Saturday, September 19, 2009

Horizontal segmentation: no perfect syllabus

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, Outliers and The Tipping Point, gave a TED speech about Howard Moskowitz, the extraordinary psychophysicist, and his impact on the food industry. Moskowitz invented the concept of horizontal segmentation: that the key to satisfying consumers is providing a sufficient number of distinct choices. “There is no perfect cola or perfect spaghetti sauce,” Moskowitz would say. “There are only perfect colas, perfect spaghetti sauces.” This is why today we can inspect the shelf of pasta sauces at the food market and choose among meatball, traditional, zesty, garden vegetable and so forth. In taste tests, consumers tend to cluster around these different types. If we only offer one or two varieties, even of the highest quality, consumer satisfaction will average between 6 and 6.5 on a scale of 10. When given meaningful choices, closer to their particular preferences, respondents will move to an average of between 8 and 8.5.

Which is the difference between feeling ok about what we eat, and feeling really happy.

I find this remarkably helpful as a basic principle of curriculum design. Boosting satisfaction and relevance for learners comes from providing meaningful choices. At the level of the syllabus, this suggests that one way to characterize needs assessment is the identification of how a particular learner population groups around certain topics or skill areas or outcomes. There is no perfect syllabus, in other words: only perfect syllabi. The various flavours will available through a menu of topics, projects, and/or materials. Successful courses must contain significance elements of personalization, learner-centredness and choice.

This variety will also be available at lower levels of planning: most lessons will also reflect choices through such devices as workstations or specialized groupwork. In jigsaw reading, for example, teams form around a text of choice and become experts in that material. The confidence and enthusiasm from mastering interesting material drives the sharing process as expert team members mingle with those from other groups to compile complementary material as the basis for solving a problem or pursuing a project.

So, it turns out, curriculum design is not about putting together one rigid plan to be followed by all, but rather composing a flexible catalogue of choices, with some training and direction for participants to make well-informed selections.


j said...

Given that this same topic was actually discussed in the ESL class for Chinese speakers I observed, I felt it appropriate to comment here for “response 2.”

The idea of customization certainly hasn’t stopped with jarred spaghetti sauces. Perhaps a strong example of a more up-to-date counterpart is Mac’s i-phone. To make the comparison, even the most copious array of spaghetti sauces can only entertain the average shopper for so long. On the other hand, the i-phone is designed to capture the average consumer to such an extent that it becomes an indispensable and inevitable fact of his or her life. And it accomplishes this by offering a seemingly endless variety of ways an i-phone user can customize the product to suit his or her own individual tastes. For example, the consumer can download his own music on the phone, he can download an endless number of applications off the internet for the phone, he can play games on the phone, he can use the phone to shoot his own videos and take his own pictures and then email them to a list of friends which he has chosen, etc, etc, etc. To make a long list of features short, compared to current products like the i-phone, the idea of having fifteen flavors of spaghetti sauce seems a bit quaint.

However, that this idea does seem quaint nowadays is unfortunate in my opinion. As the years have gone by, marketers seem to grow ever bolder in their claims as to what their products will deliver. And as a result, there does seem to be a growing resistance to this great product push, the so-called anti-consumerist movement. Such anti-consumerists question the morality of marketing attempts to addict consumers to products through such vast possibilities of customization. And so marketing has come to have a bit of a tarnish, or at least a bit of a negative connotation. In other words, how do we know these products are really “adding value” to consumers’ lives and not harming them by fostering mindless addictions?

While I wholeheartedly agree with the idea providing curricula with relevant options for students, I hesitate to consider this analogous to a clever marketing scheme. In the case of marketing, the goal is to sell the product no matter the effect on the consumer. However, in the case of ESL teaching, the goal is to give students something that will be of real benefit to them. Might there be some sort of post-consumerist-utopia-analogy that would be more appropriate to the current ESL teacher and learner?

-James Atcheson

Bijan said...

Dear Peter, Thanks for the post.
Dear J, Thanks for the comment.

I am an education researcher (not a businessman), but I make a distinction between marketing and selling. If you try to sell without marketing, you will have some, but very limited success.

Marketing is about understanding what 'satisfies' the customer (of course, there is often an element of getting the customer to believe that the product will satisfy them and that could be sufficient to motivate them to buy the product - at least once).
Those of us involved in education also need to motivate learners to buy into an idea (and I know that mixing education with money is taboo to many people, but I do not think there is anything wrong with learning from the business sector - or any sector, including the military, as long as it is applied in a way that will enhance learning for the benefit of the learner).

Your ESL students will probably have already bought into the idea that learning English is a useful endeavour. However, what about those students who would really benefit from mathematics and science education and are disaffected simply because the way they are being taught is not in sync with the way they learn best?
I got to this blog because I, too watched the Malcolm Gladwell talk and Googled 'horizontal segmentation' with a view to understanding it better in relation to its possible applications to education. In his talk, Malcolm said that Howard Moskowitz began with over 40 different types of sauce for his initial research and then used the data to narrow these down to three.
If you got thousands of people to comment on the different types if iPhone on the market today, you could probably satisfy the vast majority with a handful of variations on functionality.

Applying this to education would mean, not having so much choice as to prohibitive, but having enough choice to be attractive – which I think is also what you are saying. There is a TED talk on that too; see