What Educators Can Learn From Steve Jobs

Apple has been in the news a lot lately. They recently surpassed Microsoft in terms of market cap and became the largest American technology company, they sold two million iPads in two months, they lost a valuable prototype and then kicked in the door of the blogger who reported about it. They’ve declared Flash a dead technology and entered into a acquisition duel with Google. They’ve been busy. At the head of the tumult is the unflappable Steve Jobs who simply responds to nearly every critique of the company with some infuriatingly short email.

I have been an Apple fan since my friend Mike got an Apple IIe when I was 8 years old. I continued to be an Apple fan despite the additional pinch their products gave to my wallet. I always enjoyed the user experience that Apple provided, it somehow always seemed intuitive, as if it were anticipating my needs. Lately I have had the knee jerk reaction of feeling somewhat put off and maybe even a little angered by Apple’s very public moves. The English teacher in me feels frightened by the walled-garden of an app store that admits some applicants while dismissing others with no clear criteria for either other than Steve’s assurance that he is delivering the best user experience.

As I was reading a transcript of Steve Jobs’ latest interview at the D8 conference it became clear that there was a lot educational reformers could learn from the CEO. The part that I find particularly applicable begins at about 1:02 in the video below.

6:25PM Walt: We wanted to talk about your future mostly… but there have been controversies. I want to talk about them. I want to talk about Flash. You published this letter — even if everything you say in that letter is true, is it really fair or the best thing for consumers to just be abrupt?
6:26PM Steve: Well two things — I’ll come back to what you said. Apple is a company that doesn’t have the resources that everyone else has. We choose what tech horses to ride, we look for tech that has a future and is headed up. Different pieces of tech go in cycles… they have summer and then they go to the grave.
6:27PM Steve: If you choose wisely, you save yourself an enormous amount of work.
6:34PM Steve: Well things are packages. Some things are good in a product, some things are bad. If the market tells us we’re making bad choices, we’ll make changes. We’re just trying to make great products. We don’t think this is great and we’re going to leave it out. We’re going to take the heat because we want to make the best product in the world for customers!
6:35PM Steve: If we succeed, they’ll buy them! If we don’t, we won’t sell any. And I have to say, people seem to be liking the iPad! (huge laughs and applause)

(via Engadget)

The thing I admire about this interview and about Steve is what he says about having the courage of convictions when it comes to innovations. Apple continually pushes the envelope when it comes to introducing new technology. Not all of these technologies have been successful (Newton, Cube, Air) yet the company is willing to take risks because they believe what they are doing is progressive and lasting. I have a very vivid memory of the first time I saw OS X. I had just purchased an iMac and was totally stoked, the instruction manual said something about the new operating system but I paid it little attention. The I booted the machine up, the OS was slow, it was buggy and nothing worked with it. Where was the finder I knew and loved, where was the extension manager (remember extension manager)? I thought to myself: this is the worse idea Apple has ever had. Why would they move away from a mature operating system that worked well and that everyone knew? The answer is that Apple (Steve) was thinking of the future, and now Google will only use OS X & Linux. When it comes to Apple not supporting Flash, Apple believes that HTML5 is the future and they are willing to stick to their guns about it, despite some withering criticism. It might be easier for them in the short term just to back down and allow the plugin on their platform but they firmly hold to the belief they stated when the original iPhone was released in 2007.

What does any of this have to do with education? I was inspired by Steve’s statements and realized that applying this type of thinking to education reform is the only chance the movement has to be effective. Here’s how I summarize Steve’s philosophy and how I think it should be applied to education.

  1. Be courageous. If you believe that something is right then do it, despite opposition. I feel this is especially important for administrators since the majority of real power in a district lies with them.
  2. Do what you think is best for your customers. In this case our customers are the students.
  3. Think ahead. And as Apple does, think way ahead. Do something that hasn’t been done yet because it will benefit our students in the long term.
  4. Trust yourself and have the courage of your convictions. ‘Nuff said.
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6 thoughts on “What Educators Can Learn From Steve Jobs

  1. Diane Lauer says:

    Thanks for this great post. I am reflecting on two of your connections to Steve Job’s leadership the most – be courageous and think future. I think those are the toughest skills for ed leaders. Our field hasn’t been the best about fostering risk-taking and entrepreneurial actions. In this era of accountability, it is often that we exist in fear and doubt which cloud our thinking. The direct result is a lack of future thinking. Well done!
    .-= Diane Lauer´s last blog ..Our iPad Experience =-.

    • Chris says:

      I had been thinking a lot about the moves that Apple has been making and when I saw his comments Jobs’ vision became clear. Agree or disagree the man has a vision and chases it.

  2. ktenkely says:

    Outstanding post Chris. The way that you take what Apple does that works and apply it to education is fantastic. Creativity and innovation moves the world because it steps out of what is expected. It has new solutions and sometimes introduces a new set of problems. Education needs that. We can’t keep on this path that we think we know. We aren’t serving our students the way we should be.

  3. ktenkely says:

    I hope it is okay, just linked to this post from iLearn Technology here: http://ilearntechnology.com/?p=2507 Let me know if it isn’t.

  4. I would add, don’t wait for your customers to tell you what they want. If Apple did everything based on customer input, they would only give people what they wanted and never dazzle or surprised them.

    We have to remember, students don’t know everything. They have access to more information than any previous generation, but that doesn’t mean that they have more access to more understanding. That’s why we love teachers!

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