If Students Are Customers, What's the Bottom Line?

Stephen D. Brookfield, in his book The Skillful Teacher on Technique, Trust and Responsiveness in the Classroom (2006) states that skillful teaching is grounded in three core assumptions (p. 17), which are:
  1. Skillful teaching is whatever helps the student learn.
  2. Skillful teachers adopt a critically reflective stance toward their practice.
  3. The most important knowledge skillful teachers need to do good work is a constant awareness of how students are experiencing their learning and perceiving teachers actions. 
I would like to discuss each of these assumptions from the lens the learning experience. Jose Bowen, in his book Teaching Naked (2006) states “we like to think of students as our product rather than our customers,” (p. 217) and that we need to become more focused on designing learning experiences (p. 246). This idea had become a driving force in the curriculum design projects I take part in, and the teacher training sessions I deliver.

Give up Traditional Methodologies

Thomas Robinson, the President and CEO of AACSB International, interviewed the Dean of IE Business School about students being customers in October of 2015.  It is a long standing debate, whether students are customers. Regardless of the debate, we need to look at different aspects of the type of experience we are providing. According to Onzono, the learning experience should be a good, memorable and joyful one . He also states that we need to revisit our methodologies, make the best of technology, and consider the use of games in the learning process and give up traditional methodologies like lectures.

When reading these assumptions, I could not agree more. It is essential that teachers start thinking about the student experience from all angles. The education world is having to evolve to keep up with the demands of students who can chose where to study, what to study, and who they want to study with.

If we look at the ESL world in particular, teachers are the central in delivering the product/service (English) to the customer (student). When the student finishes the program, they represent that product/service we provided them (student as product). Teachers, in my experience do not think of themselves or students in this way, and thus, are unaware of the assumptions listed above. They fail to realize how important skillful teaching is to the success and growth of the industry. There are challenges in fostering change, but the potential of improvement should be worth the efforts.

In connection with the first assumption, we approach teaching a new class with our own collections of biases, intuitions, hunches and habits that frame our initial activities. This can lead to us acting out of habit rather than doing what the students need (Brookfield, p. 18). We need to ensure that we are adapting to our students’ needs, and not just teaching what has become comfortable for us.

A few examples of this are first, in the school I work for, there are teachers who have not changed levels, books, or classrooms in years. Without change, how can teachers grow into skillful teachers? In Teaching Naked, it is stated that teachers “give lectures even though we know that they are not effective means of transmitting learning” (Bowen, p. X). Just because it works and the students like you does not mean that we cannot improve both ourselves and the learning experience, which is central in addressing all three assumptions.

Value Comes from our Improvement

Considering the second assumption, critical reflection can be as simple as questioning yourself by asking first, why have I only seen and tried to approach the classroom through my own lens and should I not be looking at my course and lesson design with the student experience in mind. Second, why do I look at my textbook every morning and ask what am I going do to today? Should I not be asking what are my students going to learn and what are they going to do to show me they have learned it?

This is important because there are aspects of teaching I frequently hear colleagues talking about and struggling with. It is quite possible that the struggle will continue is spite of our efforts because we have approached this situation from only the teacher’s point of view and without innovation. 

In a TEDx by Brown University, Professor Deak Nabers discusses education's resistance to innovation and the lessons an educator can learn from Peter Drucker ideas about business. In the video, he asks "how seriously can we take what we're doing if we don't imagine that there's a need to do it better?"

In connection to the debate about students as customers, he says that instructors don't make profit, they make critical thinkers...but no matter how skeptical we are about thinking about business discourse altogether, we need to stop blocking ourselves from thinking about the value of our work. The bottom line is value does not have to come from profit, but it can come from our improvement.

Essentially, all three assumptions relate to the choices we make in the classroom. Brookfield states that without constant awareness, the choices we make as teachers risk being haphazard, and closer to guess work that to informed judgments (p. 28). A haphazard classroom full of lessons made up of guesswork are not going to keep seats in the classroom full.


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