What Steve Jobs Can Still Teach Teachers

I just read a great article by Cliff Kuang in the October 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.  Called “What Steve Jobs Can Still Teach Us,” it reads Jobs through a design lens for FC’s United States of Design issue.


At first glance, I thought the “us” in the title referred to a group other than educators.  But then I realized that the beauty of the title rests in the ubiqutous “us” with which it ends. The editors of FC are smart; Cliff Kuang is smart; they chose “us” because they mean “us” . . . everyone trying to make or market or sell or share a product or service or idea, educators included.


Here’s why I can make that statement pretty conclusively: I see my aspirations in school, and the aspirations of my closest colleagues, all over this article:

“Jobs,” according to Kuang, “may not be the greatest technologist or engineer of his generation.  But he is perhaps the greatest user of technology to ever live.”

To emulate in the classroom Jobs’ way of working, teachers wouldn’t have to be the best scholars in their field or the most technically, and pedagogically, excellent.  Both of those characteristics can be helpful, as it was helpful for Jobs to have access to great technologists and great engineers.  But Jobsian teachers would have to be great learners themselves, and they would have to design every classroom experience as learners, for learners.


For example, when designing a Moodle page (or other online learning environment), teachers emulating Jobs would think relentlessly about the way students would experience the space.  They might use labels to add categories; they might add slides from presentations so that students could download them for later use; they might use class time, from time to time, to ask the students to provide feedback about the usability of the page, reminding them that the page is for them.  These are simple, small matters — but, according to Kuang on Jobs, they make all the difference.

For Kuang, every Jobs product extends his approach, his mindset, his “obsession:” “the iMac” then, is “a piece of hardware designed with an unprecedented user focus.”

As a teacher working in the wake of Jobs, I might ask myself, what is my iMac?  What is the key product that I extend to students, and does it have a user focus?  This makes me think again of online learning environments like Moodle and Blackboard, but it also makes me think about my classroom itself, my lesson plans, my homework assignments, and the way I use time in class.  Do I design my classroom the way I, as a teacher, like it, or do I design it in a way that promotes and extends learning?  Do my lesson plans unfold the curricular story that I want to tell, in the order that I want to tell it / am comfortable telling it — or do they speak to the story that students are ready to hear, in the order that they are ready to hear it?  When I enter my students’ at-home lives, through homework assignments, am I bringing with me an awareness of the ways in which they actually do their homework, and the things that they actually need from homework, or am I trying to tether them to a homework treadmill that I, myself, have never questioned?  And as for time in class, am I breaking up class time in a way that is focused, in an “unprecedented” way, on the way high school students actually learn best?  I’d go one better here, too: am I truly thinking about the ways I might leverage social media to capture the attention and the imagination of my students?

Kuang cites Jobs as having “an ability to think first and foremost as someone who lives with technolgy rather than produces it”

Approaching teaching that way, as someone who uses school to learn rather than teach, signals another possible shift for educators.  Getting organized to teach a daily class requires a certain kind of preparation.  It’s possible that getting organized to prepare students to learn on a daily basis would require a different kind of preparation.  To fulfill the latter requirement, in addition to knowing your content inside and out, you would need to know your students well.  You would need to group them accordingly — when setting up group work — question them accordingly — when leading a discussion — and comment on their work accordingly.  You would have to know how they prefer to learn, the geography of their blindspots, and the passions that stir them.  Looking to communicate with them outside of class, you would have to email some of them, IM others, call a few, and tweet at the rest — just like you do with your colleagues.  In short, you would have to rethink, deeply, some of your most common assumptions.

Jobs thougth deeply about everything related to Apple, including instruction manuals.  “His focus was, continually, on what it would be like to come at a product raw, with no coaching or presentation but simply as a new, untested thing.”  As a result, “every year, Apple’s instruction manuals grew thinner and thinner, until finally, today, thre are no instruction manuals at all.  The assumption is that you’ll be able to tear open the box and immediately start playing with your new toy.”

When I think about where I want my English students to be when they leave my class, I realize that I want them to be able to meet the world head on, to come at the world “raw, with no coaching.”  If they have to approach a writing assignment in college, they should know how to ask the right questions before starting and they should understand that each written answer to each assignment calls for its own unique organizing principle.  Likewise, when they write their first cover letter or legal brief . . . or read something that wasn’t framed for them in a deliberate sequence in a curriculum, they shouldn’t need a teacher to tell them how to proceed.  Jobs, it seems, had a deep faith in his “users” — that they had the inclination and motivation to be creative and bold.  His job, in some ways, was to make sure his products didn’t get in the way of what his users wanted to do with them.  The best teachers, ironically, know how to stay out of the way of their students, as well; by the end of their time with their students, they prepare their students to no longer need them.

So does Apple still need Steve Jobs?  At the close of Kuang’s article, he poses that question through other questions for Tim Cook, the man now running the Apple show.  He implied that Cook will have to do more than simply play to his strength (i.e., supply chain management); he will need to find a way to see Apple “from the outside view of a user.”

I think we can say the same thing of schools, especially schools with lofty tuition: to survive, we will need to place students, again and again, at the center of the educational experience.  Steve Jobs, indeed, has plenty still to teach us.


Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sigalakos/839742222/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Stephen Valentine

Stephen Valentine

Assistant Head of the Upper School at Montclair Kimberley Academy

Bio: Stephen J. Valentine, an administrator and a teacher, serves as the Assistant Head of Upper School and Director of Academic Leadership at Montclair Kimberley Academy, blogs at www.refreshingwednesday.com, and is the coordinating editor of the Klingenstein Center’s Klingbrief. He is the author of Everything but Teaching (2009) and co-author of Leading Online: Leading the Learning, Leading by Learning (2014).