What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Collaborating

This is the third part in a series connecting the ideas from “Two Beats Ahead” by R. Michael Hendrix and Panos A. Panay to education. To read part 1 on listening, go here and part 2 on experimenting, go here.

The musical mindset most severely lacking in education is collaboration. I am not speaking about collaboration as two teachers writing a lesson plan together, or giving each other feedback on their instruction. Those examples are important components of developing yourself as a professional but don’t get at the heart of how collaboration functions from the musical perspective.

In their book, Hendricks and Panay take the reader through a few different examples of musical collaboration. One example, Beyoncé’s work developing her album Lemonade, focuses on how a community of musicians can come together to express the artistic vision of an individual. Another example is Pharrell Williams and his ability to apply his innovative musical mindset to collaborate in other fields such as fashion and brand development.

And of course no discussion on musical collaboration wouldn’t be complete without referencing songwriting partners Lennon and McCartney (you may have heard of them). What made their collaboration effective was their shared vision and purpose and passion for rock music. Eventually their respective egos stood in the way of any lasting collaboration and eventually led to their demise.

It is the section on Roger Brown, president of the Berklee College of Music, that really stood out to me. It is a real-life example of how the musical mindset can be applied to education. For all the innovation happening in the education space, the structures holding them up still suffer from being a relic of a past that no longer exists in our world today. The most effective models that are emerging are replacing the structured, predictable, and certain hierarchies. New models are being designed to address a world that is volatile, complex, and ambivalent.

The authors take us through how Brown is able to structure an educational institution that embraces freedom and responsibility. Through a decentralized approach that is currently being used by cutting edge companies in the tech space, Berklee is able to position itself as being an innovator in effective leadership models.

So where did Brown come up with this approach to organizational structure? Music of course! In the book, he explains how his career as a drummer in bands helped him understand effective decision-making. That it can be run leaderlessly and done collectively. This is in contrast to the traditional hierarchy that puts someone in primary control–the conductor if you will.

Having people in your organization that can shift roles, operate with a collaborative mindset, and perform with autonomy allows for increased innovation. Brown’s experience shows how the intimate experience of working in a band is a way to develop this humble approach to collaboration. Applying this in the education space requires a complete restructuring of the previous models that were based on strict hierarchies. A more flexible and agile approach that gives stakeholders autonomy must be considered.

This can work because teachers are wired to observe and sense opportunity. Effective instruction relies on the ability to observe what is working well and ask how to do more of that thing, or how to eliminate what isn’t working. Instead, the current model forces the teacher to observe what’s working or not working and pass it on up the line. Then hope someone from above will initiate change.

Brown mentions that less than 10 percent of the students from Berklee will end up becoming professional musicians. I think if some of the remaining 90 percent enter the education field, we might have a shot at turning around the systems that are hindering learning opportunities for our kids.

Another person from the Berklee College of Music, David Mash, shares “In any area of life, leadership boils down to how you get people to see your vision. If you’re a guitar player in a band and you’ve written a piece that needs bass and drums and you have an idea in your head for how it should sound, you have to convince the players to hear it in their heads and pull it out of their fingers. You have to share that vision and inspire them to get excited about it. Learning to lead in that way prepares you so much in this world.”

That is a fitting way to describe how we can apply the musical mindset for innovation in education, particularly in the much-needed area of collaboration.

Going All In

I recently delivered a talk as part of the Speak Hawai’i educator storytelling event. My talk was titled “Going All In” and was inspired by the book Two Beats Ahead by R. Michael Hendrix and Panos A. Panay. You can listen to the talk by clicking on the YouTube below. Enjoy!

Learn more about the book at this link https://twobeatsahead.com

Learn more about the event and join the mailing list at this link http://bit.ly/speakhawaiisite

What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Experimenting

This is the second part in a series connecting the ideas from “Two Beats Ahead” by R. Michael Hendrix and Panos A. Panay to education. To read part 1 on listening, go here.

