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Killer Questions for Education Template

I’m going to show you my stream of thought as I worked on creating my Killer Questions for education. This will give you a template that you can use for your own organization. WHO Growing up, I got a firsthand look at the ecosystem that surrounds education because my mom was on the local school […]

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
4 min read
Killer Questions for Education

I’m going to show you my stream of thought as I worked on creating my Killer Questions for education. This will give you a template that you can use for your own organization.


Growing up, I got a firsthand look at the ecosystem that surrounds education because my mom was on the local school board.

One time, my dad took me to a school board meeting so that I could experience a small, local version of democracy at work. I’ll never forget the way that meeting degenerated into a shouting match (I don’t recall over what), with adults resorting to calling each other names. There were many Whos in that meeting, all supposedly with the same goal, but at that moment they seemed to want to kill one another. I recall looking around and noticing that I was the only student at the meeting.

As I drove home from my first meeting with the Department of Education, I thought about the people who had attended that meeting: teachers, principals, parents, and union reps. The one group not in attendance was students. However, the reality is that the education system is serving all of these Whos. They are all a part of the ecosystem and need to be considered. Therefore, the Who questions need to be written to accommodate all of them.

The Who questions I developed for the workshop were:

  • What are the “buying” criteria used by parents when selecting how their children are educated? (e.g., an atmosphere with low incidence of school violence)
  • What are the unshakable beliefs about what teachers want? (e.g., tenure)
  • What unanticipated customer could benefit from education? (e.g., non-English-speaking parents taking ESL classes)

When you are rewriting the Killer Questions for education, avoid judgment words like right, wrong, harms, fails, good, and bad. The Killer Questions are written to focus on words that search for positive input (e.g., customer likes) and negative input (e.g., customer doesn’t like), without suggesting what form the input might take. Look again at the third question: I specifically use words like “benefit” because they imply something of positive value without defining that value.


When we started down the path of homeschooling our kids, we went about it the same way the school system does—namely, finding a set of grade-level curricula and teaching from them. The result was not so good.

What we discovered through the process of homeschooling was that there are three types of learners: visual, auditory, and tactile. And guess what—we got one of each. In addition, my wife and I discovered that we have different teaching styles. My wife’s style is auditory/visual while my style was auditory/tactile. We realized that we needed to adjust our approach to homeschooling or else the results were going to be a disaster. So we created a custom curriculum for each child and tailored the teaching style to match. This is something that the school system is not set up to do. If one teacher is responsible for thirty kids, then only one-third of the kids in the classroom is being taught in a teaching style that matches their learning approach.

I wrote the following What questions for the workshop, keeping these personal experiences in mind as I did so:

  • What groups find the public education system objectionable? (e.g., homeschool students, students who attend religious schools)
  • What is surprisingly inefficient about the education process? (e.g., getting approval to experiment with new teaching methods)
  • What skills will we need to teach students so they are competitive in the marketplace when they enter the job market? (e.g., critical-thinking skills applied to all subjects, entrepreneurship)


There is more to learning than what is taught in the classroom. Education needs to take a broader view of the value chain that can be leveraged to expand the knowledge and skills of our students. One group of participants in this value chain are organizations that will eventually hire graduates. So how do you include them? One idea is internships.

I’m a big believer in internships. They give us an opportunity to work with the best and the brightest beyond the act of hiring. I take the summer intern program to the extreme and select a few of the students to live with me during the summer. This extra step in the process of “manufacturing” a graduate ready to compete in the marketplace is mutually beneficial. The interns get all the mentoring they can handle, and I get three months with a new generation that would be hard to observe and understand otherwise.

So how do you go about looking at your How with that critical eye? There are multiple perspectives you can take when focusing on How. One is by viewing your value chain in terms of competitive pressures. I have the advantage of working in a highly competitive industry. I know the big players who are our direct competitors. I also know that there will always be someone and something new coming up that I can’t predict or anticipate. The other option is to focus on efficiency. This approach relies on an organization’s ability to look at each item in its value chain and attack it. If an item doesn’t add value, then it gets dropped. For education, I went after efficiency.

The How questions I developed for the education workshop include:

  • What are other educational approaches, and what can we learn from them? (e.g., apprenticeship)
  • What do students not like about the classroom experience? (e.g, class time is boring)
  • What do teachers not like about the classroom experience? (e.g., students aren’t motivated to learn)
bookBook ExcerptschaincustomerDepartment of EducationKiller Questions for Educationquestions for educationvalue

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Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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