Entrepreneurship as the Linchpin for Interdisciplinary Learning

I believe that entrepreneurship, at its core, is problem solving. You can solve problems to make money and be a traditional entrepreneur, you can solve problems within your company or organization and be an intrapreneur, and you can solve problems in the world as a social entrepreneur.  If we want to prepare kids for success in life, we ought to prepare them to solve problems.  After all, isn’t the ability to solve any problem put before you the very definition of what it means to be smart?

To an extent, schools do prepare kids to solve problems – unfortunately these problems lack authenticity because of the siloed nature of schools and academic departments.  Students in math class learn how to solve for the slope of a line tangent to a curve.  Students in Spanish classes learn how to use the preterite tense to talk about the past.  Students in English class learn how to deconstruct a poem to analyze the author’s purpose, and on and on. 

While problem solving is rampant in schools, connection and purpose is thin.  Students move from class to class without a sense of how their skills fit together.  Likewise, teachers are on a parallel track of disconnection.  As a social studies teacher, I often have no idea of how my students’ learning in other classes might inform or enhance their problem solving in my class.

What if entrepreneurship – problem solving – was the hub for authentic interdisciplinary learning?  What if each year of high school was devoted to a specific problem?  For instance, the problem set could look something like this:

9th grade: Climate change and energy of the future

10th grade: Rising income inequality in America and the future of work

11th grade: Systemic Racism and Racial Justice

12th grade: What kind of future do we want: Independent/team problem-solving projects

Students would still be able to rotate through classes to work on their grades’ challenge.  Each discipline would continue to matter – students would need to draw on their artistic, communication, language, quantitative, scientific, research and analytical skills to broach these issues.  Subject-area teachers would continue to deliver content and skills for students to work on each problem.  As the year progressed, the traditional subject areas would fall away and teams of students would emerge to work in collaboration with teachers on tackling specific parts of each problem. 

My previous proposal isn’t all that radical – schools could designate a new problem/challenge each year and do away with grades.  Kids would rotate through various approaches to solving the, “issue of the year.”  They might rotate through creative classes, quantitative classes and communication classes, for example.  All of which would bring the traditional academic subjects together in interdisciplinary and authentic ways to collectively work on solving challenges that matter to students. Entrepreneurship might just be the linchpin for the future of school.

The Future of Learning is Permeable

When I think about teaching what matters in the most empowering way possible, I think about aligning what happens in my classroom with what happens outside and beyond my classroom. The work of teachers and schools is most effective, authentic and empowering when it involves permeable learning partnerships with the community, local organizations, companies and surrounding institutions. In my mind, permeable learning means reciprocal, authentic learning that reconsiders who counts as teachers, where learning happens, is transparent and open, makes a positive impact beyond the school, takes places in multiples settings, breaks down walls, and allows students and teachers to be their whole selves.

Yet we live in a world that values impermeability – in and outside of the classroom. In the Pacific Northwest, outdoor gear boasts of its impermeable outer shell. In politics, toughness and super-human abilities garner votes. Increasingly, it seems that our financial system is based on an impermeable barrier between what people in the financial industry know versus the information that is accessible to the average investor or depositor. Which might explain why recent college graduates are clamoring to get inside the impermeable and increasingly profitable world of finance. Impermeability matters in school as well. Teachers are half-jokingly taught not to smile until after Christmas break. Colleges of education continue to teach self-preservation techniques for teachers to avoid appearing weak in front of students or parents.

My academic and teaching background was in American History prior to starting an economics program at Catlin Gabel. I didn’t enter the world of economics knowing everything – so I read textbooks, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal – anything I could get my hands on that helped me learn about the world of scarcity and choice. Unconsciously, but decidedly, I started to become a much more permeable teacher. I invited parents from the business world to talk with me about teaching economics and entrepreneurship. Successful entrepreneurs acted as guest teachers. I reached out to teachers from other schools, college professors and members of local business alliances to hear what they thought needed to be taught. I spoke extensively with a former college roommate who now works as a research economist for the St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve. These conversations helped me see connections between my classroom, the business world, and current events in powerful, relevant, and authentic ways.

