What Does Your School Sell? Resisting Schools as Producers of Uninformed Consumers

What does your school sell?  Most schools  knowingly or unknowingly partner with companies to sell their products. Good or bad, this is a reality, but it offers educational leaders both challenges and opportunities. Look at ad-sponsored scoreboards in gymnasiums, contacts with vending machine companies that sell certain brands and not others, technology purchases and subscriptions that show loyalty to a particular brand. We have Apple schools, Google schools, and Microsoft schools. I’ve even seen lists of school supplies that require specific brands of crayons or makers. Students often have no choice in which product they use in school.

This situation extends to the curriculum. I meet teachers and administrators who represent loyalty to one publisher or content-provider over another. In some instances, these are on the grounds of the content quality (which is more understandable), but it is often because the publisher has special features, electronic resources, great packages and prices, or even because they just have great name-recognition. I see this with public schools, private schools, and sometimes even stronger in homeschools. I am not arguing against valuing one company or provider over another, but I am suggesting that all of this sells something to students.

In some cases, it is selling students to a company. We see this where a school gets a free or reduced rate product or service. In return, the company gets to promote products and services to the students. In essence, the school is selling advertising access to group of students. One of the more memorable examples of this was in my first teaching appointment, a school that contracted with Channel One News. This for-profit media company wired all the rooms, mounted televisions in each room, and provided a school-wide media distribution system.  The school then had a contract that required them to play Channel One News in the classrooms each day.  This gave the company daily access to all the students in the building, with the ability to promote certain products and/or ideas as they saw fit and beneficial. Something similar takes place when schools and teachers use advertisement-funded free technology resources and services. The students use the product or service for educational purposes. While they do so, the company gets to advertise products and services to the students. In fact, this happens each time we have students conduct a search on Google.

It is nearly impossible to create an advertisement and brand-free learning organization, and I am not sure that is desirable. There is something that schools should do about this, however. If schools do not do something about it, then they risk unknowingly producing uninformed consumers (by example or implicit teaching). I suspect that there are many responses, but here a some of the possibilities.

1) Talk About The Schools Sell Reality – Make this a conversation among administrators, teachers, students, parents, board members and other stakeholders. Make it public and transparent, including the benefits that schools get from certain partnerships, and the reasons for purchasing decisions and contracts. Making it transparent may cause some controversy, but it will also add an important level of accountability, and offer a good example for the students. After all, whether it is public or private, people are paying for schools, and there is an assumption that schools are not primarily places intended to sell students and families products and services from other companies. There is a difference between education and propaganda that transparency helps us respect.

2) Make It Part of the Curriculum – This is already part of the hidden curriculum, so why not be even more intentional about it? We could use school interactions and connections with companies as a chance to teach media literacy, marketing and brand-literacy (which I consider an increasingly important 21st century skill), the psychology of persuasion, consumer education, and other related topics.  These are important topics for young people, especially if we want them to be thoughtful, informed citizens and consumers. These could easily fit in language arts, social studies, even math and science curricula.

3) Involve Students in the Decisions – Building on the last one, why not engage students and groups of students in the research, negotiations, reviews and decisions about what products and services are used. This takes time and training, but it is the sort of decision that helps schools make that shift that I discuss often, cultivating a true culture of learning and student engagement. Level of student involvement may vary by circumstance, decision, and age of learners; but there is a valuable teaching and learning opportunity here.

4) Compare and Shop – Even when convinced that a given investment for a school is the right decision, shop around. Compare multiple products and services. Once the decision is made, revisit it on occasion. Again, consider involving students and other stakeholders, and be sure to keep the process as transparent as possible. Learning is not something we do to students. It is something that we foster in them. Shopping can model thoughtful decision-making.

5) Leave Room for Brand Competition – When reasonable, allow for multi-product presence in the school. This is one of many reasons that I support BYOD schools. It adds some technological challenges, but it also avoids the one-brand loyalty issues. However, when the different products are present, why not create some learning activities out of reviewing and comparing them. By they the way, this multi-product environment aligns with what many experience in the workplace and other contexts outside of school.

6) Establish Policies and/or Core Values About Partnerships – What are the guiding values in your school’s interactions with other companies? Think of issues related to privacy, transparency, even the values of the companies with which we do business. Doing or not doing business with companies can be a social statement. For example, maybe your school wants to model and promote sustainable living. Maybe this will impact the types of companies with which you will do repeat business.

7) Do A Brand and Advertising Audit of the School – This could be a school-wide effort, evaluating the products and services, documenting the reasons for the decisions, analyzing what sort of advertising is happening to people in the school. If nothing else, it helps with the first suggestion of making things transparent. You may be surprised to discover the hundreds of corporate products and services that combine to help schools function, and you are likely to find a few that require reconsideration or further investigation.

These may not be easy, because the reality is that many of us are not thoughtful and informed citizens and consumers. To take up these challenges will require many of us in education to revisit our own consumer habits. No worries. This provides a rich co-learning experience with the students.

By the way, you probably noticed that I have ads on my blog as well :-).

Posted in blog, media literacy, school business partnerships

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.