“Dare to suck.” – Justin Timberlake

Experimenting can be a controversial topic in education. The model of teaching and learning that has dominated our schools for the past 100-500 years is based on the idea of a curriculum, which is essentially a planned sequence of study. In fact, some research suggests that the term “curriculum” was introduced by Calvinists in the 16th century to produce more structure and order to the educational system.1

Considering that the word “curriculum” is borrowed from Latin for a “course” (as in a route you follow), it makes sense that education is often thought of as a linear progression through a series of content-driven learning experiences.

The musical mind operates much differently than this prescribed, route-focused framework. Authors Hendrix and Panos start this chapter with anecdotes from their discussions with Justin Timberlake. To describing his schooling in songwriting Timberlake shares an idea he learned from early mentor Max Martin, “there weren’t any rules, but there were guidelines.” What a revelation for the innovative educator!

As a musician, I am very comfortable with this approach that Timberlake describes. It is one that I bring into my teaching everytime I design a learning experience. Throughout the process of designing learning, I have to keep testing, and trying. I need evidence of what works so I can keep it, and what doesn’t work so I can throw it away. As the authors state this takes “relentless commitment”.

At first, I was worried about the impact I was having on the students with this experimental approach. What if what I try doesn’t work? Am I corrupting the students by trying something new? Is the students’ learning going to be negatively impacted by a failed idea?

I was able to discard these fears and continue to be grounded in experimentation. We know our current models of education are broken. Students need to experience their learning in new ways in order to have the tools that they will need to excel. So in fact, I am negatively impacting their learning by not experimenting. As Hendrix and Panay say “musical experimentation doesn’t start with a research plan and a fixed method. The more options an artist tries, the more likely she is to discover an idea worth building upon.”

For me as an educator, my best insights into designing learning have been through these experiments. From how I model assessment and design reflective opportunities for students to how I design the space in my classroom and co-create rubrics with students–all of these ideas have come through experimenting in the classroom.

Based on the evidence from the Finnish model of education, play is being brought back into the students’ school experience. So it should be for teachers as well. Where will these innovative learning experiences come from if we are asked to deliver the same failed curricula year after year? Much like musician/producer Imogen Heap, we have to take on the things that scare us a little bit. We need to lean into those moments that tell us “I can’t do that”.

When I first had the idea to not give students zeros, to accept homework submitted past arbitrary deadlines, to not grade any quizzes, to allow all students to use their notes on all tests, it scared me. Is it OK that I do this? Am I allowed to do this? Will I get in trouble? What will parents say? On the contrary, in embracing these ideas, I was able to transform my teaching and redesign the learning experiences for my students.

This type of experimenting is not done as a one-off attempt to try and disrupt the status quo. There is an art to continual curiosity. You have to pay attention and be reflective. You have to incorporate the skill of listening–to yourself, and to others. In the final section on experimenting Panos and Hendrix profile Colin Raney and TJ Parker, Start-Ups in Residence at IDEO. Raney says:

“When you build a culture of experimentation, you create constant curiosity around how things could improve. Teams start to approach problems differently. You accept there are no silver bullets and that some ideas will fail, but you’ll learn from the failure.”

I propose that we shift the role of the educator from designing a curriculum to designing an experimentum. Moving from a fixed course of learning, towards a series of trials and experiments in which we can unlock learning solutions that best support the needs of our students.

The critical insights into how we can do this as educators come from our peers in the musical space. Their constant experimentations are evidence of how we can take risks and potentially uncover an insight that can transform the way we conduct teaching and learning in our schools.


What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Listening

I recently started the book “Two Beats Ahead” by Panos A. Panay and R. Michael Hendrix. This book examines what musical minds teach us about innovation. It has been on my radar since I first heard Hendrix mention these ideas in a podcast with IDEO about a year and a half ago. Since then I haven’t been able to get these ideas out of my head. I have been waiting for this book with anticipation. I was excited to finally have a settled moment to sit with the first chapter last night.

