Monday, April 30, 2012

The Marketing Gap of 21st Century Education

There is a major gap in the way independent schools are marketing themselves. Here it is. The promise of a 21st century (21C) education is more meaningful to educators than it is to parents.

At the core of this issue are differing views on what it will take for today’s children to be prepared for their future as adults and what that future will look like. Educators and educational literature clearly point to an era in which skills will trump knowledge and in which there will be a set of professional/vocational roles never seen before.

But I believe that parents still want their kids to know the three R’s and view educational success in terms of their children becoming doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers. In their eyes, the best schools have the best results in standardized testing and send more of their students to the best colleges.

While independent schools proudly promote their adherence to 21C principles, parents are looking for other markers of success. This discordance may or may not be keeping parents from enrolling children, but it will certainly lead to disappointed customers in the future.

I’ve been reading (and would encourage everyone involved in education to read) Seth Godin’s treatise on education called Stop Stealing Dreams. He provides some relevant views and analysis. For example, he says:
“Parents don’t ask their kids, “what did you figure out today?” They don’t wonder about which frustrating problem is no longer frustrating. No, parents have been sold on the notion that a two-digit number on a progress report is the goal—if it begins with a “9.”
A little cynical perhaps but successful marketing requires you understand the motivation of buyers even if you don’t agree with them. To deny the ways in which parents measure success, will lead to unmet expectations.

Godin tells a powerful story about the way sales of LEGO were saved. It seems that in response to sagging sales, LEGO moved from selling packages of assorted blocks to pre-defined kits – ones that provided the necessary blocks and instructions to build a particular thing - a robot or a spaceship or a tractor. It worked. Sales increased because “they match[ed] what parents expect[ed] and what kids have been trained to do. There’s a right answer! The mom and the kid can both take pride in the kit, assembled. It’s done. Instructions were followed and results were attained.”

The 21C educational maxims of creativity, collaboration and communication are too often falling on deaf ears. In addition, parents aren’t convinced of the need for 21C super-skills like bravery, responsibility, judgment and willpower. The purchaser is buying something other than what the vendor is selling. That can only lead to problems.

Here’s what I think independent schools should be doing about this:

Acknowledge reality. Parents are likely not interested in the tenets of 21C education. Children are still being taught to think in a very 20th century manner by both parents and society. Godin sums it up by saying, “We’re entering a revolution of ideas while producing a generation that wants instructions instead.” It’s important that schools and their marketers are honest about the views of target segments. We can’t be deluded by our own marketing material.

Conduct Research. Find out what your parents consider to be the markers of educational success. Determine the attitudes of your parents toward the principles of 21C education. Perhaps ask parents about their vision of success for their children as expressed in more emotional terms – happiness, preparedness, having more opportunity than parents did. All of that will be invaluable marketing from recruitment and retention points of view.

Find common ground. Parents ultimately want heir kids to have the tools for success. Or as Godin poignantly says, “Parents were raised to have a dream for their kids—we want our kids to be happy, adjusted, successful. We want them to live meaningful lives, to contribute and to find stability as they avoid pain.”

Perhaps schools need to a better job of acknowledging that primal parental motivation and with that as a basis, explain that the definitions of “adjustment,” “success” and “meaningfulness” have shifted.

Avoid jargon. Explain better. Schools have an obligation to train parents while educating their children. The term “21st Century Education” is one dimensional and not well understood. Schools should provide literature, workshops and lectures for parents explaining the concepts and the need for the techniques. Provide parents with practical examples of how all of this is being implemented and the ways in which their children are benefiting.

Empathy is a critical ingredient to successful marketing. It’s important that we put ourselves in the shoes of parents and view the world that way. Godin says, “What matters is that finding a path that might be better is just too risky for someone who has only one chance to raise his kids properly.” Smart independent school marketers will listen carefully and guide themselves accordingly.

And what do you think? Are independent schools doing a good job of marketing the promise of a 21C education? What can or should be done? Please comment with your ideas so we can create an important conversation.


  1. This is an interesting proposition, but it would be nice if you had some survey data to back it up. Our school recently did a large scale survey of our constituents (students, parents, and alumni) and found that skills trumped information in importance and that alumni, in particular, regretted not learning more practical skills like personal finance and how to build things - not content we usually identify with a college prep curriculum.

  2. Thanks for the comment Sherri. I tried unsuccessfully to find more global research regarding parents' attitudes toward 21C education. I suspect it would be more effective to do on a local basis. The kind of research you have done is commendable and parallels one of my recommendations. Many schools also survey alumni in the year after graduation to see if they felt they were properly prepared. That would be an interesting marker as well.

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