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On Steve Jobs and Student Voice

Does social networking result in poor grades?If he hadn’t already in life, in death Steve Jobs has quicky been canonised to that most sacred of states – the management guru.

In death people have applied his quotes to all manner of human endeavours. If there was one area though in education where Steve’s wisdom has light to share it’s within the arena of Student Voice. To me it shows up some of the flaws in the way it’s sometimes applied, and also it’s power in improving learning.


Intuition, Not Focus Groups

“Know thy customer” is the first commandment of any successful business, so Jobs’ approach was always going to ruffle a few feathers.

When asked what market research went into the iPad he replied simply “None.  It’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want.”

Sometimes that’s interpreted as Steve saying that all market research was baloney, but it’s actually more nuanced than that. Apple performed lots of research on the iPad, specifically user testing to refine the user interface and the like, but what they didn’t do was just to sit down and ask people what they want.

As Matt Bai of the NY Times expands, “In other words, while Jobs tried to understand the problems that technology could solve for his buyer, he wasn’t going to rely on the buyer to demand specific solutions, just so he could avoid ever having to take a risk. This is what’s commonly known as leading.”

It’s a similar line of thought to Henry Ford on the Model-T

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”


The Weakness of Applying Market Research to Schools

So far, so businesslike – but what does all this have to do with schools?

Well it seems to me that Student Voice is an attempt to replicate that same kind of Know Thy Customer attitude within schools. But just like the business model that it’s taken from it is in danger of being misapplied.

That’s where you get the fanciful press stories about it being out of control in classrooms.

Ultimately, ask your students what they want and a good portion will say no lessons and free chips in the canteen. That’s not feedback that will help you run a school.

Or for a more realistic example – is there really a point in letting students feed in to the interview process for new headteachers or senior members of staff? Yes – seeing how the candidate interacts with children will tell you something about them, but beyond that a student is not best placed to make a judgement on what constitutes the effective school leader.
Which all seems a bit like an argument against student voice, but on the contrary I think that student voice can have an incredibly powerful role to play in schools when applied to the right questions.

Students can help you answer two key questions – what the problems are and how effective you were at fixing them.

In practice the problems students face will be well known to you – hence why Jobs knew he didn’t need to ask – but what they will tell you is if what you do is working.

If students want exciting lessons, they won’t be able to tell you how to craft an engaging starter activity or to differentiate for multiple learning styles. What they will be able to tell you is whether the lesson was boring or interesting, whether they learnt things at the end of it or not.

Using student voice like this actually empowers, rather than restricts teachers. The kids aren’t telling you what you need to do, but they are telling you what the outcome needs to be. That bit in the middle – that’s your professional judgement and your skills as a teacher.


So if we follow Jobs’ line of thought Student Voice isn’t anything to be scared of, or even anything that controversial, like all assessment the crucial element is high quality feedback.


What do you think – do you think that student voice is just a trendy fad or an essential tool in the classroom?



6 responses to “On Steve Jobs and Student Voice”

  1. A very interesting perspective Tom and I agree with a lot of it, but I think this view only looks at student voice from a managerial point of view, not a pedagogical one.

    What do we want people to learn by being involved in student voice? I would say we want them to learn how to function as engaged, empathetic and empowered members of society. To do this they do need to be involved in the bit between identifying issues and evaluating outcomes.

    If you just give people a voice with no responsibility for putting what they say in to practice they are liable to say anything (and get upset when someone else doesn’t do it for them), when you involve them in creating the solution they learn things: problem solving, collaboration, negotiation, compromise, empathy.

    That’s the big difference between ‘knowing your market’ in any other industry and in education. How you ask them and engage them is part of the learning process (the ‘service’) you’re providing for them. If Apple had focus groups they wouldn’t be part of buying an iPhone (although I’m sure they’d find some way of charging you for it).

    • Avatar Peter Hirst says:

      Great points Asher! The real value of Student Voice isn’t to improve the quality of the education that’s ‘done to them’ but in being part of it. Rather than comparing Student Voice to ‘Market research’ – it may be more worthwhile comparing it to ‘crowd sourcing’…

      • Avatar Tom Hesmondhalgh says:

        An interesting idea – so teaching as a product of collective feedback? But practically don’t you need a teacher to impose a linear (or at least planned) structure on learning?

    • Avatar Tom Hesmondhalgh says:

      Hi Asher. Thanks for your comment, and yes that’s a very important points. You’re right that student voice provides an opportunity for students to exercise responsibility and to take greater control of their own learning, which in itself improves both the teacher-pupil relationship and that pupil’s capacity to learn. I suppose I wonder what that feedback is best targeted at. Ultimately it’s much more of an open question that I probably made out in the post. Can students tell you how to teach, or can they just tell you if that teaching’s working?

      • One way in which students might be able to enhance how you teach is through drawing on their range of experience.
        In a secondary school teachers don’t get a lot of opportunities to see all the other teachers in their own school teach and learn from their methods and styles. The students do. So even just drawing on their students’ experiences of being in other classrooms is a real opportunity for professional development for teachers.
        It’s easy for all of us to get stuck in a rut and think there’s no other way to do things. If you ask the 30 – 300 people in front of you for alternatives they may be able to come up with some interesting ideas, even if (and maybe sometimes because) they’re not seasoned professionals.

        • Avatar Tom Hesmondhalgh says:

          No that’s a good point, and indeed a good teacher should always be open to all feedback, but I think there’s a question of when that feedback is definitive.

          When a group of students say ‘This lesson’s boring’ you can’t really argue – it’s their perception of the lesson and it’s pretty definitive.

          When a group of students say ‘You should walk around the classroom more, like Mr Phelps’ that’s still useful feedback (and probably right) but ot necessarily definitive – and that’s where professional judgement comes in.

          I guess I think if there’s an error in the application of student voice it’s treating that second kind of feedback as definitive – when in fact it needs to be assessed and taken on guidance.

          Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for student voice by the way – but at the same time in some quarters it does get a bad press. I’m interested I suppose in why that is and how it can be broached.

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Tom Hesmondhalgh

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