I want to capture my thinking about what I just read, and hopefully the subsequent chapters as well if I can. I also want to do this through the lens of education and teaching, which is my domain. As a musician and songwriter, I connect deeply with the premise of the book. It is something I have thought about, but have not been able to articulate. I feel that the book has unlocked ideas that have been floating around in my subconscious for years.

The first chapter is titled “Listening: The Space Between the Notes.” The opening quote is by Björk: “The most powerful thing is often the thing which lies slumbering in the silence.”

As educators, we need to develop the skill of having an awareness of the things that are not there. In teaching we have a tendency to get too focused on the deliverables–content is king. Too many educators make the standards and the content that the students need to learn the sole focus of their teaching.

But what are we missing when we put so much emphasis on this? We are missing out on relationships. We are losing sight of the human part of learning. An important part of designing learning experiences is to create the conditions that allow for full immersion. When we develop an awareness of our students’ human experience and listen for the gaps in their experience, we can build upon the relationships that are so important for effective instruction.

A second type of listening that Hendrix and Panay discuss is listening to ourselves. They introduce the term emotional due diligence. How often do we as educators really do emotional due diligence? How can we, as designers of these educational experiences, deliver if we have not found our own voice?

Teaching and learning are very personal and intimate experiences. It involves a lot of trust, compassion, empathy, and communication. To do this effectively we need to know what our own individual style is. We are not just classically trained musicians playing notes off of a score, or delivering content from a curriculum. We need to take our individual experiences and edit them together into a mosaic that is our own unique voice.

The process of getting to this point is through self-analysis and emotional due diligence. Take the time to look inside. What drives you, why are you doing this, what is your purpose of dedicating yourself to the craft of teaching and learning?

In the book the authors use a quote from Pharrell Williams that I won’t reproduce here (go get the book!), but essentially he advises to have a healthy amount of delusion. Much like an artist, you have to be somewhat delusional to get into teaching. To think that you can deliver learning to young people is somewhat a delusional premise. That’s a good thing. As Pharrell says, don’t talk yourself out of doing something amazing.

The last part of this first chapter in listening is to remove the ego. As educators this is essential. While it is healthy to have a certain amount of delusion, don’t allow that thought to prevent you from getting your ego out of the way. When we remove our ego we are open to shifting our practice. We invite change and understand that it is a healthy part of the evolution of our craft.

Panos and Hendrix share that it is easy to recast failures as pivots, as stepping stones on the road to success. The true aim, they share, is to ground these pivots in “listening for opportunities and finding new alignments.” The way to do this is to “open yourself up, be aware and watchful, be listening.” The “failures” we endure as educators are more than just opportunities for a pivot, they are moments of the ego dissolving. It is a key moment in which you have the opportunity to listen to yourself and trust your thinking to take you on a new path.

As educators, we work in dynamic and shifting spaces. We cannot enter into these spaces with a fixed mindset of how things are and how they should be. We need to listen for the silence. This takes practice. This is a discipline that takes a focused effort. But I do believe it can be taught and learned. We can look to musicians for these lessons and learn from them. Again as Panos and Hendrix so eloquently share at the conclusion of the chapter: “Listen, notice, feel. Anticipate the possibilities that come from silence”.

Rinse, Wash, Wash Again, Repeat

I recently engaged in a Twitter educhat in which we were asked to share our big “aha” from this year. For me, it was undoubtedly the reduction in the number of content standards I teach and assess.

Heading into the summer our principal suggested the book “Focus – Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning“. There was one line in there that just lept of the page – “We should reduce the content contained in most standards documents by about 50 percent”. I was shocked, I mean I already have eliminated a number of standards from the “typical” Algebra 1 curriculum, but how would I reduce it by 50%?

For this school year, instructional time was reduced due to the scheduling changes made because of the pandemic. I figured this was a good time to give it a try. With less face-to-face time I felt it was a good opportunity to de-emphasize covering every piece of content. The goal would be to focus on the depth of the content areas I would choose to emphasize – something I had been wanting to do.

My approach was to first start with a list of all the content standards I typically teach and count them up. Fortunately, I already had a list of these. I had 92 different content standards on my list.

