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The Business of Learning: More Than Meets the Eye


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Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in Education World's Voice of Experience column. This week, Brenda Dyck expresses her amazement at being asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement -- and shares what she learned as a result. Could you be next? Included: What you should know about nondisclosure agreements.



"The business of America is business." -- Calvin Coolidge

After reading Calvin Coolidge's pithy assessment of American culture, I suspect that he must have caught a prophetic glimpse of the 21st century classroom. Coolidge's impression was the same one I had when I returned to teaching after an 18-year child-raising hiatus.

The school I entered in 1997 resembled, in some ways, a corporate culture more than an education community. Administrators spoke of corporate sponsors and partnerships with Microsoft and Hewlett Packard. Unfamiliar lingo like fishbone diagram, continuous improvement, and paradigm shift peppered my colleagues' conversations. The ideas of Edward Demming, of the Total Quality Management (TQM) movement, had replaced those of John Dewey.

It became evident to me that Warren Bennis, an authority on present-day leadership, wasn't far from the truth when he stated: "Business with a large B is the concentrated epitome of our culture and is inseparable from it."

Recently, I've observed a darker side to the infiltration of a corporate mindset into the learning community. As in business, the emphasis on the bottom line has begun to plague teachers and students alike. Meeting and exceeding "bottom line learning standards" has become the dominant focus of classroom learning.

The widespread corporate involvement in education has even spawned protection-based organizations, such as the Commercialism in Education Research Unit, which comes out of the Educational Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University.


The influence of business practices in education is never so evident as when it involves intellectual capital. Intellectual capital is "knowledge, information, intellectual property, experience that can be put to use to create wealth," explains Tom Stewart in his book, Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organizations (Currency Doubleday). Not only has the business world begun to realize that knowledge and creativity are critical resources in the world economy but it has also begun to determine how much it costs an organization to lose what employees know.

Now, the concept of intellectual capital has begun to creep into the education business as well, as schools take measures to protect the intellectual capital that separates their place of learning from others. Those schools have begun to require educators to sign nondisclosure agreements, agreements that limit educators' use of what they know and require them to leave behind what they've created at a particular place of employment.


Unquestionably, the most powerful reformation force in education has been the advent of the World Wide Web. The Web has connected educators around the world and enabled them to do what they do best: share what they know. Gone is the isolationism that plagued teachers of past years.

The implementation of nondisclosure agreements ties teachers' hands by short-circuiting those opportunities for sharing and the professional growth that results. And nondisclosure agreements are not limited to higher education. Some grade school teachers, including this one, have even been asked to sign one. You could be next!

When a nondisclosure agreement was first placed before me, I did some research. As a result of that research, I can offer a few facts about nondisclosure agreements that every educator should know:

  • Nondisclosure agreements should be signed only when one begins employment.
  • The agreement should stipulate a reasonable length of time; six months to three years is typical.
  • The confidential information should be clearly specified; avoid signing contracts full of generalities.
  • Information already known to the recipient or the public at the time of the disclosure cannot suddenly be called confidential and part of a nondisclosure agreement.
  • When in doubt about a nondisclosure agreement, don't sign. Get legal counsel.


Brenda Dyck teaches at ABC Charter Public School, a school for gifted and talented children, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. In addition to teaching sixth-grade math and science, Dyck is also the school librarian. She has written for various educational periodicals and is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.