Should students be treated like customers?

From Mike Sansone:

I once asked a teacher what would happen if they treated their students like customers, with a design philosophy of customer experience in mind. The teacher was taken aback. She said the day she treats her students like customers is the day she would lose control of the room.

At that moment, I knew she was standing on the line of irrelevancy — and about to cross over. The reality is, she should have been looking for ways to share control rather than try to own it alone.

Hmmm… reminds me a bit of this Robert Fried quote.

In other news, student enrollments in more-personalized choice options such as charter schools, virtual schools, alternative schools, and home schooling continue to rise…

15 Responses to “Should students be treated like customers?”

  1. Our students are consumers. They consume knowledge. We are now presented with an era where they can be selective and obtain their knowledge elsewhere. If we, as educational institutions, are to remain relevant, we must acknowledge that help our students WANT to learn in schools. To do that we need to reevaluate how we present our content and how we connect to our students.

  2. Well, I am not sure I agree the question whether students should be treated like customers makes sense without the surrounding context. If it is asked in a straightforward fashion, then my answer would be just like that teacher’s “Umm, no!”. And totally not because of the control issue, but rather because the teacher does not sell knowledge to students. Well, knowledge is not exactly a product, it is also a process.

    Rather than pushing a program and/or school to students, it is simply moral to sit down and discuss the pros and cons of a program/school, like, Why do you think this program/school is appropriate for a particular student? Does its mission statement resonate with a student? Can a student afford this program/school?

    As a parent, I will sit down with my child to explain that if the school does treat her as a customer, it does not necessarily meant it will do a good job educating my child, precisely because knowledge is WAY more than a product that one can sell.

    So, the question like this should come in the context, and the contexts can be MANY…Which means I see how the quote above portrays students as customers. But there are also other subtle dimensions to consider.

  3. The notion of students as consumers is one of the more noxious memes floating around our schools and halls of policy. Such an interpretation fundamentally misunderstands the value of education and forever disempowers students as passive members of a one-way transaction, recipients of particularly structured information and systems of value, information whose half-life diminishes at a rate not unlike that described by Moore’s Law.

    Irrelevancy lies in the notion that the world is still a top-down regime.

    Students desire to learn has nothing to do with it. Students are hungry for knowledge like no other, but fundamentally understand that knowledge is personally constructed not deposited.

  4. To some people, the idea of treating a student like a “customer” means – treating them like they are always right. In business this is a straight forward and simple concept – you want their money – and you want them to buy from you again so you don’t want to tick them off. It’s a transaction with no ethical considerations. This simplistic view is what turns us educators off – and for the most part is NOT was it meant by the blog post.

    In education there are other issues to consider – it is not a transaction.

    However, for some people, treating someone like a customer simply means, treating them with respect, dignity and courtesy. From this perspective – then yes, every adult should treat a child like this – even when disciplining them and holding them accountable.

  5. Mark draws an excellent and useful distinction in the interpretation of the idea of “customer.” It serves to remind us that even traditional core values of civil discourse and bearing have been enmeshed in the language of commerce and such a development, propagated widely through out the culture, frames the conversation even about “respect, dignity, and courtesy” as a transaction. That may not be the worst thing in the world, but we ought to take language seriously.

  6. I agree with Mark and Kurt. I’m hesitant to criticize the teacher in Mike Sansone’s account, because the language of commerce CAN be troubling in an educational context. If students are customers and teachers purveyors of products, then what happens to the community of people who should share responsibility for meeting common goals?

    The growing tendency to refer to parents as customers in an educational marketplace makes me uneasy for similar reasons. Choice is very important, but we shouldn’t allow these choices to become mere transactions that weaken our belief in public responsibility for public education.

    Finally, when a teacher worries that she might “lose control” of a room, she may well be thinking about the considerable challenges of preserving discipline and resisting the worst kind of disorder. She may believe that treating students as customers amounts to serving their every whim. Treating students as members of a community of learners may be more appropriate. Does her concern necessarily push her to the brink of irrelevancy?

  7. in the context of today’s customer (what would google do?)- i think the student should be treated like a customer.

    jarvis’ take is like shirky’s – “publish then filter.” offer up a product, within your standards of course, and then provide a platform for them to tweak. the filtering or the tweaking is the process that not only gives the student (customer) ownership, but because of the absolute magnificence of the students abilities/creativities that are too often blocked in school, the end product is far better than anyone could have imagined.

    today’s customer is listened to by hits on google. in the classroom, those hits represent challenges, curiosities, misunderstandings, anything that kids find remarkable (worth talking about – good or bad) with any given topic or skill.

