Every Classroom Entrepreneurship

by Bob Houghton, January, 2013

The adult political and social scene has always had much to say about creating new businesses and non-profit organizations which in turn create new jobs and more jobs and whole new careers never before seen. The big word that children hear can sometimes seem a bit distant to those in elementary education, entrepreneurship. Though it might seem something way beyond the scale of schools and students, teachers have always taught many of the basics of entrepreneurship. They just have not recognized it. Educators have also not gotten the deserved recognition for what they already do that advances the entrepreneurial effort. Many children also have a deep insight into what it means when Mom or Dad lose or don't have a job. If the word entrepreneurship is defined in educationally useful ways, it is not only easy to make this discovery, but an easy next step to realize how little effort it takes to dig just a little deeper with very productive results. Further, those results can have have an impact that ripples across the entire school to everyone's mutual benefit. With only slightly more effort it can build a relationship with the larger community outside of the school. This takes a little explaining.

What is entrepreneurship? Entrepreneurship is the process by which a person or a small team of people seeks and finds a special kind of problem, a persistent problem that impacts a much larger group of people, and then  develops not only a solution but develops a solution to supporting a team of people that will keep working on providing this solution. A persistent problem requires ongoing attention and use of the invented solution and often requires variations to that solution. Finding a persistent problem is seldom something that pops up in a content area textbook. Finding them is more like looking for buried treasure without a map; there is no X to say "dig here". Yet, students can play a large role in finding them and do so in ways that are natural extensions and reinforcements to the content that learners cover every day.

For many teachers, that's sufficient information for them to label and express what they are already doing as entrepreneurship, and to take the idea further based on their own creativity.

Here's what they might say.

 It all starts with the basic staple of teaching and learning, the question. With the Common Core requirements now asking for more and higher levels of student initiated questioning, this makes entrepreneurship instruction a great motivational tool for even more higher levels of thought. Teachers already know to encourage their students to ask a wide range of questions. As children grow through preschool ages they  can drive adults crazy with their questions about everything. Seeking questions then is a natural urge that teachers merely need to encourage and help others adults to not dampen and discourage.  Maintaining that curiosity to ask and explore is a huge and critical part of entrepreneurial thought. Questions though don't emerge in a vacuum. They emerge out of an encounter with some context, some situation of our lives or of the information and communication that we experience. Entrepreneurship requires knowledge. Teachers arrange for such information and experience every hour of the day. For accomplishing all that, educators deserve a significant applause from all levels and divisions of our culture.

A small extension to this existing effort makes a significant difference in advancing entrepreneurship skill and knowledge. All  of those questions that get asked every day? Find a way to keep more of them, particularly the ones of personal interest to each student. Make a bulletin board where students can post and share their questions. For reasons that will become clear later, insist that they put their name and date on every question and on any response notes to the questions of others. They will enjoy sharing and working on each other's questions. Work answers into some of those lesson plans that meet all those required objectives you'll be teaching anyhow.

Here's where it gets even more interesting and useful. Students love to sort things, and this next step is very easy. After a while, especially when the board begins to get to full, take all the comments down and divide the board into two areas or columns. Then ask students to repost their questions and question-answer threads. On the left put unanswered questions and on the right put the answered ones. On which side are we most likely to find persistent problems? Look on the left side of course, but this simple sort will seldom make the persistent problem easily recognizable. 

The class can work on eliminating the left-sided ones, putting multiple teams to work on crossing them off. This involves much research and writing and much thinking. This research and study is another staple of every classroom. The ones that are left are candidates for "persistent problems". They'll become a little better identifiable with each passing week as they will remain on the board perhaps for months and even into following years unless students learn the simple next step extension. Along the way, new ones will constantly be added as well. First, though, to move their thinking to a new level, they need to be able to identify persistent problems that are already being solved every day.

Really persistent problems are all around us. They are great models for how others solved their persistent problems, and every student will have some personal experience with one or more of them. It becomes a great and fun activity to figure out how to take pictures of these persistent problem solution providers and bring those photos to class. When it is time in this progression, this makes for a second great bulletin board. Every business in their community is the result of a question that someone continues to solve by providing jobs that come from the money that its users provide. Every government employee and other non-profit organizations are doing the same thing, but the hidden nature of taxes and grants that support them will require some explanation. Help students think about each business or organization and annotate the picture with what questions it solves. These are easy labels. Where can I get good pizza? How can I find the fuel to keep the car going? Who is going to provide my toothpaste and breakfast cereal?

Once those models are firmly fixed in their minds, the next questions are also simple. How did they get there and how do they keep themselves going day after day? Why do some stop and disappear? Why do new ones take their place in our downtowns and malls? Now its time to turn to one of those really persistent problems that has kept hanging around the Q & A Bulletin Board. A first step might be a whole class brainstorming session that invents a solution and invents the stream of money that will get it started and keep it going. Invention can often require some non-official topics like engineering and technology knowledge. This invention process really makes all the ways that educators break content into pieces called language arts, science, math and social studies seem a little odd. Solutions for the real world require mixing all that knowledge and skill seamlessly into a coherent whole.

It is possible that the solution that they class writes up makes sense. If so, it might be time to invite in a local banker and learn how to make the "pitch" for their business plan. And when they do, you have a class full of entrepreneurs. Now it is time, to do it all over again, to create what are called serial entrepreneurs.

This level of achievement would be enormous, but why stop there. What if those questions could be pooled from all the classrooms in the school? Could they be made ever larger pools of other schools? Could they include questions from contributing community members  and local businesses? Could that make it easier to see clusters of persistent problem questions around a topic or theme? There are digital ways to do all these things as well. Given the age of the Net, how far could this go? Locate on a map how far can you send email. Welcome to the 21st century. 

In hindsight, having worked through these experiences, entrepreneurship can be seen as  a natural part of every classroom day, one that is not disruptive to classroom routines, but highly reinforcing and extending to what good teaching and learning has always been.

Stories of Entrepreneurship

Middle School

The STEM-Entrepreneurship Initiative, https://sites.google.com/site/ednet2steme/home