Applying Clayton Christensen’s JBTD Theory to Education, by asking “What’s the job people hire education to do?”
by Marc Prensky
MY FORMER BOSTON CONSULTING GROUP COLLEAGUE, Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen, known for his groundbreaking work on Disruptive Innovation, recently published a new book, Competing Against Luck, with an interesting theory. This “Jobs to be Done” theory, or framework, posits that people “hire” products to do “jobs” that help them make “progress in their lives.” If one can understand the “job to be done” of a customer in a particular situation, the theory proposes, that helps us evaluate how well alternative products do that job, and so allows us to predict whether they will be hired (i.e. purchased) by customers. The goal of the theory is to help make the success of innovations more predictable.
Does this new theory apply to education? How might it help us create innovations we need, and predict whether they will be “hired.” Despite the fact that education, today, is full of people who want to innovate, and full of so-called “innovations.” there has been little useful innovation in education at a fundamental level. Few, if any of the so-called innovations change what is offered as “education” compared to what was offered in the past, at anything but a superficial level. In fact, most of our schools remain much the same as they have been for hundreds of years, with a few “new” things — such as technology and so-called 21st century skills — added on, mostly at the margins. As Christensen puts it elsewhere in his book (in a different context), “we’re just getting better and better at a fundamentally flawed process.”
Christensen does directly address the application of Jobs Theory to “school” in two places in the book, writing:
“In Disrupting Class (2010), which I wrote with my colleagues Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson, we assert that going to school isn’t a job. The job and every student’s life is “I want to feel successful every day.” And, frankly, most schools are not designed to do that job well. In fact, kids often come home at the end of a school day feeling intellectually beat up — that they have failed. Students can hire school to get the job done, but there are lots of competitors they could hire. If a student isn’t feeling successful, for example, he could fire school and hire a gang instead. She could get some kind of unskilled job to earn money and buy a car to feel successful. These are the ”Snickers” and “doughnuts” that compete against school and they are very tempting to students for whom school is not doing the job. By contrast, I am fascinated by the approach that Khan Academy is designing into its offerings. Much of Khan Academy’s material is organized so you cannot fail. When a student gets stuck on a problem, there’re resources easily available to help her understand the concept better. If the student gets frustrated and wants to skip to the next problem, she can’t. She can’t advance to the next challenge until she understands the current problem. For the resources and hints are available with the click of the mouse, enabling the student to overcome the challenge and feel like a success.”
And later, under the heading “Public Education” expanding upon this:
“Disrupting Class [is] an inquiry into why our public schools struggle to improve. Improving schools is a very complicated problem, of course. As we mentioned earlier in this book, one of the most important insights we conveyed in Disrupting Class came when we put on the Theory of Jobs lenses and explored what the job is that students are trying to do. We concluded that’s school is not a job the children are trying to do. School is one of the things that children might hire to do the job. But the job is that children need to feel successful — every day. And they need friends–every day. Sure, I could hire school to do these jobs. But I could drop out of school and hire a gang to feel successful and have friends. Or I could drop out of school, get a minimum wage job to earn some money, and buy a car — and cruise around the neighborhood with my friends.
Most schools don’t do this job well at all. Instead, most children feel failure when they go to class. They could also hire athletics to do the job. For a few, sports do the job well. But for the less gifted, athletics makes students feel failure, too. So they hire electronic games to feel successful. And yet for many, even such games he old failure. So they hire friends who have feelings of failure, too — and engage in drugs and other things to feel successful.
I was heartened to learn recently that Corning CEO Wendell Weeks and his wife Kim Frock, have set up an alternative school, the Alternative School for Math & Science, in Corning, New York, with the explicit goal of helping children feel successful at school. That’s what the Khan academy is focusing on, too. It gives me enormous hope to know that great people are working on getting the job of students right. We’ve learned that these important jobs to be done in our children’s lives have been hiding in plain sight.”
This does not seem exactly right to me. So let me offer — without questioning the theory, which I think is sound — a different perspective on how to apply it to education. To begin with, I believe that what we should be enquiring about, in terms of the “job to be done” is “education,” not “school.” This is because schools are but one of the possible “products” available for doing the job of education, and perhaps not the best alternative at all in many situations. If we are to evaluate various educational innovations — from charter schools, to Khan Academy, to big data analysis, we must ask, “What is the ‘job to be done’ by education by those who hire it?”
So “Why” we must ask “would anyone ‘hire’ an education?” What is the job they want to do? Are there multiple jobs and multiple circumstances for this hire? What kind of product(s) do and should people hire to do these jobs? These are all interesting questions to me. Another way to put this is to ask a question that we ask ourselves for far too infrequently: “What are the ends, goals and purpose of educating our kids?” And for whom?