    one small example: within a class site you have a list of interactive sites that kids can go to for extra practice or extended research. rather than teacher loading up those sites, students submit sites they find that have helped them most. offer points for every hit they get from students who also use the sites they submitted (most district platforms will count hits for you – ie: moodle.) then watch kids take ownership and start using it. watch it start growing into a better resource center or study guide than any one teacher could ever have created.

    pay to the teacher (and student) – kids get the math. class is fun. time is spent discussing rich ideas, doing rich experiments and research.
    product for the student (and teacher) – a finely tweaked platform of minutely differentiated methods/etc for learning math – made by them – so user-friendly.

    students most definitely should be treated with respect – but that’s not the big issue here. the big issue is – how can i offer the best product (education/desire to learn more) for my students. the best product will happen when many creative minds continually adjust, tweak, filter….through methods that make sense to them.

    nice post scott. i’m a new subscriber. there hasn’t been a day yet that hasn’t blown me away. early this week – episode 4 of the radio post. wow – learned so much about implementation and pd in our day.
    huge huge grazie for the work you are doing. we need to make you a staple on district platforms everywhere.
    keep us cranking.

  8. This like most questions doesn’t have a black and white answer. I can picture the compare/contrast chart in my head…

    In some ways, students are like customers:
    – both have an expectation that they are treated with respect
    – both should have the ability to make some meaningful choices about what they “buy” (learn)
    – there is an aspect of sales in both education and business… in business, you try to promote your product… in education, we try to make learning meaningful and relevant, which is similar.
    – businesses want repeat customers… educators want life-long learners… same basic idea, though in the case of educators we would think it great if students were able to learn without our services, while businesses would probably prefer that their customers are reliant on them

    However there are some important differences…
    – teachers assess students’ learning… whereas most businesses do not assess customers’ responses to their products in the same way or for the same purposes
    – in business, what matters most is the current sale and the future sales… in education, I’d hope what matters most is not the sale (lesson / learning) but the person. A business probably doesn’t care what else is going on in your life when you leave the store… I think educators do and should.
    – business is often focused on return on investment measured in a relatively short period of time… in education, the return on investment is often long term.
    – teachers are responsible (moral, legal) for students… businesses really don’t have the same type of responsibility to their customers… if a customer is problematic, the business can give them a refund and that’s that… businesses are responsible to shareholders and regulators more than customers I think.

    So… in some ways students are like customers, in quite a few other ways they’re not. On balance, I’d probably answer “Um, no” to the question too… but not because I don’t believe in respect, choice, and relevance.

  9. I come from a medical (read “patient-centered”) and business (read “client-centered”) backgrounds prior to teaching in elementary school (read “child-centered”). Thus, it was pretty natural for me to arrive to public education with a customer service approach, my customers being children and their taxpaying parents.

    I’ve milled over this relationship a lot, against the traditional “customer is always right” thinking of business, and arrived at the conclusion that, YES, teachers should approach children and their parents as customer. However, I’m a parent and taxpayer too. I am an equal stakeholder in this relationship, so is the childless retiree or single-income taxpayer who never steps foot in my school. All of us, no matter who provides which service, reap the consequences (be they positive or negative) of public schools.

    My ultimate communication to students and parents is that we all have the responsibility to approach public educations as the client-centered service provider AND the customer. If we approached ANY relationships with the mindset of a selfless, but mutual benefit and greater good for the whole, wouldn’t our world (and public ed) be a better place?

  10. A good conversation, but the basic premise is still faulty. Monika seems to be referring to a pedagogical approach to teaching, and speaks to the idea of giving students a chance to shape the lesson or the project. While a fine idea, it’s still not learning. It’s playing with the inputs, clearly that in and of itself is not learning.

    That’s similar to the argument that excellent education can be bought simply by paying teachers (or students) a lot of money. It’s a ferocious reduction of human minds to mechanisms or other purely logical-rational-utilitarian models that can be manipulated through Newtonian means. That ship sailed a century ago

  11. I subscribe to the Baldrige framework for Performance Excellence. High performing organizations are built upon strong “leadership” and have a “customer focus” – two of the seven key elements in the framework. The Baldrige framework for education ( views customers as “Students and Stakeholders”. A quote from the criteria – “An organization’s performance measurements need to focus on key results. Results should be used to create and balance value for your students and for your key stakeholders—the community, parents, employers, your workforce, suppliers, partners, and the public.”
    So, to me yes students are “customers”. When we talk about a student-centered or learner-centered environment we are using the Baldrige lingo of having a customer focus. Students the only customers? No, many other stakeholders (this is not only in education folks).
    One of the large and ominous stakeholders are state and federal gov’ts. In the almost desperate need to create more value out of our educational system(s), we are on the verge of having mandated uniform output requirements for students who have varying wants, needs and aspirations.
    Some comments have suggested customers implies products. Customers also get services. If I get a haircut, I want to be treated as a valued customer – respect, my preferences honored, etc. (An aside, I really don’t want the gov’t to mandate my haircut style – I thought we figured that out clear back in the 60’s! And yes I know, I pay for my haircut, but for public k12 the gov’t(s) do.)
    In service industries, the supplier and the customer often interact in a process. How do the teacher and the student interact in the learning process? Is there a “customer focus”?
    Last comment, education is an investment, not a consumption item. An investment in human capital with long term streams of possibilities for a wide range of students in an increasingly rapidly changing world. We will only know the value we have embedded in these marvelous human capitals known as students down the road over an extended time. I’m not at all convinced we are measuring long term value when we rely on short term standardized monolithic tests.

