It has become popular to sneer at our education system’s factory model.

We call for the death of schools in favor of Airbnb-like learning communities. Our SAT/ACT testing culture, our boring direct-instruction content-dumping, our mental health issues - these are easy targets.

But schools can thrive, and many are doing so. Only the job of the school and the teacher needs to change.

To accompany our recent interview, I wanted to write a short book review of Thrive: How Schools Will Win the Education Revolution by Grant Lichtman. Grant is a thought leader and author. He speaks, writes, and works with fellow educators to help them innovate. Educational leaders, as well as a wider array of pundits on education, need to internalize the ideas Grant lays out in his most recent book.

For example:

  • How to ask your community what your value proposition should be
  • How to learn from what the corporate world is doing
  • How to make hard choices: “A strategy is choosing what not to do.”
  • How to accelerate movement by removing barriers. (Change is like a muscle)
  • How to research, design, prototype, test, again and again, slowly then faster
  • How to reveal what your new job is!
  • How to take more risks
  • How to increase the innovation DNA of your school (most schools lack innovation DNA)

At Enrollhand, we often meet school leaders who feel out of touch, whose schools are stagnating. We share with them many of the concepts below, but Grant has a silver tongue and does a way better job of telling it like it is!

The change train left the station years ago

“The ‘why education must change’ train left the station sometime in the 2000s.” It’s refreshing to hear him say that. Too many school communities are stuck on this basic question, and I still find myself tiptoeing around it.

In our recent interview, Grant was adamant that we are past the point of no return. Schools that don’t start absorbing these concepts right now are not going to be around in ten years.

The problem is that “For decades, the general attitude among educators when faced with change has been ‘Don’t worry; the pendulum will swing back the other way; just wait it out’ — and they were usually right.”

Not this time.

Alas, teachers who don’t want to listen, and don’t want to change with the world will be left behind.

Grant points to consumer trends: “Consumers say, ‘This is what I want, when I want it, where I want it,’ and producers either create those products and services or they go out of business.”

The parallel to education is clear: “Twenty years ago in America, roughly 90 percent of students went to their neighborhood public school. Now, that number in some cities and regions is 50 percent and dropping, and in some areas, that curve is steepening, not flattening.”

Yet, our schools have insufficient innovation DNA.

How many teachers like uncertainty? Taking it a step further, liking uncertainty is not even sufficient. You must fall in love with it.

It may sound harsh. But the job you were hired to do changed. You need to tear up and rewrite your job description.

How does one actually go about doing that?

Grant takes us through the Jobs To Be Done framework, used in many organizations from Microsoft to Spotify. Listening to an interview with Spotify’s founder, I sensed Daniel Ek’s fierce focus on the jobs consumers are hiring Spotify to do. He is enthralled by the challenge. That’s why he is adding podcasts to their busy agenda of disrupting the music industry.

Ek states: “We don’t think the job-to-be-done is different at all between podcasts and music. It is really the same thing, audio.”

Reading “Thrive,” I found myself nodding at the fact that our teachers’ job has expanded - just like in the case of Spotify.

Parents used to hire schools to simply help children remain safe, read, write, count, get into college, and find a stable job. This is a narrow, focused, set of tasks.

The tasks for educators have now exploded. “Help my child overcome obstacles. Help my child be future-ready. Help my child to fulfill his or her potential. Help my child to become more globally aware. Give my child opportunities to impact the world in a positive way. Motivate my child to find and pursue her or his passions. Teach my child how to effectively work as a member of a team. Help my child connect with others, make friends, and find role models.”

Oh sure, all while reading, writing, staying safe, and being happy.

Wow. How can we cope? Schools can’t and won’t do it all.

As the jobs are expanding, more help is needed. In my recent interview with Amy Anderson from ReSchool Colorado, we talked about taking some pressure off schools and putting more responsibility on the entire community to educate our children. Amy is trying to curate learning experiences outside the school. From the ReSchool Colorado website: “Youth spend 75% of their waking hours outside of school. Many learners take advantage of this 75% of their time to pursue passions, expand relationships and networks, and develop new skills.” This is a growing theme.

Schools should craft a value proposition to focus their efforts

While help is on the way, schools do need to take on a large chunk of these new tasks.