Rather than go for the full 50% cut in one swoop, I started by grouping everything into 4 or 5 main “modules” that would guide my overall curriculum. Once I had done that I went through the list and determined which content standards were absolutely essential in targeting those macro-level modules. In my first attempt, I got down to about 55, pretty close to 50% and was pleasantly surprised.

Being so close to the 50% threshold, I thought, OK I’ll make another pass at it. I had now removed the reins of being beholden to hitting all these content markers. I began to feel much more comfortable removing other content. During this second pass a picture of what my new trimmed-down curriculum emerged.

Let me give an example. Previously my curriculum included “Students are able to generate a table of values to graph an absolute value equation”. Rather than target this standard, I put more emphasis on the broader module about “graphing functions”. During this module, I went into more depth about functions, tables, and inputs and outputs. We examined what a function is and what it means to input x values into a function and what those y output values represent.

Having gone into more depth into the process of generating values from a table, I was able to give them an absolute value function and they graphed it with no problem. They had accessed the depth of understanding about what a function is and how it can be used to represent a variety of mathematical operations so there was no need to cover absolute functions separately. By breaking down the learning to the fundamental skills, students demonstrated that they were much more versatile and adaptable to a variety of mathematical situations.

Moving forward I would like to explore the use of modules more deeply. Rather than presenting everything in a fixed linear fashion, I would like to structure the learning around modules that can be circled back to throughout the year. For example as I prep for the next lesson on quadratic equations I am more confident in referring to the work on both linear and exponential functions that we previously covered. This will allow students to make connections across the curriculum.

This work is by no means perfect. In fact, seeing how bloated our curriculum is has forced me to rethink the type of content I am delivering and how I will design the learning experiences for students. My hope is that by focusing the curriculum on the core concepts that we can explore more real-world applications of the mathematical concepts we are covering.

If you are considering trimming down your curriculum I highly suggest you give it a try. Follow these short four steps:

  1. List all the content that you deliver in a given school year (Rinse)
  2. Go through and keep only the core content items that are essential for students in the next course sequence in your subject (Wash)
  3. Remove any final content that students could understand by applying the learning from the core content pieces you identified in step 2 (Wash again)
  4. Implement it into your classroom and revise as needed (Repeat)

Time to KonMari Your Professional Learning

The recent shift to online and virtual professional learning opportunities has presented a buffet of options for educators. Since the end of the school year last June I have consumed hundreds of hours of content, many of it free. This is tremendously exciting. As a teacher I am always looking to grow and learn new things. But when is too much….too much?

I recently hit my breaking point. Between the demands of teaching, the need to support my home life, and a renewed focus on my own well-being, I had to reconsider the amount of time I am chasing professional growth.

I don’t want to eliminate the need for professional learning for teachers. In fact I think it is the single most important thing that we as educators need to be doing. In a rapidly changing world with new technologies and information being thrown at us daily, there is tremendous value in being a lifelong learner.

What I have found is that the need to consume every new webinar, test every new technology, and hear from every new thought leader espousing breakthrough knowledge about our future world has its drawbacks. As educators, we guide our students to reach for transfer-level understanding. We design experiences that allow students to transition from surface, to deep, to transfer-level understanding. When we try to over-consume information we are not allowing ourselves to experience this same transition..

There are times when it is appropriate to go “all in” on a topic. For example, this summer in the wake of the George Floyd protests and the Black Lives Matter movement I realized I was vastly under-learned in topics around race, social justice, and white privilege. I did a deep dive of reading, listening to podcasts, and attending webinars. I listened, engaged, and reflected deeply about my own experiences and lack of knowledge. I came out on the other side with reliable resources and connections to go to in the future when I had a question that I needed an answer to.

As the year has gone on I have been trying to replicate that deep dive on every new idea that comes my way. The result has been not deep diving at all, but just skimming the surface. This doesn’t provide the attention my ideas deserve in order to be examined in a deeper way.

