New Opportunities and Challenges for Sales Teams: The ABCs of K-12 Deeper Learning

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This is the second of two parts in our ABCs of Deeper Learning series. In part one, we shared the history and basic tenets of the deeper learning movement in K-12 schools. Today we explore how schools that embrace deeper learning are updating classrooms and curricula—and what that might mean for your sales team.


Teaching with Tools, Creativity, and Real-World Context

When students graduate from high school, they enter a world that is fast-moving and far from black and white. In order for today’s young students to successfully answer the yet-unknown questions that lie ahead in their post-secondary educations, careers, and other life experiences, deeper learning proponents wish to equip them with a strong foundation of transferable knowledge and skills. To that end, hard-working teachers are regularly reorganizing their classrooms, reimagining their curricula, and taking advantage of new (and old) products and services.

We recently spoke with Shelly Luke Wille, an early advocate for encouraging students’ deeper learning inside the classroom. Wille spent almost two decades as a teacher and administrator in California public and private schools before starting her current role as Head of School for K-5 at Chadwick International in Incheon, South Korea. Since the mid-1990s she has presented at numerous conferences about the importance of connecting project-based learning and technology.

"We want students so highly engaged that they are losing time, and that happens when they are actively participating versus passively receiving."

Wille argues that deeper learning principles—and maker culture in particular—teach students real-world skills and engage them at a higher level. “When you’re really into something, you lose time,” she says. “That’s what we want kids to do when they are learning. We want them so highly engaged that they are losing time, and that happens when they are actively participating versus passively receiving.”

That active nature of deeper learning is particularly important because teachers want to help their students understand not only the content but also the learning process itself. One way students prepare themselves to comprehend future ambiguity is to get into the habit early of evaluating and comparing multiple sources and types of information before coming to any conclusions. A variety of information with real-world context is a core component of the deeper learning classroom.

Wille says that when approaching a school that embraces the deeper learning paradigm, sales and marketing teams ought to be able to answer a key question: “How does this give students access to something they otherwise wouldn’t have access to?”

If you market more traditional content products to deeper learning educators, you might find yourself in unfamiliar territory.

Indeed, if you market more traditional content products to these educators, you might find yourself in unfamiliar territory: your offering—perhaps a long-time dominant player in lesson plans—will be viewed as only one of many possible sources of content; you’ll have to convince the educators that your product will still serve an indispensable purpose in their schools. While addressing this challenge ultimately requires additional work by the product developers, your sales or marketing team can also pursue co-marketing partnerships to stay relevant in the classroom. Earlier this month, for instance, McGraw-Hill announced a marketing and distribution partnership with StudySync, a digital, cross-curricular, interactive content platform for schools.

From household recyclables to sophisticated software, the combination of teaching tools in a deeper learning classroom can vary broadly based on the units of study, the creativity of students, and the teacher’s skill level. Makerspaces in schools are designed to be particularly flexible, with areas for group work, laboratory or creating zones, and kneeling or sitting places. Furniture on wheels enable easy shifting of spaces to accommodate a wide range of activities.

At Wille’s current school, the fifth graders recently completed a unit on sustainable energy. In small groups, the students utilized a wide variety of tools, including computer software, saws, and laser cutters, to design and construct inventions such as a solar-powered boat and a wind-propelled sail-car. They then participated in a competition to see which invention was the most energy efficient.

"The learning is all about doing. It gives kids the ability to problem-solve and use their creativity for real-world problems. It makes the skills more meaningful."

The set of sustainability activities engaged the students, “in the context of the math, writing, and design related to it,” Wille explains. “The learning is all about doing. It gives kids the ability to problem-solve and use their creativity for real-world problems. It makes the skills more meaningful.” She credits the feasibility of such projects, in part, to the increasing affordability and accessibility of technology such as robotics, circuits, sensors, computers, and even 3D printers.

Schools are finding ways to afford these maker activities and other deeper learning lessons within the confines of their respective budgets. Educators are repurposing existing materials to make them accessible to a broader group of students. The trusty power saw is no longer limited to shop class—it can now be used in the school’s makerspace. The same goes for clay in the art room, circuitry kits in the science lab, and the design software that traditionally belonged in the English classroom to publish the school newspaper. These tools (and many more) have new uses and wider reach through deeper learning, and suppliers can re-pitch them to schools accordingly.

Deeper learning educators are also incorporating new products that redefine the K-12 classroom procurement list. Filmmaking software previously limited to industry professionals is now being used in schools to help students better communicate and record their findings. Classes are using project management software to assign and track responsibilities during longer-term group projects. Animation tools and CAD software can now be found in school makerspaces alongside smaller items ranging from sensors to knitting needles.

