Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

The Dyson Vacuum Cleaner and Educational Innovation

By Michael Strong

Three years after introducing his vacuum cleaners into the U.S. market, James Dyson’s vacuums were the largest selling vacuum cleaners with sales volumes soaring 340 percent in 2004. Global sales totaled more than $750 million in 2004.

Trained in art and design, and then starting his career as a salesman, James Dyson’s first entrepreneurial venture was based on the Ballbarrow, an improved wheelbarrow he invented. Then in 1979, after being frustrated with his home vacuum cleaner’s lack of suction and dirty bag, he began focusing on the creation of a better vacuum cleaner. After studying the physics and engineering of vacuum cleaner design on his own, he came up with his “dual cyclone” design and built, over the years, 5,127 prototypes. By 1983, he had a perfectly working model that, unlike all other vacuum cleaners marketed by all other companies, does not lose suction and does not require a bag.

Then he found that none of the existing companies would market his product for him, nor could he talk other appliance manufacturers into purchasing his product. In 1986, he was finally able to get a Japanese company to market his product in Japan. In 1991, his product won an International Design Fair competition in Japan and became a status symbol there. In 1993, he finally began production in Britain, his home country, where his machine rapidly became the best-selling vacuum cleaner there. In 2002, he finally entered the U.S. market, where, as stated above, his product has become the best-selling brand.

For people who are either skeptical or optimistic about entrepreneurial possibilities in education, the Dyson story is a helpful parable for calibrating expectations appropriately. In every market in which the Dyson product has been introduced, it has been a knock-down winner. And yet Dyson, who had no background in appliance engineering, was not able to get recognition or support from any of the industry leaders to whom he was trying to sell his product. Had one of the existing companies purchased his patent, they could now be selling the top brand. Even in a for-profit environment, people are so stuck with existing notions of credentials and expertise they fail to recognize a clearly superior product when they see it.

Dyson was able to create more than 5,000 prototypes of his vacuum cleaner over the course of a few years in order to perfect his product. With respect to the “educational product” I’ve been working on, a new kind of school at which students learn how to learn more effectively while enjoying it more deeply, in effect I as only able to try out one new prototype each year. Although some things could be tweaked somewhat during a year, basic issues such as staffing, requirements, curriculum, etc. could only be changed slightly each year. In some respects each new school that I started was the relevant “prototype.” Worse yet, in circumstances (such as charter schools) in which I was required to use certified teachers and cover conventional curricula, I was limited in the “materials” I was allowed to use – as if Dyson was prevented from experimenting with key materials in the design of his prototypes because “the experts” had claimed that, for instance, all vacuum cleaners must have bags in them. Worse yet, I had to manufacture and sell the very early phase prototype (i.e. I had to persuade parents to send their students to the school) in order merely to try out the prototype. Thus, unlike Dyson’s prototyping process, I had a limited amount of time to focus on the prototype itself because I was busy running the schools, which were often “buggy” because they were early prototypes.

One of my greatest frustrations in getting people to support the legalization of markets in happiness and well-being is that most of those people who believe that better methods of education are possible don’t believe in markets, and most of those who believe in markets don’t believe that fundamentally different kinds of education are possible. People on the Left, who believe in the power of transformative education, often want to continue hoping that we can do it in government-run schools, or perhaps in highly-regulated charter schools. People on the Right, who may believe in markets, are often supportive of the notion that we should “require standards” and “accountability measures” when we do get school choice.

But if we want to create education that is as much of a leap forward over existing models as the Dyson vacuum cleaner is, we educators will need the freedom to make thousands of prototypes without restrictions by the experts. For those who would rely today on the opinion of existing experts on the validity of various educational innovations, consider the fact that all appliance manufacturers that Dyson approached outside of Japan rejected the opportunity to manufacture his product.

While I have great respect for Dyson’s achievement, schools are (or should be) much, much more complicated devices than are vacuum cleaners. Worse yet, whereas Dyson was working in a field in which high-quality component parts could be obtained relatively affordably, the component parts in education, most especially teacher training, are dreadful at present and very costly to develop independently.

While it is pathetic to compare an educational innovation to a new vacuum cleaner, until educators are given the kind of freedom that a Dyson had to develop his product, we will not succeed. Let us build many thousands of prototypes, and let us market our products without needing the approval of the experts. The experts will not support us, even when we have incontrovertible evidence on our side, and by relying on their judgment we lock ourselves into old models of education.

Michael Strong is the CEO of Flow, Inc., the founder of several innovative high-performance schools, and the author of The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice. He has a related article titled “Taking the Left out of Liberalism” currently posted on the FLOW website.

Copyright FLOW, Inc. 2006