I have just come home from a half-day workshop with Dan Gregory (of Gruen Transfer fame). Dan used his extensive experience in the marketing industry to illustrate how educators can establish themselves as “thought leaders” and drive the change that is urgently needed in the education sector.

Whether the advertising industry actually shapes popular culture or merely reflects it (or both!) would prompt a lengthy debate. Clearly though, popular culture and marketing are connected. Intricately. Indelibly.

Advertising aims to connect with the consumer and influence their intentions (to buy a product). As educators we don’t often consider the ways in which we might “market” a “product”. However, Dan maintains that we are continually called to “influence” people in the same way – colleagues, parents, students, the wider community – in order to promote our truths and drive the change that is necessary to keep schooling relevant in the 21st century.

Behavioural science continually highlights the critical importance of understanding identity. It is IDENTITY that DRIVES HUMAN BEHAVIOUR. Dan walked us through a four-step process to define an identity by reflecting on how we STAND

  1. What we stand FOR

  2. Who we stand WITH

  3. What we stand AGAINST, and

  4. How we stand UP.

Dan’s presentation was sprinkled with a liberal dose of entertaining anecdotes, impressive stories of hugely successful marketing campaigns and practical exercises. In the interest of brevity, I’ll try to stick to the bare bones.

1. What do we stand FOR?

"Xochipala Standing Man" [CC BY-SA 3.0] by RayAYang on Wikimedia Commons

Xochipala Standing Man” [CC BY-SA 3.0] by RayAYang on Wikimedia Commons

If schools cannot define what they do in a way that is relevant to students they run the risk of a demise similar to Kodak’s. Within the education sector, just as in commercial enterprise, our identity needs to be explicitly defined. It drives everything we do.

As contemporary education professionals in an industry that is largely trapped in an industrial age mindset, we can drive necessary change by taking up the role of “thought leader”. If we are to influence people, we first need to define our point of difference, to capture our “mission” in a catchy phrase, as marketing professionals do. Dan The Advertising Man recommends metaphors and word plays because they’re what “sticks”: “People rarely remember facts and details but they do remember the punch lines“.

2. Who do we stand WITH? 

"Terracotta Warriors" [] by Sebastien Neidlich on Flickr

Terracotta Warriors” [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] by Sebastian Niedlich on Flickr

As education professionals we are driven by a culture of collaboration. MIT research shows that diverse human groups which collaborate, solve problems far more successfully than homogenous groups. How often do we consider collaborating outside our own sector? This kind of collaboration can safeguard against “situational blindness”, the tendency that we have to overlook things we are accustomed to seeing all the time. If we are open to opinions that challenge our own, we are more likely to welcome diversity into the mix.

Dan used the gaming community as a good example of healthy collaboration. Any time a gamer learns something new, they share it, which allows each member of the community to iterate more quickly than they could possibly do alone.

3. What do we stand AGAINST?

"Baji Prabhu Deshpande Statue in Panhala Fort" [] by Ankur P on Flickr

Baji Prabhu Deshpande Statue in Panhala Fort” [CC BY-SA 2.0] by Ankur P on Flickr

Mahatma Ghandi challenges us to “be the change we want to see in the world”… but what IS the change we want to see? What are we fighting against? How often do we sit down and try to define it?

In identifying our cause, our “noble fight”, we must be brave enough to challenge the status quo. Dan points out that it’s often easier to get attention if we talk about something that needs to be stopped, rather than what we are fighting for. Humans are not engineered to notice good things but things that are different and exceptional. We are biologically designed to notice changes in our environment; that’s what keeps humans alive.

By taking a leadership position and fighting for a cause, we do open ourselves up to criticism. But dissent can be a good thing – it challenges our ideas and forces us to continually reflect on our identity. By always doing things the same way, we stagnate. I think it is this kind of habitual practice that has become a major barrier to necessary reform in education.

As leaders we need to foster a culture that allows creativity within our community. People don’t being ideas to the table unless they feel they have permission to do so.

4. How do we stand UP?

"Gustav Holst" [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] by Nicky Getgood on Flickr

Gustav Holst” [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] by Nicky Getgood on Flickr

If we want to be thought leaders, we need to command people’s attention. Participatory culture is the key. If we are driving a movement in which people can participate we are far more likely to motivate a following. As educators, the more we allow parents and the wider community to come on board with us, the more successfully we can drive the change we want to see. Social media can play a huge in fostering participatory culture in schools.

Consistency is also critically important. Humans gravitate towards “certainty” so we need to create that sense of certainty – a consistent message – to engage and motivate followers. Story is one of the most powerful means humans have of engaging other humans. Stories have a critical power to engage. Stories can “go viral”. But who should tell our story?

Typically, our reputation is not what we say about ourselves, but what others say about us when we’re not there. Having others tell our story anchors our values far more than telling it ourselves. Gallup polls show that most people rely on “friend recommendations” to make decisions. In a socially connected world we can rely heavily on this “pass-on-ability” of our story.

Furthermore, if we anchor our desired identity in what people are already talking about, the possibility that our story spreads, virally, on our behalf is amplified by the link with what is already newsworthy.


Featured Image: Ghandi smiling R” [public domain] retrieved from Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to Apple and Dan Gregory for an excellent opportunity to expand horizons! 

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