How do schools choose which jobs to pursue? They need a value proposition.

In the past, schools didn’t need such a thing. Families automatically sent their children to the local school district. Expectations and deliverables were clear. The job was narrow and simple. If you didn't like your school teacher or were not happy with the results, there was not much you could do about it. Some school districts were amazing; others were less so. The customers couldn't choose.

A decade ago, Grant went around asking educators, and few of them knew about value propositions. Now, most of them know. Speaking to a room of 100 heads of school recently, Grant asked them about this and almost all raised their hands.

A value proposition “communicates a clear, unambiguous understanding of what [a school] promises to deliver. If the language is wobbly and open to many different interpretations, the value proposition is on shaky ground. Vague, ambiguous statements such as, “We have great teachers,” or, “We value character” are weak pillars upon which to build a strong value proposition.”

Of the schools we talk to at Enrollhand, a few are now thinking hard about their value proposition. They are eschewing broad statements on their website, such as “it feels like family,” “nurturing environment,” and “low student/teacher ratio” for more specific and targeted statements.

How’s this for a targeted value proposition? Energy Institute High School is the first high school devoted to preparing students for careers in the energy field.

From the school’s website:

"There has never been a greater opportunity for students to begin preparing themselves to enter the high-demand, challenging, and lucrative careers provided within our industry. IPAA is pleased to partner again with HISD and leaders within the energy industry to provide educational initiatives that serve to enrich this STEM-focused energy program."

– Independent Petroleum Association of America

Is your value proposition alive?

Once you have clarified your value proposition, selecting your slice of the ever-expanding Jobs-To-Be-Done pie, you need to “actually deliver what you promise, not just sometimes or for some customers, but a lot of the time for most customers.”

Put in other words: “Your value proposition is the difference between what you say are going to do and what you actually do, as viewed through the eyes of your customer.”

We currently meet a small but growing number of schools that have gone through some kind of visioning exercise. They have a vision, a mission, a set of values, a North Star, a value proposition, and a number of other documents and catchy snippets of flowery text. However, these wordsmithed accolades are rarely alive in the school.

Usually, there are big gaps. “The official school vision statement contains promises that are not delivered to students. Teachers are unable to deliver on the vision because the school systems do not support their work. Classroom practices do not align with the vision.”

Grant puts it bluntly.

  • What students want: “community, curiosity, excitement, passion, enthusiasm, collaboration, inspiring, joy, empathy, engagement, empowered, energy, compassion, and connection.”
  • What students (often) get: “tired, stressed, bored.”

He also provides a fair warning: you can’t say you are ‘a school of innovation where creativity and collaboration are valued’ when students spend 90 percent of their day sitting at their desks in rows, listening to a lecture.”

How do you check if your school is living its value proposition? Look to your customers as the Spotify co-founder does. One tool proposed by Grant, and used in many small and medium-sized businesses is the Net Promoter Score.

“According to massive studies using this tool, only 9s and 10s are real promoters of your school. Anyone who does not self-identify as a 9 or 10 on this scale is not going to positively impact that buzz around the neighborhood, at church, or on the proverbial soccer field.”

If you get lots of 7 and 8 scores, that is okay; there is still work to do.

If you get 6 or below, your students are bored, and it’s on you. You need to act fast. You are not delivering on your promise to your students.

How do you deliver on your promise?

If you’re starting to worry, don’t. Grant has a positive message for you.

“Change means new opportunities to thrill students and their parents.” “You can understand what families want most and build learning experiences proactively rather than waiting.” “Your irresistible school of the future is in demand! It is both needed and wanted by parents and students who know that the traditional school model is not delivering all that they hope for in a school.”

You need to lean into change, embrace uncertainty, and listen to your customers through a process of customer discovery. It comes down to designing a learning experience that kids want. Thinking like an experience designer or even a video-game designer helps.

Here’s a learning experience, designed by the Acton Academy, that lots of students would like to dive into right away: geocache puzzles. “Teachers for all grade levels have begun to use the location-based treasure hunting adventure of geocaching as a teaching tool.”

Acton Academy and a growing number of schools are pursuing deeper learning. Grant places deeper learning into a broader context than I have thought of before, as just “one expression of a highly engaging learning experience, a highly engaging product with great outcomes.”

