Monday, May 5, 2014

What if Public School Curriculum was Treated like a Product?

by Wes Royer

One evening during my commute home, that is the question that popped up in my head. And over the next couple weeks, I was further inspired along the same topic by several TEDxRVA speakers, my two pre-K daughters, and Sir Ken Robinson.

So what if we treated our children’s education like a product? What would that mean?

First, we’d need to identify who the customer is. But the customer is the child receiving the education, right? Yes, but your typical grade-school or even high-school aged kid probably doesn’t know what they need from an education. Kids may joke about what they want to learn about in class, but it’s adults that know what education a kid needs to make a living and be successful after high school and college.

So how would a disciplined product manager help with identifying who the customer is and what that customer needs from public education?

A product manager would interview and get to know the customer. Sure, that product manager very likely attended public school and indeed can look back with a critical mind about what he wished he had learned in school vs. what he thinks was a complete waste of time. But that is biased opinion of one. A product manager would need to interview, know, and represent kids, parents, university heads, and business leaders to define what it is that today’s kids need to learn today to survive in the future.

And speaking of the future, a product manager would need to understand that education as a market inherits unpredictability of the financial and job markets, and suffers from education inflation or academic inflation. This highlights the importance of the “right product, right time” principle. The product manager isn’t defining what problems an education customer has yesterday or today; instead, they are defining what problems the customer will have 12 years from now.

That’s why the product manager would try to understand what universities are looking for in applicants 12 years from now. What education, skills, and mindsets are universities hoping to see in freshmen students 12 years from now to enhance their scholarly reputation 4 years after that?

Likewise, the product manager would attempt to understand what the job market and corporations are looking for in young applicants 12 to 16 years from now. What emerging jobs require greater math skills, and are we assuming all mathematic studies, or just algebra and geometry? Is learning a second language more important or less important 12 years from now, and what languages are the most useful? Do computer and typing skills outweigh handwriting and spelling tests? Do students need to learn the big SAT words when professional writing courses tell us to write at a grade school level? Is it more important to memorize dates and places instead of understanding why things have happened in the history of our country and the world?

How do we apply technology without sacrificing the student’s need to apply creative thinking and problem solving skills. How do we foster children’s intelligence, passion, imagination, and invention over standardization, conformity, and trend following? How do we teach confidence, integrity, focus, time management, presentation skills, and interpersonal communication skills? Aren’t these all problems that education as a product needs to address so that companies can hire people that will succeed personally and for the company?

Yes, the questions seem endless and impossible to define a product from, but a product manager would handle that by creating a roadmap, defining success for each “feature” on that roadmap, prioritizing each feature based on customer need, and then hopefully addressing each feature one at a time in some Agile method that accommodates flexibility in the roadmap.

And then, the product manager would have to evangelize the product, selling the concepts and marketing the benefits to leaders at all levels (federal, state, and local; public and private) that will themselves become evangelists. Corporations would lobby for the product on the grounds of its benefits to the economy, because the product manager provided direct and indirect benefits that offset the cost impacts of redefining a curriculum. And the product manager would have defined geographical work forces and foreign economies as competition.

Twelve years from now, how would we know if the changes were successful? Well, the product manager would have defined success and quantifiable metrics to measure against. And understanding that no product manager gets it 100% right, the product manager would be continually reevaluating the customer, the problems, the roadmap, and the solution.

All the above is what a disciplined product manager could do for education. There are probably private schools that take this approach already at their micro level. And I am not sure where and who to start with to achieve a state or federal “product” strategy. But as a product management professional, I know there’s a discipline that could help improve our kids’ future and the future of our economy.

References of inspiration…

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1 comment:

  1. The Education Economy: America's Next Big Thing

    "Unless we get education and the economy working together more effectively, America will relinquish its role as leader of the free world."