So what are my suggestions to address this? I have applied the principles of “KonMari” to my own professional learning. There are many ways that the KonMari approach has been applied, so I am using the general five steps outlined in this medium post. They have been slightly modified to fit my own use case.

  1. Discard by category first: Place all your professional learning resources into categories. Do this in order starting with the things that take up the most of your attention first and then going down the line. For me, it was in the following order: books, podcasts, research papers, webinars, social media.
  2. Break a category into subcategories as needed: For example, podcasts can be broken into categories like technology, leadership, education policy, social justice, or content-specific topics (for me that could be mathematics or project-based learning), etc…. Do the same for your books, research papers, or whatever else you listed in step 1.
  3. Only keep the things that spark joy: This is probably the most well-known part of the process. You can think of it as things that speak to your heart, gets you excited, moves you, etc… If it is a physical thing like a book you can physically hold it and ask yourself if it sparks joy. If it something digital like a podcast or a research paper I will look at its title or podcast page and ask myself if I get excited looking at it. I know it might feel weird to look at a little box on an iPhone screen and ask yourself if it sparks joy, but we’re trying to get you to make some changes here so be open to doing things that make you feel a little silly.
  4. After items have been discarded, thoroughly re-organize your “space”: Again a lot of these “spaces” are going to be digital, but they can still be organized. Make folders in your hard drive or google dive with your research papers that are clearly titled by topic. I started using a platform called Mindstone that allows you to organize pdfs and online articles into categories and tags for later reference. For podcasts, I have made playlists by category like “tech”, “leadership” etc… so I know where to find podcast on topics when I want to go to them. For webinars or online events, make some clear rules about how you will interact with them. For example, I said I will not attend online events that happen during my workday. Or give yourself specific categories of events that are you will attend so you are not trying to consume everything. If you want to learn about social justice. Commit to only attending events on that topic. When you are ready to move to a new topic, set a new limit on what you’ll attend.
  5. Do it all at one time: The Japanese term for this is “ikki ni” which means “in one go”. This is very important as you are trying to change an entire mindset. If you can do it all at once you will be well on your way to fundamentally changing the mindset that has been causing you all the “professional learning clutter” in your life.

I hope these tips are helpful. I am by no means an expert on this and still fall back into my old ways. I think the mantra of “progress not perfection” is good to apply here. We are professional educators so we value learning. But this can also get the best of us and lead to that “wide, but not deep” approach that we try to guide our students away from. By applying the KonMari approach to our professional learning I think we can engage more deeply with the growth we are trying to obtain. This will put us on the path to making the foundational changes in our professional lives that we are seeking.

Context Driving Content–A Case Study In Skateboarding Innovation

I began to lose interest in school as I entered my teenage years. Yes, I performed well, did my homework, completed the assignments, but I can’t say I was into school. What I wanted to do was two things—play guitar and skateboard. I would also add play basketball too for good measure. Now that I am working in the field of education as a teacher, I see how all three of those are frameworks to understand potential innovations in how learning experiences are crafted and delivered.

In this post, I just want to focus on skateboarding. I believe there is a lot from the skateboarding world that can be brought into the education space. These could be entrepreneurship, creativity, expression, physical fitness. But there is one key idea I want to focus on that was explained by skateboarding legend Rodney Mullen in his TED Talk “Pop an ollie and innovate!”.

In this talk Mullen asks the question:

“How can I expand, how can the context, how can the environment change the very nature of what I do?”

So let me give you some background. Rodney Mullen started out as a world-class freestyle skater. Freestyle skateboarding is one of the oldest forms of skating. It involves doing tricks on flat ground and was often part of organized contests in which the skaters were judged on their technical skills. Mullen was the best in the world at this, winning 34 of the 35 contents he entered.

Mullen was a true innovator of the sport having invented hundreds of tricks. Foremost among these is the ollie which is now considered a staple maneuver in skateboarding. He also created other tricks that are foundational moves in the modern skateboarding world like the kickflip, heelflip, 36o flip.