A crucial point to consider in our Jobs to be Done Theory analysis of education is this: “Who, in fact, is the ‘customer’ for education?” — because there are, in fact, several different customers. It is crucial to know who is doing the “hiring” in each situation because the answer to “what the job of education is” is different for different hirers, and the answer depends, certainly, on which “hirer” you are talking about. “Hirers” of education include society (by government’s setting up and supporting public schools, and choosing their content), parents (by choosing what school to send their kids to, or choosing to homeschool them), and kids themselves (who hire and fire education products by deciding whether or not to show up at school or pay attention, as well as by choosing to us use or not use alternative technologies, (and other means.)
Let us therefore think about the “job” that each of these groups “hires” education to do.
Why might society, through its government, hire education (e.g. by creating public education systems)? The usual answer to why government hires education is to produce, generation after generation on a consistent basis, “good citizens,” who cause that society to flourish. What does “good citizen” mean? It’s not always explicit, but it generally includes some combination of people who are good (i.e. who obey the law and help others), effective (i.e. who do some useful job well, supporting a family, and participating in the political process), and world-improving (i.e. do things that have a positive, and not a negative, impact on their local and global society and world).
What “products” are available for governments and societies to hire to do this? Creating a public school system is, of course one way. Today, in fact, many conflate “education” and “school.” But school and public education is a relatively new product. For most of human history education was a product offered by parents, religions, and various masters who took on apprentices. Government — to the extent that it wanted education for its people — “hired” them through various subsidies. This alternative is still, in fact, available through what is now called “home schooling,” although it would be difficult for any government to make that process universal.
But for the past several hundred years governments have been “hiring” public schools, (and to some extent schools set up by religions and private individuals) to do the education job. Importantly, with few exceptions, government has allowed those running the schools to define what the “job” of education is. What has emerged as a result is that the “job of education” for society has narrowed immensely. “Thinking” is all. Gone are any “effective action, “effective accomplishment,” or even “effective relationships.” Public schools don’t teach becoming “good, effective and world-improving” directly — their job has been narrowed to teaching just four “proxy” subjects: math, English, science and social studies). This narrow curriculum (I call it “The MESS”) has, at the start of the 21st century, become universal. Education has been redefined for society as “delivering this core curriculum to students.” The goal of education is for students to “learn” this curriculum. Society now spends huge sums of money on attempting to test whether such “learning” has taken place and more recently — through PISA — on which countries appear best at making it happen.
The idea of having a better society hasn’t disappeared, it is just that governments now, in effect, place a huge bet that students who have been given an “academic” education in this way will, in fact, someday become good, effective, world-improving citizens. And this may have been a reasonable bet when — as was the case until recently — the kinds of “good citizens” needed were people who fitted well into an industrial society. But now we no longer live in that society. Therefore, the education product of the past — narrow academic education — is no longer working well today, as Christensen and many others acknowledge. Today there is strongly growing dissatisfaction with the job that many of our public schools are doing. Not only do many kids not make it all the way through school, but even when they do, our kids are not becoming the citizens we want and need, and it is likely that this will be even more true in the future.
A Changing Job
So the job society “hires” education to do is changing, and new products to do that job are sorely needed. We need to innovate, to create an education that far better does the job, in our new context, that society has always had for education: making society better. No longer can we do this by getting individuals to “learn” and “improve at ‘the MESS’” as we have in the past.
What are the kinds of innovations we need? Some see the innovations we need as ways to have more kids focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), or, with the Arts, (STEAM). In the U.S., some see “charter schools,” as a better “product” to hire. Others see using technology and/or increasing student’s personal connections as ways to make the MESS a more innovative product.
The problem I see, however, is that none of these solutions is really an alternative “product” for society to “hire” to do the job of education differently and more effectively in our new world and context. In fact, they are all really the same product — i.e. academic education — in different colors or flavors. (Were we to use a transportation analogy, they are all different breeds of horses in a world that has moved on to cars, and beyond.) Even highly touted technological innovations, such as Khan Academy, are still offering the exact same academic education with different delivery systems. Because it is really the only product out there, society is still buying the same Academic education and placing the same bet on its succeeding — only now with much longer odds.
But are there other alternatives a society or government can hire for educating its population? Have useful innovations, in fact, emerged? The answer is yes, although they are just starting to emerge. We are beginning to realize that the “academic education” dominating in all our schools is only one of the educational traditions and alternatives in the world. There has always been a second tradition — an accomplishment tradition — of education, formerly delivered parent-to-child, master-to-apprentice, and now delivered — mostly on-the-job — in our businesses. In fact, when people enter business, they typically require an entirely new education, one focused on accomplishment and “getting things done.” This is the source of the great complaining about “education” we often hear from the business leaders of today.
