If Steve Jobs designed a school …

Piers YoungThoughts2 Comments

Steve Jobs, as I probably don’t need to say, was an unemployed college dropout who became, well, Steve Jobs. I’ve been thinking about setting up schools, free schools and the like and thought it might be an idea to do a mental exercise. If I had Steve Jobs on the phone, what would he recommend?

Firstly, I suspect, trust the pedagogy more than the parents. As per this edited quote from MacStories

“You can’t just ask customers parents what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

Fine. So we need a vision. I have a few ideas (though not necessarily visionary) that I’ve been chewing over with friends and colleagues. What else?

Happily, (thanks TIm), we know a little about Steve’s design principles from (I think) the book The Journey is the Reward. Jobs has, it seems, 12 rules of success

Rule #1. Do what you love to do. Find your true passion. Make a difference. The only way to do great work is to love what you do.


Teachers moan. One of my main fears about work is realising I have become a moaner. There is criticism and complaint but too often there is no accompanying constructive engagement with the idea of making school a place you (as a teacher) love to be. In general, they moan more than any other profession I’ve known, including low paid student jobs. If you’re becoming a moaner, then this whole new school thing probably isn’t for you.

Steve raises his eyebrows: ” I’ve said this before kiddo: Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me… Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me. So love your work. Love trying to help chlldren become all they can be.”

Rule #2. Be different. Think different. Better to be a pirate than to join the navy.

There are number of startup schools, especially with the UK’s Free Schools initiative. If you’re going to spend all the time and energy setting one up, what is the point of “joining the navy”? Toby Young’s West London Free School is heading that way. The press coverage has been grand, and I am full of admiration for the way they have gone about getting this thing started. That said, it feels like a missed opportunity. Not because it involves Latin (I’m an ex-classicist too), but because it feels like they’re recreating a traditional independent school, when there is scope for so much more.

Steve says: Aar! If you don’t be a barnstormin’, brave buccaneer I shan’t be seein’ you in Fiddlers Green you reinventing the wheel landlubber.

Rule #3. Do your best at every job. Don’t sleep! Success generates more success so be hungry for it. Hire good people with a passion for excellence.


Have a clear, memorable shared vision. If people buy into it so much the better. As Steve has said before,

“Recruiting is hard. It’s just finding the needles in the haystack. You can’t know enough in a one-hour interview. So, in the end, it’s ultimately based on your gut. How do I feel about this person? What are they like when they’re challenged? I ask everybody that: ‘Why are you here?’ The answers themselves are not what you’re looking for. It’s the meta-data.”

So attract the staff. Value breadth of experience. Make your school a place people want to work. Physical space matters, inside and outside. Reward commitment. Worry more about attitude and CRB checks than teacher qualifications. Perhaps give all employees a piece of the pie.

Steve says: When I hire somebody, competence is the ante. They have to be really smart. But the real issue for me is, Are they going to fall in love with Apple? Because if they fall in love with Apple, everything else will take care of itself. They’ll want to do what’s best for Apple, not what’s best for them, what’s best for Steve, or anybody else. Same needs to be true of your school.

Rule #4. Perform SWOT analysis. As soon as you join/start a company, make a list of strengths and weaknesses of yourself and your company on a piece of paper. Don’t hesitate to throw bad apples out of the company.


This is hard. On a purely educational level, I suppose, it means one should make lesson observation a part of the culture. On a broader level, one wants to attract different types of teacher. Same vision, different styles. And allow for bespoke CPD programs, whether in-house or not.

Steve says: If you keep on moaning, we’ll have to part company.

Rule #5. Be entrepreneurial. Look for the next big thing. Find a set of ideas that need to be acted upon quickly and decisively and jump through that window. Sometimes the first step is the hardest one. Just take it. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.


It’s amazing how many interesting ideas float round Twitter without being acted on. There have probably always been a ton of people with goals to do when they get the time. Describe what you want to fix with your school, gauge the feedback online (from everyone not just parents), from conferences, go out and meet people and take the plunge. Kelly started a schoo like thisl. Why can’t I/you/we?

Steve says: Just do it. (And good luck Kelly!)

Rule #6. Start small, think big. Don’t worry about too many things at once. Take a handful of simple things to begin with, and then progress to more complex ones. Think about not just tomorrow, but the future. Put a ding in the universe.


So having the vision is great but one needs to take it one step at a time. Perhaps we should adopt the 5 Ss of Kaizen. The world is a fast old place. The landscape for journey will change, and shift drastically, but the destination will stay the same. At the most basic level, we need to proceed in small steps because of all this technology flying at us. My hunch, though, is that there is more than technology change afoot out there.

Steve says: “Even the longest journey begins with one small step. Get your sneakers on.”

Rule #7. Strive to become a market leader. Own and control the primary technology in everything you do. If there’s a better technology available, use it regardless of whether or not anyone else is using it. Be the first, and make it an industry standard.


This is essentially saying think for yourself and trust your judgement. Don’t follow the hype. Just because everyone else is doing AfL doesn’t mean you should, but you do need to be able to justify your decision. Instead, think about how you could become number 6 in this list of alternate educational approaches. Constantly scour the landscape for opportunities. Once you find one that works, shout it loud, talk to government, show people why you chose right. Maybe even franchise?