At this time though, vert was the more popular form of skateboarding. The high air maneuvers and aerial spins most popularized by Tony Hawk drew thousands of fans across the world. Much of the industry at this time—from the clothing, shoes, boards, wheels, and other equipment were all geared towards vert skating

In the early 1990s, a new form of skateboarding emerged and eventually took over, street skating. Skaters moved off the flat ground, out of the ramps and empty swimming pools, and into the urban landscape. This emerging style was more improvisational in style. The skater was now interacting with the environment, analyzing the architecture and determining what they could do with the contexts they were presented with.

So what does this have to do with learning? Well let’s look back at the quote from Mullen: “How can I expand, how can the context, how can the environment change the very nature of what I do?”. This was someone who was recognized as being the best in the world at his craft. He had created the very tricks that the entire sport of skateboarding was built on. But he recognized that these tricks had no relevance when they are being done on flat ground. What they were lacking was some context.

I feel we are doing the same thing to our learners. We are giving them content (tricks/maneuvers if you will) without any context. They are basically skateboarding on flat ground. Completing math problems in isolation, writing analytical essays without relevance, learning verb conjugations without conversation—these are all examples of content that is lacking context.

I would propose that an important innovation that teachers need to consider and implement is to allow the context dictate what kind of content they deliver. Mullen made this key pivot and ended up completely revolutionizing street skateboarding. He took the various tricks he invented for flatground and reimagined them for use on the urban landscape. He would carefully analyze the components of the terrain and make decisions about what tricks (content) to execute (deliver) based on that terrain (context).

A simple example of how this could look would be in mathematics. Don’t limit yourself to teaching linear equations according to the exacting standards set by national curricula. Look at the context of a linear equation. Maybe sales of a certain item for example, and build out learning tasks that emphasize how that content could be applied in that context.

And don’t limit yourself to solely placing the content into this new context. Dig deeper, bring in new technical skills that can be used to build on this content knowledge. Students can engage with spreadsheets using data formulas, and graphing functions. This could also lead to projects in which students design a business plan or collaborate on an entrepreneurial venture.

I see the application of this going beyond the context-based learning as developed by the Salter approach. I imagine a learning experience that I would call “context-driven learning”. This can be applied to build the competencies required to develop a student-driven capstone project to be used as an assessment at the culmination of a division.

More about how context can drive content needs to be thought through. I find Rodney Mullen’s insights into how he innovated his skateboard practice as an inspiring way to think about how I can innovate my teaching practice. Watch the TED talk and decide for yourself.

Carefully Move and Tend to Things

The minimal viable product is a key idea in the lean startup method. But is this the correct approach? I recently came across an interview with Roger McNamee in which he dug into this question. I believe that with access to the data about the effects of technology on our health and safety we need to reconsider our answer to this question.

Creating a landing page for a website and publishing it seems innocent enough and in many ways it is. What about a pharmaceutical? Or an AI algorithm that collects data about users? Facial recognition software? Should these technologies be put in front of users before they have been properly vetted and tested? I don’t think so.

“Move fast and break things” is an ethos that has produced concerns about safety, privacy, fair competition, and privacy (see Roger McNamee’s writing here). Others have written about this as well including Jonathan Taplin, Hemant Taneja, and of course the wonderful book by Shoshan Zuboff.

Scott Galloway has dubbed this the “exploitation economy.” I would like to propose something more humane. The terms “human-centered capitalism” or “humanistic capitalism” are now being considered as a foil to the “develop at all costs” of the previous years. These words are being discussed from a variety of angles. From innovative political thinker Andrew Yang to conservative thinktank The Hoover Institute.

Research has shown that diversity increases innovation. It is my belief that a shift to a more humane form of technology and entrepreneurship will increase diversity. It will allow for more voices and products to enter the marketplace. The advantage won’t be on the first movers, but to those that consider their impact most deeply.

