Posted - September 2016

Positioning Internationally through Teaching and Pedagogy

by Stephen Holmes B Ed, MBA, M Ed Admin, PhD (School Marketing and Reputation Management)CIS Affiliated Consultant

Dr Stephen Holmes is a member of the CIS Affiliated Consultant Network. Stephen is Founder and Principal of The 5rs Partnership Knowledge (, (previously known as The Knowledge Partnership), a global consultancy specifically for schools and universities in strategy, marketing, and reputation, established in 2003.

With an extensive teaching and management background in both schools and universities, Stephen has been consulting with schools and universities internationally at the highest levels for three decades and has an unmatched client list in breadth and depth. He is also the author of a specialist book on marketing and strategy for schools and universities.

Based in Asia, and working with international schools and universities spanning every continent, Stephen is the only full-time practising consultant in the world with a PhD in education marketing and reputation management. In the late 1990s, Stephen significantly defined the strategic role of reputation and marketing in education via the 5Rs framework (recruitment, retention, referral, relationships and reputation) in his seminal PhD study on creating a responsive orientation in education institutions.

Positioning Internationally through Teaching and Pedagogy

International Education Landscape and Teaching/Pedagogy

More than ever, approaches to pedagogy (teaching) and associated services are being scrutinised by students and parents, yet remain underutilised in the definitive positioning of schools and universities alike. Schools and universities are all too often seen as generic or having a sameness around teaching and pedagogy.

Today’s parents/students think and behave now more like ‘investors’ who seek more insight into and evaluation of the intrinsic qualities of schools and universities, notably teaching and pedagogy. The value of teaching and pedagogy is increasingly defined by the ‘receiver’ more than the ‘giver’ – in our context, students and parents. Parents and students are increasingly discerning and want proof of the value and merit of teaching and pedagogical methods.

In no small way, how students and parents choose a school or university points to a need for more strategic consideration about how teaching and pedagogy should be integrated into positioning. Student and parent personas consistently now seek:  

  • Both short term and lifelong benefits that can be shown as linear to institutional focus on teaching and pedagogy.
  • Personalised learning and more broadly a customised (curated) experience – how does teaching and pedagogy play a key role here?
  • A service and convenience orientation – how can teaching and pedagogy be positioned as supportive of this?
  • Institutions with 21st century ambitions- what is the horizon plan for teaching and pedagogy to fit with known and unknown future requirements?
  • A consistent (seamless) student/parent journey (pre-enrolment forward) - how teaching and pedagogy is a consistent them and authentically delivered across the institution
  • Education that can act as a passport opportunity (so called global citizenship). How the teaching and pedagogy support employability, global perspective, and soft skill development?

The figure below is an organising framework to consider the centrality of teaching/pedagogy in aligning with what we have found as the four most influential attributes in schools and universities among students and parents to influence their choice: 

What is Education Positioning?

Positioning, in a school or university, means designing the offer in order to occupy a distinctive place in the minds of target audiences. It requires a cogent and compelling reason why the target audience should choose your institution over other alternatives. Ideally, the aim should be for the institution to ‘own’ a word or concept (identity) and to be consistently known for something that it would be hard for others to replicate.

Why a Strong Positioning in Education is Difficult and What Drives it

Several factors make education different, rendering commercial positioning models largely flawed:

  1. Education is co-created – it is not a wholly definable (quantifiable) service. It is hard to categorically prove one education institution to be better than another.
  2. Education is intangible (experiential) e.g. what generates teaching ‘quality’ or a ‘good’ curriculum is hard to define.
  3. Education is most often an emotional (connectivity at personal level) purchase rather than a purely rational one. An education institution is so often evaluated in less than rational ways.

My observations of schools and universities over three decades suggest that a more dedicated harnessing of teaching/pedagogy approaches can deliver a cogent and compelling positioning. In relation to teaching and pedagogy, however, the education sector is characterised by:

  • Generally weak and indistinct mission and vision statements.
  • Not many have defined flagships.
  • Rarely a conscious, long term investment to elevate differentiating factors.
  • Most institutions try to cover all bases (inclusive) in their positioning – rather than narrow and deep approach to say teaching and pedagogy.
  • Location and history are over relied upon as primary differentiators – real differences such as teaching/pedagogy are often buried.

Telling evidence of the relatively ‘bland’ positioning landscape among schools and universities is that the best known institutions have remain essentially unchanged over the past 100 years?! It would be hard to think of another sector where this is the case!!