  12. Perhaps the customer analogy is not the best. I do like the athletic analogy of the students as team mates and the teacher as coach. Granted this analogy may strike horror to those who had horrific athletic experience or the awful coach. But in reality it recognizes the inherit level of knowledge being passed on as the team works towards a common goal: winning = learning. The progress is evident in the team’s ability. I’m sure there are better analogies out there but for the moment I’m sticking with this one.

  13. I agree that the customer analogy can be problematic without context, but am frustrated when I try to come up with a better analogy without similar problems.

    The customer analogy is really useful in the sense that students should be treated with respect, courtesy and given reasonable choices about how and what they are going to learn. Also, teachers do have to “sell” material in the sense that they must make it engaging to all students–not just those that love their subject–in order to have an equitable and functional classroom.

    However, having worked in the customer service industry (and being disturbed by the implications of reducing education to terms of cash transaction, if the analogy remains unqualified), I think it’s important to remember that teachers have to do a few things differently than waitstaff. One of those things is to challenge students to work to their potential, much like in Charlie’s coach analogy. Another is that you have to consider what will best equip your students for life outside of the classroom, rather than simply affording them maximum gratification for the largest profit on your part (little student resistance to your class?), the goal of most businesses. Teachers, as a result, must be more honest with their students than I ever could have been with customers when I was waiting tables or selling things.

    I like the coach analogy quite a bit, despite having had less than wonderful experiences with athletic coaches myself.

    Does anyone else have any better analogies out there? As somewhat of a capitalism-skeptic I’d be interested in analogies that recognize students as cognizant individuals but that doesn’t have the crass implications of monetary exchange.

  14. Kia ora Scott!

    A lot of what’s here is to do with attitude towards the student. And it’s not necessarily to do with trying to own it alone, or not sharing control.

    For many teachers the term ‘client’ or ‘customer’ has negative connotations if it is suggested it be used for students. The idea that teaching and the learning that goes with it is like a wholesale hardware depot wrangles as well.

    In following Mike Sansone’s thoughts there is a real danger that we might be barking up the wrong tree with a lot of teachers who don’t like the idea of students being customers. We might be condemning them wrongly and inappropriately.

    I wonder what sort of reaction Sansone would get if he asked the same in context of a doctor, or of a nurse, about their patients?

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  15. Kim Farris-Berg Reply May 1, 2009 at 11:13 am

    Regardless of how anyone feels about the image of students as schools’ consumers, it is important to consider students’ general role and experiences as consumers in our markets and the drastically different experiences they have when they’re in school.

    Consumers have access to a wealth of information at a great speed. Successful manufacturers provide products and services that allow their customers to use this access to co-create—with the manufacturer—unique, customized experiences with the same product.

    Digital-audio players, for example, allow individual customers to download the music they desire from the Internet. Two consumers owning the same type of player can have two different experiences using the product. Just last night I went into a new “all the rage” self-serve yogurt shop. I chose my flavor(s) and topping(s), mixed them the way I wanted and got just the amount I wanted. I just wanted a taste, and I paid by the ounce (less than $1). Across the way the old-model yogurt store, with 3 sizes, 3 flavors, and servers who skimp on toppings, was about 1/2 as crowded. How could I be dissatisfied with my product? I created it!!!

    Important to note: BOTH stores served yogurt. As Venkaht Ramaswamy said in the December 2003 issue of CIO Insight, “The product is no longer the basis of value; the experience is.”

    Students have grown very accustomed to this democratic environment where businesses respond to consumers’ desires and provide ways for consumers to co-create their experiences even within structured environments. K-12’s “manufacturers”, on the other hand, are still operating in a nondemocratic mode.

    Not only do K-12 designers largely ignore consumer input, but designers are also basing their decisions on theories that run counter to their consumers’ needs and desires. The product (an education) may be desirable on its face, but students are increasingly relating their motivation to learn to new methods for improving and co-creating their educational experiences. (I like all yogurt; but I choose one kind of yogurt place.)

    Students’ experiences outside of school teach them to expect response and change; but they sense that when it comes to their schools, manufacturer response doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon.

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