In the wake of Steve Jobs’ passing, many wrote about the statements he made throughout his adult life about how to improve the U.S. education system. Some noted that for much of Jobs’s life, he had, ironically perhaps, been skeptical of the positive impact technology could make on education.

But what has received less attention is how digital learning could have improved Jobs’s own educational experience.

In the early pages of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, however, how a different education system—a competency-based one powered by digital learning—could have helped Jobs screams from the pages.

From the book: “Even before Jobs started elementary school, his mother had taught him how to read. This, however, led to some problems once he got to school. ‘I was kind of bored for the first few years, so I occupied myself by getting into trouble.’”

In other words, because today’s education system is a monolithic one—where students learn the same thing on the same day in the same way regardless of their individual needs—Jobs had to repeat things he already knew because that’s where the rest of the class was. Naturally he lost the zeal and motivation for school and therefore acted out, as there were few opportunities for him to realize real progress and feel successful.

“’Look, it’s not his fault,’ Paul Jobs [his father] told the teachers, his son recalled. ‘If you can’t keep him interested, it’s your fault.’”

This charge at teachers perhaps isn’t altogether fair, although it’s on to something; it really was the fault of the system itself. Most teachers have a nearly impossible task, as they are told to deliver a curriculum in the course of a year and somehow manage 20 to 30 children, who are all in different places and have different learning needs at different times.

A far better system for Jobs—and for every child—would have been a student-centric one that could naturally and affordably customize for each child’s needs.

That said, one teacher, Imogene Hill, seemed to be able to deliver the goods for Jobs in 4th grade.  To regain his interest, she had to use a little extrinsic motivation first.

“After watching him for a couple of weeks, she figured that the best way to handle him was to bribe him. ‘After school one day, she gave me this workbook with math problems in it, and she said, ‘I want you to take it home and do this.’ And I thought ‘Are you nuts?’ And then she pulled out one of these giant lollipops that seemed as big as the world. And she said, ‘When you’re done with it, if you get it mostly right, I will give you this and five dollars. And I handed it back within two days.’”

Soon, with the chance to be successful and make progress at hand, intrinsic motivation kicked in, which appears to echo some of Harvard Professor Roland Fryer Jr.’s research findings.

“After a few months, he no longer required the bribes. ‘I just wanted to learn and to please her.’”

Jobs recounted that she became “one of the saints of my life.”

But she alone couldn’t solve the more systematic problem at hand in the education system, nor can we continue to have an education system that relies on the anomalies—superheroes who ignore the system’s bad incentives.

Isaacson’s book supplies some evidence for why.

“Near the end of fourth grade, Mrs. Hill had Jobs tested.” According to Jobs, he scored at the high school sophomore level. “Now that it was clear, not only to himself and his parents but also to his teachers, that he was intellectually special, the school made the remarkable proposal that he skip two grades and go right into seventh; it would be the easiest way to keep him challenged and stimulated. His parents decided, more sensibly, to have him skip only one grade. The transition was wrenching. He was a socially awkward loner who found himself with kids a year older.”

And herein lies a real problem. Today’s education system forces us to make cruel tradeoffs. On the one hand, we can keep children with their age-level peers and friends regardless of academic fit—which may involve social promotion regardless of whether a student has mastered a subject or holding a student back even if she is capable of taking on much more difficult concepts. On the other hand, we can hold a student back if he hasn’t mastered certain concepts, which will put him in an unfortunate social position, or, if he has mastered the concepts already, we can have him skip grade levels and meet Jobs’s social plight. Neither answer is a great one.

What a competency-based learning system powered by digital learning does is break the tradeoffs. A student can remain with her friends and peers while working on the objectives, projects, and courses most appropriate for her, regardless of what the others are doing because the online medium can naturally individualize the learning. A student moves on to a concept once she has mastered it, not when the calendar dictates that she move on. Each student owns her learning; accelerating through learning objectives isn’t hard to accommodate. The teacher is freed to add significantly more value by serving as a learning coach, mentor, and much more—including by bringing students together to have important discussions and apply their learning with other students at all levels of learning where that is appropriate.

This week I had the opportunity to visit a school, the Silicon Valley Flex Academy, that is mere miles from where Jobs grew up. It’s working to create a student-centric education system, and it breaks these tradeoffs. It’s too bad that it wasn’t around when Jobs went to school, but fortunately an increasing number of programs are bucking the system and working on doing the same.

Of course, Jobs ultimately survived the educational malpractice he faced, and he changed the world in significant ways. The curiosity was not beaten out of him—but only barely, he said. All too many children, however, don’t escape this—and it’s not just their loss. It’s ours, too.

I suspect that is one of the reasons that toward the end of his life, Jobs—along with Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, and others—had set his sights on bringing some disruptive innovation to education, as Isaacson recounts. According to Jobs, “All books, learning materials, and assessments should be digital and interactive, tailored to each student and providing feedback in real time.”

Jobs had come around. He had realized that although technology had not improved the education system to this point, in the future, it could be a part of the answer to America’s education woes—a critical component in creating a student-centric system in which every child could realize her fullest human potential, not just the lucky ones.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.