The Case for a Teaching/Pedagogy Led Positioning

Research in many countries consistently shows a central factor in success of university and schools is quality of teaching, pedagogy and associated services. So we can be quite certain that it counts- disproportionately. Universities and schools don’t say enough about it - look at almost any internationally focused website or brochure! It represents an opportunity in an increasingly crowded international education sector.

A systematic process to find the ‘right’ messaging around teaching and pedagogical quality is required to build clarity in positioning. Five metrics that can be applied in schools and universities to guide this process internally (that first require robust evidence) are:

  1. Parent and or student choice, and motivation to choose the institution  (alignment and place of teaching and pedagogy being the goal here)
  2. What the institution already does exceptionally well around teaching and pedagogy (recognising that it is much easier to build on existing strengths than to create new ones)
  3. Sustainable (something the institution can embed around teaching and pedagogy)
  4. Authentic (such as a theme or ‘golden thread’ that runs across year levels and or curriculum that connects or is seen as valuable)
  5. Applicable to your institutions culture (What is the best fit in your context)

What does implementation look like around positioning on the basis of teaching/pedagogy? Below is an example of evidence ‘levers’ (proof points) that could be developed and applied to generate a compelling and cogent positioning based on teaching/pedagogy.

Key driver for institutional choice:   Teaching/Pedagogy Quality
Positioning ‘Levers’:  
  • Teacher Recruitment processes
  • Quality of candidate field
  • Previous employers
  • Ex-teaching staff in high places
  • Employment record - experiences and innovations
  • Student/parent evaluation processes and feedback
  • Teacher exchange and other PD
  • Teacher support quality
  • Profile of teaching with industry partners.
  • Teamwork/sharing of expertise
  • Salaries and rewards that are teaching directe
Turning A ’Teaching and Pedagogy’ Positioning into Communication Narrative

How do we translate a teaching/pedagogy focused positioning into communication narrative?

Again, options first need to be explored and tested by a school or university in their own context, but the following stand out as valued messaging narrative (a checklist) to consider:

  • How enquiry and problem based learning is incorporated
  • How pedagogy/teaching promotes and deliver critical thinking and new ideas
  • How pedagogy/teaching is linked to life/employability skills such as communication, negotiation, analysis, entrepreneurship, creativity, etc.
  • How pedagogy/teaching can be linked to ‘in vogue’ concepts and programs in areas such as positive psychology, emotional intelligence
  • How the learning environment is conducive to and supports contemporary and flexible (diverse) learning styles.
  • How management and institutional structures and processes provide a supportive context for high quality and professional teaching/pedagogy.

 My experience is also that where the following are crafted within a communication narrative, there is better understanding and resonance of the link between pedagogy/teaching and success:

  • Linking student results overtly to teaching/pedagogy (through staff PD, staff evaluation and student satisfaction)
  • Linking teaching/pedagogy to a one to one student focus (personal attention)
  • Measurement of pedagogical impacts on student attitudes, behaviours such as independence, problem solving etc.
  • Testimonials of third parties that attest to the longer term benefits of  teaching/pedagogy  - (e.g. via Alumni- resilience at university job readiness, skills, and career progression)
  • Focus on an approach or concept that is central to the teaching/pedagogical approach- e.g. group work.
  • Contrast your own with ‘local’ education system pedagogies- draw on subject/research literature to support the value in such differences.
  • Present rolling case studies on teaching/ pedagogy and teachers themselves on the website- educate parents and students first about their practical short and long term benefits to students.  Only then can you also be seen as a thought leader in this space!
  • Boldly make teaching/pedagogy central to the core outreach of the institution e.g. ‘Learn at school – just as you will later on, in your career’.
A Whole of Institute Process to Build Teaching/Pedagogy as Positioning

Just as with any strategic objective, schools and universities need a step by step process to embed a position/narrative around teaching/pedagogy. I propose a 4 step model.

  1. Map competitor messaging around teaching /pedagogy (if any)
  2. Secondary evidence e.g. draw on supportive subject literature- e.g. likely graduate skills for the future
  3. Solicit opinions of Alumni, current and prospective students, and parents
  4. Concept checking and pilot testing of proposed positioning with current students/parents.

Despite what seems an obvious connection to education itself, remarkably few schools or universities have translated teaching and pedagogy into a defining part of their positioning strategy and reputational fabric. There is a striking imperative to look within for more strategic approaches in an increasingly competitive international education sector.

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