During recent visits to deeper learning schools, I realized that they are very much a work in progress. Course quality is still widely variable, and school leaders are testing a lot of different things to design their unique value propositions.

An interesting point Grant makes is that product designers place emphasis on the functional traits but also the emotional traits (e.g., battery life, sleek design).

“Functional job aspects are the practical requirements that customers have that drive them to purchase goods and services. We might think of these as the “nuts and bolts.” For schools, these would include a safe environment, teachers who know.”

“Emotional job aspects are more ‘subjective customer requirements related to feelings and perception.’” They include many of the words and phrases that I and others have gathered when we ask parents, students, and teachers what they value most in a learning experience: joy, engagement, curiosity, support, rigor, collaboration, passion, community, excitement, and relationships.”

Deeper learning schools are trying to layer on emotional job traits together with functional jobs. So, in a way, deeper learning is a bit like the iPhone compared to the traditional Android phone…

The result is not yet perfect, as sometimes the pendulum swings too much to the emotional side, providing fascinating experiences without enough underlying practical value. Do you remember the now-defunct NeXT computer? This was a failed effort to provide both emotion and function. The functional part was simply not strong enough. Through failure and iteration and a very bumpy ride, Steve Jobs got past NeXT and to the Apple products we experience today.

Engaging learning experiences don’t need to be all fun and exciting. They can be practical and rewarding, as well. A customer of ours in Montana, the Nelson Academy of Agricultural Sciences Online, offers courses from animal science to beef production and farm business management. Students see a clear path towards a solid career and an alternative lifestyle in nature. This is very engaging.

So, take care to build your learning experiences carefully.

To assist, Grant showcases a neat graphic with thirty “elements of value” that are arranged in four groups: Functional, Emotional, Life-Changing, and Social Impact. You can pick and choose which ones you want to select during your product design.

This graphic brings to mind a number of my favorite brands. Starbucks, Whole Foods, Netflix, Pixar. A lot of great companies go through an intentional analysis of customer needs and then pick the items on the list above that best resonate with their customers.

In Grant’s words: “Companies like Apple, Tesla, North Face, Nike, Lululemon, and Starbucks rocketed to the top of their respective industries not because their products necessarily perform better than the competition. Their products make large groups of customers feel better with the product than without them.”

But again, take care to carefully balance the functional and emotional side of your product design.

Hard decisions are inevitable

As you go through this process, you will not be able to avoid tradeoffs. There is no way to capture all or even most of the thirty elements of value above.

Grant mentions a common occurrence that I have also witnessed.

“Yep, we do that!” But finding examples of value is not the same as systematically embedding those elements into the school operating system.

You will not be able to check off everything on the list. It comes down to strategy.

Strategy is hard. It’s about making choices. Strategy is choosing what not to do. “Think about the struggles that a company such as Apple went through before landing on a product like the iPhone. What is more important: portability or a large screen? Do we want users to interact with a finger or a pointing device? What kind of software system do we build? What about shape, color, and price point?”

The task seems huge - Where do you start?

Some administrators have tried shifting to 100% student-centered learning, from one day to the next. Throw 10 students in a room, give them resources and ask them to learn what they want. There are many studies showing success here, but we haven’t seen it work yet. Most cases we have seen that tried a radical, grassroots approach ended in confusion and frustration.

Grant does not recommend starting with the most difficult issues first. Like a lot of the habit-formation science suggests, you should start with the “low-hanging fruit” (individual classroom practices, student-centered pedagogy, curriculum or lesson changes, decision-making procedures, etc.).”

Change is like a muscle. You start with light exercises, and over time you will be able to pick up heavier loads. This feels very intuitive and resonates with the way we are seeing schools change.

“Most of these innovations don’t dramatically change the school overnight. Many of them occur in a single classroom or among a team of like-minded colleagues.”

As a school leader, you need to trust the change process and lean into it without knowing exactly where it will take you.

It’s hard to embark on a change journey blindly. “Most readers will balk at making such shifts. Their organization is not designed for this. It is like trying to steer a giant truck onto a Formula 1 race track. You need to redesign the organization, making it more agile and responsive to change.”

Instead of hesitating, start with the small stuff. Celebrate successes and failures. Over time you will be able to tackle more significant changes.