and skills that quickly make evident to them the irrelevance of what they are doing in college / university.

I used Bill Gates as an example.

The death this week of Steve Jobs brought these ideas to the fore again as commentators freely tossed around descriptions of Jobs as a “college drop out.” I think he was another of these “step ups” with ambitions that went far ahead of college pathways and much more quickly.

In the much quoted Stanford speech he explains his reason to stop attending classes as one of recognising the cost to his family of attending college.

I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It is interesting to note that although he himself describes his actions as “dropping out” he immediately notes that it wasn’t to get away from college but to do the things he really wanted to do so perhaps he “dropped out” in the Timothy O’Leary sense, the assertion of personal wish over the power of conventional expectations. I would bet that he was confident that all would “work out OK” when he made the decision. And we note that he continued to hang around Reed and go to classes of choice for some time after making his decision. He in fact describes himself at that point as a “drop in”.

Another that I saw recently described as a “drop out” was Mark Zuckerman the founder of Facebook. Of course those who apply this to the likes of Gates, Jobs and Zuckerman conveniently ignore that fact that they each qualified for entry into the most prestigious institutions in the US (Harvard, Reed) and that they had been to prestigious preparatory schools prior to this.

It is a further and perverse reflection of our belief that there is only one pathway for people to follow – elementary school, high school, university – if they are to be successful in life. These genius figures just don’t fit the norms which are what marks them as genius.

Gates had outstanding knowledge of computers prior to completing his primary education, Zuckerman was described as arriving at Harvard with “a reputation as a programming prodigy,” Jobs attended schools in Cupertino where he was later to set up Apple’s Headquarters and while still at school attended after-school lectures at the Hewlett-Packard Company in Palo Alto, California, and subsequently was hired there for the summer. This fellow was no slouch when it came to computers as a result of his growing up in Silicon Valley.

So why would we expect young people with such extraordinary and precocious knowledge to simply fit into the normal track?

Who might we have in New Zealand that fit this “step up” category? Who are the Australian “step ups”?

In New Zealand, Sam Morgan built up and subsequently sold TradeMe (an eBay style site) making him a likely contender, stepping up from university to get on with the things that fired his imagination and for which he had the knowledge and skills. Why continue to move at the pace of those who haven’t?

Daniel Robertson left his engineering course to set up (an internet based shop in the style of Amazon), selling books, music and suchlike. It has grown to impressive proportions both in New Zealand and in its Australian version across the Tasman.

There must be many others – Peter Jackson left school at 16 and started working to his passion for making films comes to mind.

None of these people can be described as “drop outs”. For from it all are educated well past the point that characterises real drop outs and each shares the characteristic of reaching a point where it was clear to them that the conventional track through and out of education systems was not going to meet their goals and aspirations.

No they are different and it is well captured in The Apple Creed written up on the wall of Apple Headquarters in Cupertino (address is No 1 Infinite Loop), well it was when I visited in 2000.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They are not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them, disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them. And the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward. Maybe they have to be crazy. How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels? We make tools for these kinds of people. While some 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.

Steve Jobs was one of those. That’s why he finished his Stanford address with an exhortation to the young audience to:

“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish!”


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