If a field needs to be tended do you bulldoze through the whole thing and destroy everything in your path? Or do you go through row by row and remove the infesting weeds by hand? I suggest we carefully consider our impact on each plant and take out the ones that don’t belong. The former will create a barren landscape in which anything can repopulate without any regard to its place in the ecosystem. The latter approach only removes what isn’t needed, allowing the remaining plants to flourish, and create a healthy balanced ecosystem.

It is time for a more careful approach as we begin to move into the next revolution. The human revolution. I suggest that rather than moving fast and breaking things we carefully move and tend to things.

The Path to Entrepreneurship

Part 3 in a three-part series on Entrepreneurship In Education for the course Education Theories, Trends, and Entrepreneurship at the Oulu University of Applied Sciences Education Entrepreneurship Master’s Degree Programme. Read part 1 by clicking here and Part 2 by clicking here.

There has been a large amount of skepticism towards the idea of teaching entrepreneurship in schools. Economics and finance are common in many high schools and even in some middle school programs, and of course colleges and universities across the United States offer degrees in business and related fields. But when it comes to entrepreneurship it is seen as not fitting into the box of formalized education.

We are beginning to see some change in this belief though. In middle and high schools there is interest in experiential, project, and inquiry learning models as being a core part of the curriculum. While these exist primarily at independent schools, public schools are incorporating student-driven projects as being an option as a graduation requirement. Capstone projects are also being used as culminating academic experiences at different divisions. By nature, these capstone projects utilize many skills typically found in entrepreneurship: creative thinking, design thinking, and collaboration.

In addition, business schools are starting to embrace entrepreneurship as having a critical role in their programs. Bucking the idea that successful entrepreneurs are those that dropped out of business school to pursue their ideas, acclaimed business schools such as Stanford, NYU, and the University of Virginia are teaching entrepreneurship as part of their MBA program. Through incubator programs, start-up competitions, and other experiential learning methodologies, entrepreneurship is starting to become more common in leading schools across the United States.

This embrace of entrepreneurship has the potential to be very impactful in our schools. First, it can promote the acquisition of 21st century skills (future skills). Entrepreneurship is a great platform to teach the skills needed in a rapidly changing world. These include storytelling, curiosity, persistence, compassion, problem-solving, creative expression among others.

Second, it can increase interdisciplinary learning and methodologies. In entrepreneurship, you need knowledge from a variety of fields whether it be mathematics for business modeling, English for writing, or social studies for world knowledge and cultural awareness. Entrepreneurship provides students the opportunity to combine learning from these fields.

And finally, it supports student agency and ownership of learning. By nature, entrepreneurship invites ideation and passion. While these aren’t the only things that make for a successful entrepreneurial venture, they are part of the equation. Through the development of entrepreneurial thinking, students can explore their individual passions and personality. This requires students to be agents of their own learning and to take a more active role in skill acquisition and application of their learning.

I was never exposed to entrepreneurship in my schooling. It was something that came to me later in my adult life as I struggled to navigate a changing world at the turn of the century. My first exposure came as an independent ‘ukulele instructor. I was working at an ‘ukulele shop and I realized there was a need for ‘ukulele instruction. I created a business in which I would deliver ‘ukulele instruction to kids, adults, and families. My customers were both locals and visitors. I also realized that the ‘ukulele was very popular in Japan, so I learned basic Japanese and began to do instruction to Japanese visitors to Hawai’i as well.

As I progressed I started to develop my own curriculum for teaching the ‘ukulele. I taught group courses and workshops on the ‘ukulele at an adult education non-profit in my community. As people in the community became aware of my skills as an ‘ukulele instructor, it led to opportunities to teach ‘ukulele at local schools. This culminated with co-directing an annual ‘ukulele festival involving multiple schools throughout Hawai’i Island.

These experiences in entrepreneurship culminated with bringing entrepreneurial thinking into the classroom. Once I transitioned into a full-time classroom teacher I began to look for opportunities to foster entrepreneurial thinking in students. I built a digital media class as well as a grade 8 capstone course in which students were able to design their own learning. Students practiced ideation, collaboration, critical thinking, and other skills that are an important part of entrepreneurship.