What Society needs today is a fundamentally new education “product” — one that combines the academic and accomplishment traditions of education into something new that better prepares kids for the future world. I believe this new solution to the “job” of educating kids there is emerging in the world as an innovative solution much more suited to what the “job” of educating kids has evolved into as we begin the third millennium. I will discuss it more later on.
But before I do, let me discuss a second group of “education hirers”: parents. Adults with kids are mandated by law, in most places, to “hire” a government-approved education product for their children. But what is the “job” that parents hire one of these education products to do? Is it to “improve society” as in the previous case?
Although some may certainly want to improve society, I believe parents have a very different, and perhaps more selfish, view of what the “job” of education is for them. This “job” has, I believe, both a narrow, short-term component and a broader, longer-range component. The narrow component of the education “job” for parents is “Make my kid successful in the current academic system, and get him or her into college, and/or a good job.” The bigger education “job” that parents have is “Make my kid successful in his or her future world and life.”
Parents have their own set of options to choose from to do these education jobs. These include doing the job themselves through home schooling and hiring a full-time tutor (as parents of child performers often do). Their other alternatives may depend on their economic status: poorer parents have little choice but to “hire” the public education system (whether through public or “charter” schools.) Those with greater means can hire private schools — secular or religious — to do the job.
But once again it should be noted that while there are clearly differences between these alternatives in a number of ways, at the fundamental level they are very much the same –- i.e. various colors and flavors of academic education — and therefore do not provide real alternatives. In some places, particularly in parts of Europe, parents may have the additional alternative of hiring a “vocational” education — although this is too often seen as “second class.” So like the previous group, this second group of education hirers is in need of new, innovative products to choose from.
And then there are the kids themselves. What job do kids hire education to do for them? Kids often cannot determine the school they go to, or what it offers, but they can, and do, hire and fire education products. This includes school, by choosing whether or not to go or pay attention, and technology products (like Khan Academy) by choosing whether or not to use them. Kids do have — and exercise — alternatives. But now we must ask “for what Job?”
The broad job of kids is “to grow up to be successful in life.” All kids — formally or informally, consciously or unconsciously — hire some kind of an “education” to attempt to do this. They can of course go to school. But they can also, as Christensen points out choose to do work, or to find a mentor and/or peers to educate them (say in a gang), or even to get their education through random experiences (i.e. the proverbial “school of hard knocks.”)
What, from their perspective, must an education, formal or informal, provide for them, on a day-to-day basis in order for them to “hire” it over other products?
The kids who heed the oft-proffered-by-adults-advice that success in the academic system will make them successful in life, see the daily job of education as “helping them succeed in the academic system.” They “play school” and often do succeed. But this group is quickly shrinking. Today many kids are starting to reject that advice. Most see their world changing rapidly and academic education not changing to address those changes. Many see, or feel instinctively that there is little or no causation, or even correlation, between academic success and success in life. (That is, in fact, what the evidence shows). Christensen posits kids “fire” school because they are unsuccessful at it. That may be true for some. But many more, I believe, fire school because they find it less and less relevant and useful for their current and future lives. Christensen suggests that the “job” kids hire education to do is “to be successful every day” but I have never heard a single kid articulate this in any form — although I am sure many do hate being told over and over that they are “failing.”
Instead, what I hear from the hundreds of kids that I have talked to around the world is this: The main thing they want from school is “not to be bored” i.e. they want to hire an education that lets them spend all their time doing things they are interested in and passionate about. Kids know they will not be successful every day when they are working at something they love, but they do want to be working toward, and reach their own goals and dreams.
The second thing kids almost always ask for is to be respected and trusted. Kids know they will make mistakes and want to be able to make those mistakes — and correct them — in a supportive environment.
The third thing kids want to hire an education that makes them feel good about who they are and what they can do, i.e. one that builds their self-esteem and self-confidence. This is of course related to the idea of “feeling successful every day,” but not at all identical.
So for kids, the job of education — whether gotten from school or from elsewhere — is to help them work toward achieving their dreams, by working daily on things they are interested in and passionate about in an atmosphere of trust and respect, that builds their self-esteem and self-confidence. (A student I know of, who has become quite successful, confirmed this when he said of one of his teachers “she showed me I could take my dreams as seriously as I wanted.”)
Unfortunately, most of our schools, public or private do not do this job for most kids. And only very occasionally do kids find adults — as that last student did — to do this job. So once again, for yet a third group of education hirers, we find ourselves in need of innovation new alternatives to do the job.
“Education,” as we currently provide it (whether through the formal academic schooling system or through available alternatives, such as the “school of hard knocks”) does not do the job we need. It fails all of the groups that hire it — except in a shrinking number of cases. From society’s point of view, it doesn’t provide us with good citizens prepared for the future. From the parents’ point of view, it doesn’t guarantee their kid’s getting into college or getting a good job. And from the kids’ point of view it doesn’t provide them with what they most want and need from an education, i.e. applying their passion, getting respect, and building self-confidence and self-esteem in order to become successful.
