What can our school leaders learn from Apple?

Reading time: 4 minutes. Relevant event: Apple one-day workshops

SSAT senior education lead Dan Belcher describes key features of the recent Apple study visit to the USA by 18 education leaders

In April, 18 education leaders from England took part in an SSAT international study visit to USA, hosted by Apple. The four-day visit included visits to three schools (elementary, middle and high) and an Apple retail store in Texas; two days of discussions with experts from Apple’s education team and others at Apple’s HQ in Cupertino; and a final morning for reflection and action planning.

The visit’s objectives

  • Give insights into the work of one of the world’s most successful organisations, including leadership lessons that might apply to schools.
  • Share how learning technologies are enhancing pedagogy.
  • Consider the key features in creating high performance organisations.
  • Discover leadership practices to disseminate within the UK schools system.

Our first day began at the Apple retail store in Austin, Texas, where the store manager explained how Apple supports staff to pursue their passions and uses performance review to focus not just on results but also on their values such as teamwork and innovation. Staff are expected to deal with ambiguity and to adapt, they are encouraged to pursue their goals and given opportunities to move around the organisation and gain new experiences. New ideas are crowd sourced, developed and critiqued.

Three schools

Our visit to Eanes independent school district included elementary (ages 6-10), middle (11-14) and high schools (15-18), where we saw students’ use of digital technology.

Children at elementary school Cedar Creek had 1:1 iPads using a variety of apps to support learning activities and share them with home. We met students who were learning to code using ‘Swift playgrounds’, and the school librarian, a teacher with a Masters degree, who led on information literacy.

At the middle school, Hill County, we discussed digital learning with a panel of students. While they all had preferences for different devices, software and apps, for all of them digital technology was a key part of their learning.

Finally at Westlake, the high school, we were shown a huge video wall projection created by students for their school production of “Stranger things” and an incubator centre for budding student entrepreneurs inspired by the Shark Tank (Dragons’ Den) model.

While we saw some innovative use of digital technology in classrooms, it also reaffirmed that there is much that we do well in England, such as our use of formative assessment.

Apple in education

Education is one of Apple’s six professed values (the others being environment, supplier responsibility, inclusion and diversity, privacy and security, accessibility). While clear on their core values, they are careful not to tell other people what their values should be. The company takes part in the ConnectEd project launched by the Obama administration, which seeks to invest in impoverished communities. Every participating school has at least 96% of children receiving free or reduced-price school meals.

One of the issues discussed was how digital technology can improve access to learning and overcome barriers. Non-traditional ways of demonstrating learning are enabling more people to be successful and work in areas of strength. Technology is facilitating this, such as through dictation and voiceover instructions for the blind. It is unlocking human potential. Apple see a moral and ethical responsibility to harness this potential for learning and life, using real information to solve real problems. Apps such as ‘explain everything’ allow students to record video of what they are doing, explaining their thinking and learning, which in turn enables teachers to hear and see misconceptions in thinking and create ‘teachable moments’. Feedback is possible not just on the answer but on the thinking. Failure creates opportunities for real learning.


Apple focus a lot on culture, and was one of the organisations cited in Simon Sinek’s popular TED talk and book Start with why: it is through the ‘why’ (rather than the ‘what’ or ‘how’) that great leaders inspire action. Understanding your why gives greater clarity to decision making. Apple’s why is stated as: ‘To make the best products in the world that deeply enrich people’s lives’.

In the education context, culture is what happens in your school when you are out of the building – it’s how people behave when they think no-one is looking. The culture is shaped by our values, our words and actions. The group discussed the analogy of the rock tumbler (used to polish gems), exemplifying Apple’s approach to collaboration. As a team member you have a duty to dissent, but you also have a duty to listen, challenge and commit.

8 follow-up questions for consideration

  1. How is our school/organisation adapting to the digital age?
  2. How is technology being used to overcome barriers to learning?
  3. What’s our organisation’s why, our goal, our purpose?
  4. Are decisions made based on our values (even when it costs)?
  5. Who are our most successful teachers? Do we know and do we hire based on this knowledge?
  6. What do we want people (students, teachers, parents) to feel?
  7. What aspects of the educational experience support (or detract from) those feelings?
  8. As leaders, what can we do to shape the educational experience so that it evokes the desired feelings?

Apple are really good at communication and telling their story, which was one of the theme of the third day. They shared ideas on how school leaders can guide the process of drafting and telling their own story.

The ideas stimulated a myriad of suggestions for teachers. You need to think carefully about how you roll out any initiative. Plan in advance how you are going to measure success. How can you make this connect with all stakeholders? Is everyone able to communicate it effectively? To communicate change successfully you need to connect emotionally (limbic brain) not just intellectually (neo-cortex). Stories are a great way to do this. Have two stories – a teacher story and a student story. Give examples and use artefacts. Blanket the communication with positive news and control the story. Some will be nervous about the change, acknowledge this and give people an opportunity to ask questions.

Creating with purpose

How do we design learning experiences that encourage students to ask questions, face challenges and solve problems? Students need to be able to solve unstructured problems (those without an obvious solution) and communicate. As teachers we should be developing a mobile mindset, recognising that these are the tools of choice in the digital age.

Examples were shared about how digital technology is being used by university medical students through an enquiry-based approach to solve real problems, such as healthcare among homeless people. The project involved using Apple products and creative tools to communicate the issues and solutions. This was engaging for the students and resulted in the production of high quality multimedia presentations.

Key aspects of the learning were built around five Cs:

  • creation
  • communication
  • collaboration
  • critical thinking
  • community.

Apple have developed a new curriculum to help bring creativity to life in subjects through a range of tools and apps (video, photography, drawing, music, etc) which will be released in the autumn

When bringing iPads and the like into your classrooms, it is important to understand the results of that decision and plan for their use to enhance (and not distract from) learning. Apple have developed excellent resources for education, but many of these are not well known or widely used by teachers in England. They include a range of tools for leaders and teachers to plan and develop their digital strategy as well as case study examples.

Apple Teacher is a free professional learning programme designed to support and celebrate educators using Apple products for teaching and learning

We spent time exploring the following, which are available in iBooks:

  • Research for educators
  • Innovation in schools
  • Elements of leadership
  • Elements of learning
  • Learning technologies survey
  • Apple distinguished schools
  • Tools for formative assessment
  • Research, and evaluating iPad in learning.

The visit has a big impact on participating school leaders, and our thanks go to the Apple Education team for making this possible.


‘It has been an amazing learning experience for me, far beyond what I have experienced in learning opportunities prior to this. It has filled every corner of my mind, opened up new thinking and is something that will stay with my work for many years to come.’

‘Every school is a digital school (or should be). As school leaders we have an obligation to our students to create learning opportunities that use digital tools and behaviours that are part of our everyday world.’

Apple one-day workshops

For those who weren’t able to take part, Apple is now offering school leaders the opportunity to attend one-day events as condensed versions of the study tour. Two of the Apple education team who delivered the programme are coming to England this month to run four workshops that will cover themes on mobility, learning and leadership, the importance of culture, learning with Apple and managing change. Book your FREE place now, limited available:

25th June – New Bridge Academy, Manchester
26th June – Apple Store, Birmingham
27th June –  Apple HQ, London
29th June –  Apple HQ, London

Read on the SSAT blog: What’s your why?

Follow Dan Belcher on Twitter

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