When selling more expensive products, K-12 suppliers can work with interested schools to find and secure an appropriate means for payment. Many federal, state, corporate, and foundation grants offer schools with lesser funds the resources needed to enrich their deeper learning curricula. Since launching in 2000, the education crowdfunding website has “raised $225 million and helped more than 175,000 teachers fund over 400,000 projects, impacting the lives of more than 10 million students,” according to Fast Company, which recently named it the most innovative education company in the world.

Encouraging Deeper Learning Through Increased Connectivity

In July of 2013 the federal government took a major step forward in supporting deeper learning when the Obama Administration announced the important ConnectED initiative to help schools upgrade their classrooms for the digital age. The Federal Communications Commission and Department of Education were given a series of goals: connect 99% of the nation’s K-12 students to high speed internet access within five years; provide affordable hardware and digital alternatives to traditional textbooks; and train teachers to effectively use the new resources. The success or failure of this initiative will directly impact the speed with which deeper learning grows as a movement.

Organizations like the Partnership for 21st Century Skills identify collaboration and communication as critical competencies toward achieving college and career readiness. Deeper learning lesson plans and projects already regularly emphasize learning to work effectively in groups.

Now as ConnectED moves forward and schools upgrade their internet connectivity, the opportunities to build deeper learning competencies like collaboration, communication, and information literacy are expanding within and beyond the classroom walls. Using learning platforms as a safe testing ground, students can experiment with self-expression through blogging, sharing art, and more. Blended learning—incorporating lessons from remote teachers, educational games, and other online enrichment activities—is increasingly a reality for many schools. Teachers can collaborate with colleagues around the country, leading joint projects across multiple classrooms and sharing lesson plan ideas. The possibilities go on and on, each one raising new opportunities for suppliers to enable and enhance the experience.

Engaging (and Training) the Teachers for the Modern Classroom

If your K-12 sales organization intends to target deeper learning schools, flexibility will be critical throughout the product and sales cycles. Rather than pitch your product as a global solution, your team should take the time to learn the unique needs of the school or district you’re engaging. From the educator’s perspective, “every purchase should be about what you want students to learn,” Wille says. “You identify the goals and find things that help you meet those goals. It’s unfortunate when it happens in the opposite way. The conversation needs to start with the students and teachers.”

While your sales cycle might take longer as you build a level of trust and understanding with key decision makers, Wille argues that the extra effort is worthwhile for companies that genuinely want to enter and increase their footprint in the K-12 market. “Those long conversations will do just what those conversations have done [elsewhere] in business: it will make their products better. Hopefully people are listening. The sales pattern is more about hearing what educators are interested in rather than describing a solution to a problem they haven’t defined.”

School administrators and teachers agree that technological professional development is critical for successful classrooms in the 21st century.

Today many educators are particularly interested in training that will help them to understand and take advantage of all the new classroom resources. Too often, K-12 teachers are largely removed from the procurement decision process but then expected to know when and how to use the new products and services to their students’ benefit.  As proof of efficacy becomes increasingly important for sales—and in the awards process for many grant programs—it’s in your sales team’s interest to help make classroom integration as seamless as possible.

In two recent surveys, school administrators in CA and teachers nationwide identified technological professional development as being critical for successful classrooms in the 21st century. When the Obama Administration announced its 2015 budget proposal earlier this month, the request included $200 million for the professional development portion of ConnectED (AKA ConnectEDucators) to fund multi-year grants for tech-related training.

This is an exciting development if you train K-12 staffs or provide other logistical services to schools related to integrating resources or rolling out new curriculum strategies. But even if your company is not a professional development consultancy, take to heart the current, far-reaching interest in K-12 technology training. Whenever possible, your sales and marketing teams ought to emphasize (in collateral and meetings) the ease with which teachers can master your product or service; if your offering does have a steep learning curve, clearly explain how your company will support teachers during their ramp-up period—and then make sure you deliver on your promise.

How Will You Engage Deeper Learning Educators?

As more schools across the U.S. incorporate deeper learning principles into their classrooms with new and repurposed resources, there will be numerous opportunities for K-12 suppliers to engage educators. But your sales organization must also consider and plan for the potential challenges: as curricula change, so too might your products’ role in them.

Listen closely to what your current and former customers (and sales prospects) tell you, and maintain an open dialogue between sales, marketing, and product development. If you don’t understand and address what the teachers and students truly need, you will not succeed in the new K-12 market. The best deeper learning teaching inspirations often come from the world around us—including ideas from inquisitive students—and as Wille points out, those ideas can be the perfect place to start the sales conversation.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more ABCs series and other original content on the EdLights Blog.  Have a topic you’d like to see us cover? Let us know on our contact page or on Twitter.

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