The Press, June 2013

Having spent the last couple of weeks guest lecturing at the University of Canterbury, I had a brief insight into how challenging teaching can be compared to being a desk jockey marketing consultant. Equally, I think the education sector could do with a little ‘marketing’ assistance to improve its outcomes.

Taking a marketing perspective i.e. looking at an organisation from its stakeholders point of view, could be applied with real benefit in areas like reporting to parents.

Reporting has changed a lot from my school days of the handwritten scrawl yet again proclaiming that “Owen has promise if he could apply himself more fully etc etc”. Even more since 2010 when the delightfully acronymed NAGs (national administration guidelines) mandated changes to reporting practice, including being focussed on the audience.

Why then does my son come home with a report that tells me he is doing pretty well in English at “making meaning” and “creating meaning”. Problem being, this had little ‘meaning’ to me.

I did eventually find the small print explaining that “making meaning” basically meant comprehending written, audio and visual communication, while “creating meaning” was writing, speaking and presenting. I am sure these terms are rich with significance to a skilled and well-informed English teacher, but they are technical gibberish to a simple old parent like me.

Even worse was in store when I received an invitation to my daughter’s parent-teacher interview (or ‘learning conference’). Instead of a quick one-on-one with the teacher I am now subjected to: “Up to five families will have a student-led conference over 50 minutes in the classroom together. Students will share their learning – on the walls, in their books, on the computer – with their families.”

I am being forced to “engage” with my child’s work, something I already do regularly when I drop her off to school. And here are the instructions for this session:
“The block you are booked within is SO IMPORTANT because this is the time allocated to share learning with your child. If you book the time used as an example in the above sentence and choose to arrive at that time you will meet with the teacher at 3.10pm or 4pm (depending on the day) and then have no time left in block 1 for your child to share their learning around the room as block 1 finishes at either 3.20pm or 4.20pm depending on the day.”

“Making meaning” or “creating meaning” out of that was beyond me.

Is it any wonder that a recent survey from the NZ Council for Educational Research found that for the first time in ten years, the approval rate for the National Certification in Educational Achievement (NCEA) by parents passed 50%. After ten years only half of the primary stakeholders in the system support it! If it was a product it would have been discontinued long ago.

NCEA is a much more complex qualification than something like the old ‘get above 50% in three subjects’ to pass School Certificate, which is often cited as a reason it doesn’t get a lot of support. The primary system’s national standards get the same criticism.

Complexity shouldn’t preclude comprehension though. There are plenty of very complicated things we understand and support with much enthusiasm.

A smart phone is a very sophisticated piece of electronics and software, linked to an online market place of “apps” and requires a telecommunications company contract to operate.
Most people are able to comprehend, access and use smart phones with enthusiasm. Why not the way we assess our children during their education?

As marketers understand, people are motivated to understand things when it is conveyed in terms of ‘what is in this for me’, not simply ‘what this does’.

If you were presented with a smart phone as a ‘handheld computing device with integrated telephony and an operating system that can run local and networked applications’, what would you think?

A technical person can usually grasp this kind of description and see the value. For the rest of us what helps us understand is that it is a tool for keeping in touch with friends and family, organising our life and entertaining oneself in idle times (like waiting for parent teacher interviews) with silly games like Angry Birds or Fruit Ninjas.

It’s the same with school reports, which can come across like a technical brochure written by experts i.e. a teacher would instantly grasp the significance but it is much harder for a layperson.

I may struggle to understand and be engaged in the intricacies of the achievement standards for ‘technology hard materials’ (i.e. woodwork), but I am very motivated to understand whether my children are working well at school and preparing themselves adequately for the future.

Teachers were last week rated as the 12th most trusted profession in the land (marketers didn’t even make the top 50). However if they want to get more parents more engaged in education they could apply a bit of marketing thinking to the way they communicate.

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