The Business of Educating Children: Four Business Books for Educators

he Business of Educating Children

At a recent meeting, one mother, to bolster her argument, turned to the teachers in the room and exclaimed that the parents were the school’s customers and that the customer was always right.

Never mind that this cliché is rarely honored by American businesses, it is a statement that demonstrates how distant we are the days when communities came together in the name of the whole child.

It is not that business jargon has trickled its way into education—the two have a long entangled history—but that its players are adopting roles traditionally reserved for business. Parents as customers is an obvious one, but a lot of principals and superintendents describe themselves as managers, teachers discuss their role as workers, and students are simply seen as product. In the worse extremes, schools are described as “learning factories” or “warehouses”. The trend indicates a frustration communities feel with their roles in our current education system.

Still, there is much educators can learn from business.

While many a teacher, administrator, school board member or parent might reach for the latest book on pedagogy in addressing issues with their schools, they might find more inspiration in the business section of their local bookstore, instead. The following four books are a great place to start.

The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker

While U.S. politicians loudly shout how schools need to be run more like a business, American businesses are not doing too well. How can the local elementary school expect to get in shape, for example, when the once mighty big three automakers scratch their heads while in free fall? Easy: look towards Toyota.

While the labored concept of Total Quality Management has been grafted onto nearly any endeavor, most often as a gimmicky fad, Toyota has taken the basic concept and made it their own.  That alone—their willingness to experiment and commit to the concept over the long haul—is what makes Toyota a model for educators.

The Toyota Production System (TPS) was created after the company’s founder Sakichi Toyoda, his son and an engineer visited the Ford Motor Company. Unimpressed with the waste and inefficiency they saw throughout Ford’s plants, they found inspiration at a local Piggly Wiggly supermarket. There, inventory was restocked and reordered only when items sold. Drawing heavily on the works of Henry Ford and economist W. Edwards Deming, concepts such as Lean Manufacturing and Just In Time inventory systems were born.

TPS has several components, many of which are very subtle, but it boils down to a few basic concepts.

First, waste is bad. The elimination of waste, from supplies to time, is the foundation of TPS. Look, for example, at your students’ schedule. When the minutes are added up, students often spend more time passing from class to class than they spend in art class each week.

Second, question each part of the process. Does the daily battle over a student without a pencil distract and waste time or stress the importance of responsibility? That answer depends on the overall focus of that school.

Third, turn every employee into a quality control inspector. Change the word employee to student, parent, teacher and community member. The trick is to empower them, something too often given only lip service to. When all members are empowered, the loud complainers tend to get pushed aside by good, helpful ideas.

Most important, TPS stresses the long term outlook. What will students be learning in five, ten, fifteen years? Since students pass through a single district over thirteen years, this makes sense. Unfortunately, administrators, school boards and (in some schools) teachers do not seem to last that long. The constant assault of new, sexy teaching philosophies can make this element near impossible.

Liker and David Meier wrote a companion book The Toyota Way Fieldbook, designed to help people implement the philosophical concepts discussed in The Toyota Way. At its best, The Toyota Way confirms that the annoyances and weaknesses of your school is not a natural state, but systemic. That means it can be changed, which, in itself, is heartening to know.

The One Minute Manager by Kenneth H. Blanchard and Spencer Johnson

Having turned every student, parent and teacher into a quality control inspector, how does a manager get the hard work of student learning done?

In short, the one minute manager of the title sets clear, measurable and inspired goals.

He or she then, after some initial planning, makes it the responsibility of the person below them to accomplish the goal. As a mentoring teacher once told me when I was stressing about prepping for a project, make the student do the work. The “one minute” part refers to quick praising and reprimands to keep things on course.

Told as a parable, The One Minute Manager book can be read in a single sitting.

There is nothing radical here, save for the simple idea that education only works in the hands of the students. Active learning, as opposed to passive receiving, is not only effective for the students, but takes a lot of the burden off of over-extended teachers. For those who feel they spend more time writing comments on papers than the student did writing it, this book is a necessity.

Do not let the word “manager” distract you. This book is perfect for anyone from parents to administrators. Even students working in groups would benefit from a refocus of their role in the project’s learning goals.

This is not to be confused with The One Minute Teacher, also by Johnson. Johnson more recently had great success with his Who Moved My Cheese title and its spin-offs. There are dozens of “One Minute” offshoot books, including The One Minute Golfer, which dovetail off of the original’s basic premise. Copies of copies tend to be blurry; go to the original.

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

If you have not heard of this book, chances are you have heard of Wikipedia.

The basic concept is that collective knowledge is smarter than the all knowing individual.

How does it apply to education? How doe sit not!

A teacher stands at the board and lectures to a class of intelligent-yet-unappreciated students. Instead, use student knowledge and interest to guide the class. No longer just quality control inspectors, they are now solving the problems raised by the community.

Surowiecki focuses on four elements of the wise crowd: diversity of opinion, independence of members from one another, decentralization, and a good method for aggregating opinions. Each of these essentials becomes harder to come by in the classroom than the one before it, but with a little work students—too often overlooked as a resource—can be the engine for great classroom learning.

Or teachers! Schools spend millions to have these educational professionals in their employment, and thousands more to continue their education, only to lock them in an isolated classroom while the administration and school board hash out policy decisions. When systems are created that tap this knowledge base, schools win not only in the ideas generated, but the investment of its faculty.

Guerrilla Marking by Jay Conrad Levinson

Marketing and education seem not just incongruous, but distasteful together. The term brings the revulsion that the parent referring to themselves as customers did. But if education is as much about inspiration as knowledge—and most educational theories agree that it is—understanding authentic marketing may be the key to motivating organizations towards student learning.

More than any of the other business books mentioned, Levinson focuses on the nuts and bolts of business. This is not a theoretical tract, but a focused guide on getting your company product into the hands of customers via marketing. For this reasons alone Guerrilla Marketing makes this list.

Levinson focuses on small business and low budgets. Instead of money, an organization’s resources are time, energy and imagination. He writes that an acute focus on excellence, not diversified offerings, leads to success. Also, organizations should use a combination of methods for any campaign.

If you substitute a small school with a strapped budget, a pedagogy based in educational psychology, a resourceful community, high standards on the basics and differentiated learning Levinson could be speaking to educators. Unlike books about those topics, though, is his ability to shatter the box that holds traditional thinking. If anything, Guerrilla Marketing is so energetic that it forces you to defend everything you do. Unlike many books, he does not push a particular plan, but the ideas that any plan must have to succeed.

If you are open minded enough to use business books for an educational organization, Levinson will stimulate some important questions in how you proceed.

Schools as Models

Of course, there is no end of business titles that can be applies to learning. From Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point to Scott Adam’s Dilbert cartoons there is a business book to explain any phenomenon, or give advice for any situation.

What these four books have in common is that they expand the circle. Unlike schools, which can limp along, business must succeed or they die. It is why politicians and parents like to employ them as metaphors. If applied to schools, these books focus on educators being facilitators for learning. Students become active engines of learning, not products to be inventoried, while the community of parents, administrators, teachers and citizens serve as a collective resource guiding the outcome.

To be honest, for all of the bad publicity that schools receive there is a lot going well.

Now, if only businesses looked to its schools as a model we all might be buying American again.


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