Out-Thinking in the Education Sector: Beyond Pro-Teacher Rhetoric

According to Kaihan Kirppendorff, out-thinkers are entrepreneurs, innovators, leaders, or marketers “with a new playbook.” They don’t just study what the best leaders, marketers, and innovators do. They certainly might study and learn from the work of others, but in the end they insist on writing their own playbook. By having a bent toward creating and not just imitating, they see things that others miss, challenge age-old practices that sometimes allow for breakthrough innovations and opportunities, they even transform fields/disciplines/markets.

Kirppendorff’s text is largely framed as a different way of thinking about business competition, about doing more than winning by investing the most money, being bigger or more powerful. Instead, these are people who look for third, fourth, fifth, and sixth options and possibilities. Add this mindset to the heart of a social entrepreneur in the education sector and you see amazing things happening.

You don’t just see new models for doing school, but you see models that might be hard-pressed to even fit into a category labeled as school.

You don’t just see new curriculum, but entirely new ways of thinking about curriculum, design and development.

You don’t just see new businesses taking advantage of the latest policies or government mandates, but you see entrepreneurs who shape future policy and practice.

You don’t just see people who bolster an existing and sometimes struggling educational system, but you see new visions of how to think about life and learning.

These people are more compelled to seize new opportunities and possibilities than to please those managing the status quo.

These sorts of educational entrepreneurs are different. In my experience they know and value the need to collaborate, but they also don’t just flatter people. They don’t tend to network and collaborate by telling people that they are amazing and what they are doing is great. For example, consider the many educational companies and organizations that spend so much time telling us teachers how they think we are valuable and amazing. It is nice to get encouragement, but we educators are not in this to be applauded. Great educators are in it for learners, difference-making and social impact. The vocation of educator exists to serve others, not to secure our positions, champion for our preferences, and gain the reverence of a society. We exist for students and society. The out-lookers in the educational innovation landscape get that.

I was at an invitation-only meeting of higher education leaders hosted by several leaders at a massive, innovative and well-known technology company; one that you know well and whose services you have probably used a dozen or more times today. This company has teams working in everything from marketing to education, new media to communication technologies, commerce to health and wellness. When a panel of leaders from this company was talking about some of their work in the education sector and the future of education, they were sharing some brilliant and exciting possibilities around crowd-sourced learning, blended learning, and the democratization of education.

During the question and answer time, I asked how they saw their work impacting the educational establishment and teachers. I was taken aback by what seemed like defensiveness.

“Oh, we love teachers.”

“Teachers are the most important part of education.”

“Teachers will never be replaced by technology.”

“We are pro-teacher.”

I was stunned. My question wasn’t about how much they valued teachers. I was generally curious about their honest, substantive and candid reflection on how their work in the education space might impact the field as a whole. Their work is clearly verging on disruptive and it has already transformed the role of teacher and learner in some contexts. Yet, they backed away from talking about any of that. It felt like they were afraid of getting on the bad side of teacher’s unions, or that they might get an anti-teacher label like some try to place on Salman Khan (which I contend is unjustified).

That was terribly disappointing for me. Here I was with leaders in one of (if not the) most powerful and influential companies on the planet. They have a deep interest in education and their products and services are creating unprecedented possibilities and opportunities. And in that moment, I started to realize that the leaders of the education team that I was meeting were not out-thinkers. They were not going to contribute to some of the most exciting and emerging possibilities in the education landscape. They could not. Their in-thinking would now allow them to see these other possibilities. They sacrificed a rich pro-learner advocacy for a pro-teacher pitch that may well blind them from seeing how close they are to addressing huge and important needs in education.

Please don’t misinterpret this as an anti-teacher post. I am an educator. I’ve been one for over twenty years. Yet, I also realize that the moment teachers make education about the needs and wants of teachers, it becomes about kingdom building, self-promotion, furnishing a warm and tidy comfort zone, and self-preservation. We have real and important needs in education. The digital and connected world along with a rapidly growing educational entrepreneurship sector is giving us wonderfully exciting possibilities to explore! And for that to happen, we need out-thinkers in the field, people don’t just replicate but who “write their own playbook.”