Current youth culture is dominated by on-demand services, total customization, social media, wellness, and constantly emerging personal technology. How do schools designed in the 19th-century keep up with 21st-century kids? At National Park Elementary, Westville Elementary, and Gateway Regional, a cohort of small, comprehensive, public schools serving PreK-12th graders, we’re building entrepreneurship and design-thinking into all of our courses.
Our schools are located just over the river from Philadelphia. In recent years, we noticed trends common to many other schools that serve primarily working- and middle-class families. With the loss of trades jobs when local factories and shipyards closed, families struggled with unemployment and the loss of traditional job opportunities. With the downturn in employment trends, we saw rising rates of homelessness, students who qualify for free- and reduced- lunch, and increasing mental health needs. More of our graduates lacked post-secondary plans or were looking for 2-year instead of 4-year programs. Additionally, changes were occurring in our local county vocational school that reduced career-training program options for high school students.
We decided to meet these challenges by crafting a career awareness and exposure program that would help students connect what they’re learning today with what they want to do tomorrow. We host the area’s largest annual career day for students, invest in field trips and job shadowing, and designed an innovative elective course for upperclassmen to learn soft-skills and then intern in the field. We don’t want kids to say, “I plan to go to college.” We want them to say, “I love working with animals. Through my internship at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, I plan to go to college to study biology in a pre-veterinarian program SO my AP Biology course here at Gateway is helping build that foundation.”
And while those special programs are great, we still want more for our kids. Our current work is around making sure that every class at every grade includes career exposure, entrepreneurship, and design-thinking as a core component of the curriculum and instructional design.
Why Entrepreneurship and Design-Thinking?
While we typically think of entrepreneurship as starting a business, entrepreneurship really is the pursuit of opportunities to create value for others. Ted Dintersmith, the author of What Schools Could Be, says “In today’s world, everyone needs to be entrepreneurial...giving students and teachers the support and passion to be creative and entrepreneurial isn’t optional in the 21st century - it’s indispensable.” Through entrepreneurship education, we seek to build student entrepreneurial mindsets, or a specific, cultivated set of beliefs, knowledge, and thought processes that drive entrepreneurial behavior. Those mindsets and behavior include calculated risk-taking, grit, creativity, innovation, passion, and most importantly, joy and hope for a brighter future.
It’s helpful to understand that there are many kinds of entrepreneurs. Beyond the big, obvious superstars like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates or local business owners, there are many other kinds of entrepreneurs. A social entrepreneur is n entrepreneur devoted to creating organizations to solve problems, rather than generate economic value. An intrapreneur is an individual who is employed by an organization and yet is responsible for starting new ventures within that organization. In looking at these definitions, it’s easier to see how we can all benefit from learning entrepreneurial behaviors and mindsets.
The crossover between design-thinking and entrepreneurship is in the process that both use. In both design-thinking and entrepreneurship, we start with discovering opportunities and seeking to understand the needs of our audience. We define the issue from multiple perspectives and develop a vision. We gather and evaluate resources. We brainstorm, create, and test solutions. We learn and adjust. We use these processes not only with students during their projects but also with teachers as we craft curriculum and courses.
Teachers as Change Agents
The first step in building this program was to engage our teachers. We found that teachers easily adapted to our entrepreneurship program because there is a surprising amount of overlap between the skillsets and experiences of entrepreneurs and teachers. According to the University of Rochester, both teachers and entrepreneurs require vision, engage in innovations, deal with opportunities and resources, make innumerable decisions, problem solve, and focus on growth.
We encourage our teachers to think outside the box. We know that successful turnaround leaders often achieve results by working around rules, so we encourage teachers to work around the rules of traditional education when designing learning experiences. Our professional development program for teachers included numerous exercises in creative thinking and problem-solving instead of traditional workshop sessions. We encouraged teachers to brainstorm wide and varied ideas and supported them through implementation.
Every Kid, Every Class, Every Year
In 2018-2019 and continuing on this year, we challenged teachers in all grade levels to include one entrepreneurial project during the school year. Projects could either involve the concepts of entrepreneurial thinking, such as engaging in the entrepreneurial process to create a good or service or investigating related career-fields, or methods that promote entrepreneurial thinking, such as engaging students in solving a problem using design-thinking or developing student-leadership experiences. No limits were placed on teachers other than to find some way to connect it to the current curriculum and to have fun.
The responses were amazing! Elementary students created a number of businesses, from student-run landscaping to crafting hair scrunchies, and running a coffee cart to serve teachers. Middle school students created science review board games to help their classmates prepare for benchmark assessments. Math students integrated coding and computer science skills. English students used the concepts of ethos, logos, and pathos to create advertising and marketing campaigns. In many content areas and grade levels, students worked together in think-tanks and pitched ideas, SharkTank-style. As a result, Gateway Regional, Westville Elementary, and National Park Elementary were the first 3 New Jersey schools to be recognized as America’s Entrepreneurial Schools by Entre-Ed, the National Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education.
We are committed to continuing our entrepreneurship education experiences in all classes in 2019-2020 and beyond. Our next big steps include curriculum revisions with design thinking at the heart of the process and products, both for teachers and students. As we continue to meet the evolving needs of 21st-century students and families, we believe that design-thinking and entrepreneurship will play a significant role in redefining education.
Dr. Amy Mount is the PreK-12 Curriculum Director for Gateway Regional, National Park, and Westville School Districts in southern New Jersey. Her interests include balancing best practices with innovations in education and including student- and teacher- voice. Amy is the proud mom of the world’s two cutest kids. In her spare time, she bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie.