Why can’t school be more like Whole Foods

Sometimes a solution to a big problem lies hidden in plain sight. We think that may be the case with education, whose challenges — setting standards, delivering the educational goods and ensuring user satisfaction — are remarkably similar to those in the retail domain.

Bear with us as we talk about Whole Foods Market as a plausible template for the creation of an educational system that curates its course offerings the way Whole Foods curates a seemingly unlimited array of cheeses, meats and “alternative” health products.

Whatever you may think of Whole Foods — that it’s the best thing since sliced bread or that it’s a lot of smoked lox and mirrors — this exemplar of the supermarket pastoral has had a huge impact on getting people to think about what they eat and where it comes from. The strategic planners at Whole Foods accomplished this feat in part by crafting a story around every one of its products. Without watching the made-for-Whole-Foods-video, you would not know that Siggi’s Yogurt, for example, uses milk from local family farms in upstate New York. You would not know that Siggi Hilmarsson abandoned his graduate school studies at Columbia Business School to start making skyr, an Icelandic yogurt. The most important point that Whole Foods wants us to understand is that Siggi’s wholesome food philosophy dovetails with its own: Keep it delicious. Keep it all natural. Keep it simple. “That’s kind of our philosophy today,” Hilmarsson says.

In another Whole Foods video about organic farming, Top Chef Season Five Winner Hosea Rosenberg says it “just makes sense to me and should make sense to most people that you can feel a little more connected to the food” if it’s grown locally. Buying local, he says, is “good for the soul.” When Whole Foods adds its seal of approval to the video with the closing tag line, “Miles Closer. Miles Fresher. Miles More Delicious,” we walk away knowing that no supermarket has made room for “green” products the way Whole Foods has. (Note that Wegmans, Stop & Shop and Giant Carlisle have followed Whole Foods’ lead and Siggi Yogurt is now available at these stores too.)

Whole Foods’ effort to brand itself as a local, home-grown purveyor of artisanal food has an even broader goal than positioning itself as a truly green grocer. By welcoming products such as Siggi’s Yogurt and many other products free of hydrogenated fats, aspartame and eighty other “unacceptable ingredients for food,” it is also associating itself with intelligent risk-taking. Dark Rye, Whole Foods’ online magazine, showcases a video about Swedish restaurateur Magnus Nilsson, whose restaurant ranks thirty-fourth on a list of the world’s top fifty eateries. The white-aproned Nilsson tells us that all of the ingredients at Faviken, his one-of-a-kind restaurant, are sourced within 200 miles of Swedish Jamtland. Why so persnickety? Because Nilsson feels himself to be responsible for every item on the plate. “If you do something with knowledge and passion, it becomes authentic,” he says.

What Whole Foods is telling us is that it takes an active role in defining the manufacture of its products. And by doing so, it has opened up business opportunities for local cheese-makers, bakers, meat smokers, snack producers and organic farmers that the older big box stores do not want to do. You could argue that the difference between a package of potato chips at Stop & Shop and a green package of chips at Whole Foods is minor. But in the quest to differentiate itself from its competitors, Whole Foods has initiated some socially and economically valuable measures: (1) It invites like-minded food producers to enter into the Whole Foods ecosystem; and (2) It rewards them with shelf space in a store with highly motivated customers. In some cases, it even offers them low interest loans to scale up their manufacturing processes.

Why should McGraw Hill model itself on the supermarket pastoral model?

At McGraw Hill, we should look to reproduce this notion that an organization can serve as the catalyst for the production of a more inclusive, more diverse, more effective array of content. If McGraw Hill invites software and app developers, systems analysts, writers, data scientists and others into its education ecosystem, many of them will likely come up with educational products that the current system has kept out.

Just as Whole Foods is the curator of thousands of grocery products, McGraw Hill can be the curator of thousands of new educational products. We are in a position to host the open platform on which content creators would build out these products. Of course with the introduction of new online materials would come the need for new criteria and assessments. This is where Web-based learning has significant advantages over textbooks: A good online learning program will cater to many different learning styles by offering a variety of “learning paths.” It will include a means of monitoring students’ progress and enact metrics to measure what they have learned.

We have the technology right now to give a whole new set of people — currently shut out of the education market — an opportunity to participate. Will these newcomers produce products that will improve educational outcomes? Will school systems decide to embrace online learning? Ultimately, the market will decide the answers to these questions and every other about an educational system that must reinvent itself.

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