Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

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  • David Willows

Dual-Factor Theory: A Lesson in How Parents Choose Schools

I’ve said for years that parents choose schools like I purchase a new car.


You see, I don’t really understand how a car works. I just assume that it will. So I tend to be more focused on things like heated seats or whether it has a bluetooth connection to my phone. In the same way, I’ve believed for a long time that parents don’t really understand how children learn. They simply assume that they will. So, very often, their choice is founded on a variety of other - sometimes surprising - factors.


And it turns out that there is a body of knowledge that backs up my claim.


Back in the 1960s, American psychologist Frederick Herzberg proposed a “dual-factor theory” to explain what brings us job satisfaction. He argued that there are a set of factors that can lead to motivation (satisfiers) and another set that lead to dissatisfaction (dissatisfiers). The dissatisfiers, he says, are lower-order needs such as salary and working conditions. These are essential elements. Critically, however, he goes on to suggest that these elements in and of themselves will never lead to job satisfaction. This can only come from satisfiers such as recognition, responsibility, achievement, and growth. Herzberg also concludes that these two sets of needs operate independently from one another, meaning that decreasing levels of dissatisfaction on the one hand does not mean that satisfaction or motivation will inevitably increase.


Translated into modern day marketing theory, Herzberg’s model has helped us understand a lot about customer satisfaction and what motivates someone to purchase a product in the first place.


Let me give a few simple examples.


In the table below, a number of dissatisfiers are noted across a variety of domains. These are lower-order needs that are very often assumed by the customer. When I book a hotel, for example, I absolutely expect the room to be clean. So, if I discover that it isn’t, I will be extremely disappointed, complain to the management, and probably not return a second time. Critically, though, according to Herzberg, we don’t generally book hotel rooms because they are clean. Our opinion - and ultimately our decision to purchase - tends to be swayed by other aspects of the overall experience: the swimming pool and spa (even if we never actually use these facilities), the vast array of options at the breakfast buffet (even if we still only take a piece of toast in the morning), or even the chocolate on the pillow.

So how does this help us think about what is important to parents when choosing a school for their child?


If Herzberg is right (and I do know that some have recently argued a more nuanced understanding of customer satisfaction), then we would do well to try to determine the “dissatisfiers” and “satisfiers” that are driving choice within the education sector.


To start this conversation, here are some suggestions.

Again, if the theory is correct, then when a parent walks into a school, they are assuming that everything in the left-hand column is taken care of or can be resolved. If they discover it is not, they will certainly be disappointed. But in and of itself, none of these factors are likely to be sufficient to motivate a parent to choose your school.


Conversely, whilst everything in the right-hand column will very often be the deciding factor and help a school to stand out in the crowd, this is on condition that all of the essentials are in place. After all, what is the point of learning Chinese if there are doubts about the quality of the overall academic programme?


So, if Herzberg was giving us all a lecture in school marketing in the wake of a pandemic, here are three questions I imagine that he’d leave us with:

  1. Do you know what your “dissatisfiers” and “satisfiers” are?

  2. Are any of the “dissatisfiers” in your school threatening your overall customer (family) experience?

  3. If you take a look at your school website or admissions processes, to what extent are you standing out in the crowd by leveraging the “satisfiers” that will ultimately make the biggest difference of all?

These, I would suggest, are important questions for any school to ask right now.



Photo by Hilbert Hill on Unsplash.

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