The untimely death of Steve Jobs provides an opportunity to reflect on the passing of an American icon and take some lessons from his extraordinary life. Steve Jobs had a passion for education. And his passion for education extended far beyond his famous speech at Stanford University. Education was a high priority for Jobs, and I remember when the students at the rural high school where I taught entered their new Mac lab for the first time. That lab was a direct result of Jobs’ innovative spirit. Steve Jobs may be gone, but we still have an opportunity to harness his unique legacy of fearlessness and innovation.
I think that the basic issue that underlies our inability to find workable and scalable solutions to an education system that no longer serves us well is simply fear. Fear of failure. Fear of getting it wrong. Politicians fear meaningful education reform because it could cost them politically to make tough choices. Teachers fear that reform could endanger their jobs. And the paralysis of fear doesn’t bode well for a system that needs boldness and vision. Steve had the attitude we need in education right now: “Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly and get on with improving your other innovations.” That’s the kind of spirit that we need to embrace. Jobs’ successes are legendary. But it’s worth remembering that his failures were epic as well when viewed strictly in terms of financial outcomes.
We’ve become so focused on results that we don’t always reward motivation and good intentions. But these things matter. In our schools, we’ve become so focused on outcomes and test results that we’ve lost the elements of creative spark. We don’t reward students for effort and innovation, and we punish failure. The unintended consequences that we’ve created are a lack of imagination and no motivation to try something that has a chance of ending in failure. We want assured outcomes and rigid structure. Our education system is an anti-Jobs model; we don’t reward creativity. When Steve Jobs’ creativity was stifled and he was pushed out of Apple back in 1985 he started a company few remember. It didn’t experience much success. But the influence still lingers.
What Defines Failure?
The company that Steve Jobs started in 1985 after being forced out of Apple gives us an insight into his early vision of how technology could influence educational innovation. In 1985 he started NeXT. One of the primary focuses of the company was providing computers for educational purposes. NeXT wasn’t really financially successful. But it may have been ahead of its time. Its influence was substantial in setting the foundation for technology in the classroom and online universityoptions in alternative education. Most people would view this venture as spectacularly underwhelming if not an outright financial failure.
Changing Our Paradigm
The company sold a mere 50,000 computers. But that would be missing the point. It was a NeXTcube workstation that inspired the first web server. It laid the foundation for the first web browser software. Looking at Steve Jobs’ NeXT venture through the lens of financial success would miss the genius of what he accomplished. And that’s what we’re doing when we engage in a myopic view of education by focusing so hard on outcomes. We may be missing an opportunity to innovate.
Jesse L. is a recent college graduate looking to make his mark on the world. Currently he is a blogger and a contributor at the Professional Intern. You can follow the Professional Intern on Twitter @TheProIntern.