Today I have pursued my entrepreneurial interests even further. In the summer of 2018, I joined the team at the National Capstone Consortium. This partnership gave me the opportunity to design the summer summit programming. From there I took the initiative to build an online platform for members during the pandemic when we were forced to cancel the summit. Currently, I am enrolled in the Education Entrepreneurship program at Oulu University to gain a formal understanding of entrepreneurship and continue to expand the online platform for our members of the consortium.

As we face an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous future I think entrepreneurship will have an increasingly important role in not only our education system, but in people’s individual lives as well. And I think it only a matter of time before we see entrepreneurship existing as an area of study within our school systems right along with mathematics, literature, and science. In fact, I think future students will be better served if entrepreneurship can operate as a link between these siloed areas of study. This has the possibility to create a new generation of creative thinkers that can potentially solve some of the most pressing problems of our time.

Entrepreneur Stories

Part 2 in a three-part series on Entrepreneurship In Education for the course Education Theories, Trends, and Entrepreneurship at the Oulu University of Applied Sciences Education Entrepreneurship Master’s Degree Programme. Read part 1 by clicking here and part 3 by clicking here.

As an aspiring entrepreneur, I enjoy learning about the journeys of other entrepreneurs. There are many that are relevant to me in which I can take a piece of their experience to use as inspiration. There are the obvious candidates – Phil Knight, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, or Oprah Winfrey as their stories are true examples of entrepreneurial magic. For this article though I would like to focus on three entrepreneurs that are most relevant to me in the current moment.

The first is Sal Khan founder of Khan Academy. The part of his story that I find most inspiring is how he leveraged the available technologies at the time to solve a very real and present problem. His niece needed help on her math homework and he used a phone line and Yahoo Doodle notepad to share his work with her. As his service grew to other students, he started posting videos on YouTube of his tutorials. Of course we know what happened next, as more than 6 million subscribers and 1.7 billion views later he has created one of the most well known online education platforms in the world.

The second is Harley Finkelstein, President of Shopify. What I find so inspiring about his story is how he hustled to put himself through college when his family went bankrupt. He did this by creating a company that printed t-shirts for college clubs at the school he was attending and selling them to members. He later figured out how to license comic book images to use on shirts and created a separate business selling those. It was through these ventures that he met a couple of other entrepreneurs with whom he founded Shopify.

The final entrepreneur is Canva founder Melanie Perkins. There are a number of things that I find extremely inspiring about her story, but the primary one is the persistence that she demonstrated in pursuing her idea. After coming up with the concept of an easy to use online design platform she dedicated herself to bringing this business to life. She had a singular focus on this idea and she had total confidence that it was too good to not succeed. Of course it took luck, serendipity, and business acumen to create a multi-billion dollar company, but it was her fortitude that helped her navigate the challenging world of securing her initial funding.

The reason I choose to highlight these three is there is one thing they all share that is relevant to me in the early stages of my entrepreneurial journey. The common thread is the value of building your own individual technical knowledge about the field that your idea lives in. It is not just about the idea itself, let’s say a social media app, but what is your technical knowledge about that field? It is important to know about coding, user interfaces, design, etc… and to also have a firm grounding in business strategy, marketing, and finance. Finkelstein took a free Stanford course on software development (he even took a course in Khan Academy too!). For Perkins, before launching her idea of an online design tool, she created a yearbook company so she could learn how to create digital graphics and interact with a user interface.

There are endless things to learn from the hundreds of entrepreneurs existing in the world today. Through podcasts, books, articles, and interviews it is easy to source advice and knowledge from each of their successes and failures to guide your own journey in entrepreneurship. There are a number of common traits that you will hear many entrepneurs share – perseverance, creativity, vision, confidence, adaptability, etc… For me, I like to stay grounded in guidance that is more practical. Ship your ideas, learn technical skills, or write a letter to a potential mentor. These are things that I can immediately apply to my own journey and use as stepping stones towards creating value out of my own idea, which is what entrepreneurship is all about.