We Need to Innovate, But in The Right Way
Jobs Theory posits that when hirers are dissatisfied with the options they have, they actively or passively seek alternatives, and when they find better alternatives to do the job they fire the old one and hire the new. Since the jobs of education are not getting done it should be the case that alternatives are emerging, or will emerge, in education to do the unfulfilled jobs (or, alternatively, there is great opportunity for someone to provide new solutions to do the jobs.)
Is this happening? Some would argue yes. Venture capitalists are funding “education innovations” to the tune of almost $2 billion a year in the US. Christensen touts both Khan Academy and a particular charter school for focusing more explicitly on making kids feel successful every day (although I maintain, as discussed, that that is not really the job kids hire school to do). Julia Fisher recently suggests expanding kids’ social networks is crucial (I agree.)
But the real question for me is this: Are we creating real, fundamental alternative education solutions available for hire, or are we merely only creating other ways to deliver, essentially, the same product? Are we, in other words, just, adding new merchandise to the shelves in our stores, without really solving the problem — just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?
Even if we do accept that the goal of education is to make kids feel successful, we need to see that what almost all the “innovative” products coming out really focus on is “making kids feel successful at school as we traditionally conceive it” — i.e. at academic education. Thus they don’t solve the fundamental problem of education not fitting the world the kids live in. The real, underlying problem is that academic education is no longer the kind of education that will make people successful in life, which is the kids’ and parent’s long-term goal. It is also not the kind of education that will reliably produce the citizens we need in the future, or make society better. Going back to our travel metaphor, almost all the new alternatives and innovations emerging in education are just giving us better buggy whips (i.e. a better academic education) at a time when we need our kids to be driving not only cars, but rockets. It is not enough for a kids to “feel successful every day” as an academic student (i.e., a metaphorical, horseback rider) because horseback riding is no longer what is needed. And the kids know it.
That is the real problem we face in education. We dabble, though technology and other means, at marginal improvements, to do old education “jobs” that are fading incredibly rapidly before our eyes. Perhaps 99 percent of all education “innovations” are around the old academic paradigm of what education means. Few politicians or parents (i.e. those with the purse strings) are willing to give it up or consider radical alternatives. Too few of our educators know what to do about this.
The Emerging Alternative
But some do. As is typically the case when a job arises, alternative products emerge. And these new products are now emerging in pockets, all around the globe providing new innovative solutions to the education job of society, parents, and kids. I believe we are now beginning to see products, and innovations, that meet the following “job” requirements:
- Produces the kinds of citizens and people society will need in the future and improves the world locally and globally.
- Assures parents that their kids will be successful in the longer term.
- Provides kids with an opportunity for them to unleash their own passion, whatever it might be, and to apply it to real world problems in an atmosphere of trust, respect and independence that builds their self-confidence and self-esteem and ultimately makes them successful.
The general shape of these products is to educate our kids through a series of real-world projects, suited to each kid, that both improve the world locally and globally, and improve the kids as individuals. They are educational products that no longer provide the same MESS to all, but tailor what is provided to only and exactly what is needed by each student as they do the projects. The solution we need is education products that provide kids with all the underlying skills they need — effective thinking skills, effective action skills, effective relationship skills and effective accomplishment skills, — and at the same time provide kids with the full measure of what humans have learned through the ages. I describe a vision of these products, and of this emerging education, in my newest book Education to Better Their World: Unleashing the Power Of 21st-Century Kids (Teachers College Press, 2016).
We are now starting to see real-world project-based educations and products emerge around the world. Some are individual practices, some are classes and schools, and some are technology support tools. My guess is that as these products emerge and improve, we will see kids, parents, and even countries and societies hiring them more and more.
At one point Christensen writes that we need to be “attached to the job but not always in the way we solve it today.” But jobs themselves can change, and that is what is happening in education as our world changes. What Christensen suggests we should be looking for, are recurring episodes in which consumers seek progress but are thwarted by the limitations of available solutions. That to me describes today’s K-12 education to a “T”. His wise advice is that “If you build your foundation on the pursuit of understanding your customers jobs your strategy will no longer need to rely on luck.” Let us hope that this is true for education, and that we get closer to understanding what those jobs really are.
Marc Prensky is the award-winning author of seven books on education and an internationally-acclaimed speaker in over 40 countries. Coiner of the term “Digital Native,” Marc has taught at all levels from elementary to college. He is the founder of The Global Future Education Foundation and of ARISE-NET.WORLD (the Alternative Real-World-Impact Student Project Education Network), promoting Accomplishment Education in the world and uniting all those who offer such education. Marc’s latest book, “Education to Better Their World: Unleashing the Power of 21st Century Kids”, won the FOREWORD Gold Prize in Education. Contact Marc at email@example.com .