Steve says: Make your approach gold standard and yours. Then roll it out.

Rule #8. People judge you by your performance, so focus on the outcome. Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected. Advertise. If they don’t know about it, they won’t buy your product. Pay attention to design. We made the buttons on the screen look so good you’ll want to lick them. Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

This one’s hard in education. The yardstick, ultimately, is the alumnus’ satisfaction with their school and satisfaction with their life. There’s a few years in any start-up school before that becomes a reality. So how to go about this? I suppose shout loud every success, whatever it is, be it traditional Oxbridge or a child becoming skateboarding champion of the world. And perhaps best of all, let your students advertise for you. For example this article by Nastassia goes a long way to persuading you the IB is good idea.

Steve says: Your students are your voice.

Rule #9. Ask for feedback from people with diverse backgrounds. Each one will tell you one useful thing. If you’re at the top of the chain, sometimes people won’t give you honest feedback because they’re afraid. In this case, disguise yourself, or get feedback from other sources. Focus on those who will use your product – listen to your customers first.


For me, this translates to listen to kids, then listen to parents, then listen to teachers (inside and outside of your school), Probably in that order. Again, And again, scour the netwaves for feedback and publish your thoughts with commitment rather than trying to get more traffic.

Steve says: Ask and you shall receive.

Rule #10. Innovate. Innovation distinguishes a leader from a follower. Delegate. Let other top executives do 50% of your routine work to be able to spend 50% your time on the new stuff. Say no to 1,000 things to make sure you don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much.

Concentrate on really important creations and radical innovation. Hire people who want to make the best things in the world. You need a very product-oriented culture, even in a technology company. Lots of companies have tons of great engineers and smart people. But ultimately, there needs to be some gravitational force that pulls it all together.


It is easy to let the paperwork get you down in teaching. And to let innovations come from on high. One of things I’ve tried to get going with my Year 6 form teachers is the commitment to try one thing new each term, feedback to the rest of us how it went and then we see if other heads of year, the Deputy or the Head think it makes sense to roll it out along the school.

It sounds like this needs tweaking, at best.

So presumably in a new school, while this bubble up/let people try might work in terms of delegating innovation, the founders need to be superclear that the innovations that are being encouraged tie in with the vision. If the vision is more parent access, and the innovations are video-ed classrooms and embedding technology in the curriculum with mobile learning, then you go for the video-ed classrooms. Focus, to use David Allen’s plane metaphor starts at 50,000 feet and works its way down. Not the other way around.

Steve says: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”

Rule #11. Learn from failures. Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.


Yup. Seems pretty obvious, and Accenture agree so that’s got to be worth something. We emphasise this in schools anyway. You can’t learn unless you make a mistake.

For staff, one would assume a culture of innovation has some openness, but if not as Accenture indicate, it might perhaps make sense to avoid “epic fail” views – perhaps we could encourage a system where we were as encouraging to experiments/innovations that did not work as those that did. Telling parents you are constantly looking to improve may help. If they know you are trying out new things in a measured, “controlled experiment” fashion, then they may be more willing to give measured, controlled feedback. Again, they may just ask why their Jack is a guinea pig or their Jill isn’t benefitting from the latest innovation from Mrs A.

Steve says: Be honest. With everyone, including yourself.

Rule #12. Learn continually. There’s always “one more thing” to learn. Cross-pollinate ideas with others both within and outside your company. Learn from customers, competitors and partners. If you partner with someone whom you don’t like, learn to like them – praise them and benefit from them. Learn to criticize your enemies openly, but honestly.


A couple of years ago, I suggested that instead of an INSET day we run an unconference for the teachers. It was a little bit of a culture shock, and there was some reluctance at wanting to present in front of peers. (One teacher said, depressingly, “I’m one of those who can’t. You know, “those who can, do, those who can’t teach.” She is, as it happens, a great teacher.) One of the most successful strands, though, was one titled “What can we learn from other schools”. All of us chipped in with ideas they thought that worked from previous employers. These ranged from curriculum to stopping displays from being ripped down with plastic covers. What made it successful, I think, was that there was no defensiveness. To use Kelly as an example again, it seems amazing how quickly she has gone from one idea to a school plan. That speed has come, in part, it seems from networking, meeting the people who can add the bits she was missing.

Steve says: Don’t let your vision blind you to the successes and skills of others. You don’t have to like them, but you do have to learn from them.

Now, the 12 points all blur into one a little. Continually learning and listening to feedback are not that different. So as a thought experiment it gets a little stretched. It has helped me shape a few ideas though.

As Tim Girvin commented in the post that was the original inspiration for this one (Design Leadership Principles of Steve Jobs and the Apple Empire: The Twelve Steps of Design Discipline)

Good ideals, in precept. Worth following, in any capacity. Designer, or not.

Basically, I agree.


2 Comments on “If Steve Jobs designed a school …”

  1. Great post! Love the “what would Steve say” approach! Going back through and adding some of this to our employee handbook. Thank you for the inspiration!

  2. I enjoyed this and found much of it highly relevant to forward thinking schools. The challenge is that the above philosophy has to be modeled by management first. Great ideas!

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