After a conversation with a parent about whether entrepreneurship could be taught, I decided to organize Startup Camp. It turned out to be an incredible experience for everyone involved – from the organizing team, to the volunteer mentors from the startup community in Portland, to the students who relished this permeable learning experience that blended the business world with school with mentorship with co-learning in positive, empowering ways. We went from having 70 students from 3 area high schools the first year to selling out in 24 hours with 120 students registered from 13 area high schools in the second year of Startup Camp.

We’ve maxed out participation in Startup Camp, but I hope to create more permeable learning opportunities for students interested in business, innovation, and entrepreneurship. I used design-thinking methodology to facilitate a design challenge with high school students from the Portland metro area to design future learning experiences around entrepreneurship and innovation.

After empathizing, students defined the following challenges:

  • There is no clear way for students to access the business community
  • How do we make volunteer work or internships valuable to both parties?
  • How do we break stereotypes about teenagers?
  • How might we get students to become comfortable talking to adults?
  • How do we teach confidence?
  • How do we turn teachers into learners?
  • How do we create incentives to fail?
  • How do we teach others how to fail correctly/productively?
  • How can we reimagine grading, lesson student focus on grades, and move beyond letter grades?
  • How do we account for skill development in our grading system?

Based on these challenges, students came up with the following rough prototypes for entrepreneurial learning, which we will test and refine going forward.

  • Project-based, panel-graded learning experiences
  • Discussion-based grading
  • Multi-dimensional evaluation system
  • A Switchboard for Portland students
  • “Networkshops”
  • Creative Mornings for students
  • 4 year career coaching in high school
  • Mentor-based learning
  • “ABC to I can be” grading system
  • Student rating app for internships
  • Student-run professional development experience for teachers

Students seem to crave permeable learning experiences (without explicitly saying so) – they want much more crossover between what happens in school with the world of adults and the world outside of school. The amount of attention paid to our broken grading system was quite pronounced. Teacher and schools would do well to reflect on the ways in which kids feel like traditional methods of grading and assessment limit their creativity, risk-taking and confidence – all attributes that they named as essential for entrepreneurship earlier on in the design challenge. We’re meeting with the head of the Portland Business Alliance and organizing our a professional development experience for teacher, but in the mean time, we can all choose to take steps towards more permeable learning experiences – for entrepreneurship or otherwise, by engaging in some of the following practices.

Baby steps teachers and schools can take towards more permeable learning experiences:

  • Community based assessments (instead of asking my students to write an essay on race and equity in Portland, they facilitated community conversations about race. The AACU has a few stellar resources and rubrics for community assessments).
  • Public-facing student blogs or student websites for students to dialogue with parents, teachers, experts and friends during the learning process.
  • Location-based learning – using your community as a classroom, using community resources (from libraries to museums to businesses to hospitals) as alternative learning spaces.
  • Create learning spaces that allow for permeability. Why are ping pong tables, couches and slides relegated to the Googleplex and startup office spaces while students are still confined to discipline-specific boxes as classrooms?
  • Cultivate opportunities for students to build their network of professional allies, mentors and connectors early. Teach Linkedin.
  • Open learning experiences to students from other schools and invite trusted adults into the classroom as experts frequently.
  • Build community – work on advocacy and problem solving with students and other stakeholders in your community.
  • Reconsider professional development. Allow teachers to do site visits with private and public companies in their community to better understand their needs and the skills they value.
  • Be inventive and bold with space. Can your school adopt a startup for a semester and give them office space for a semester or two and name them the “business in residence” so cross-pollination can happen on campus?
  • Ask students to lead in the community – what skills might they learn from taking a leadership role in the farmers market, by attending city council meetings, by attending professional networking events, by being the first person to ask a question at a public talk, by leading educational sessions on personal finance, etc.?
  • Design case studies for students to solve problems for local businesses, organizations and neighborhoods and allow students to present their findings publically.
  • Reconsider what it means to be a teacher and who qualifies as a teacher. There are so many adults in our communities with expertise and kindness to share. Trained teachers are morphing into context-makers and connectors in more permeable learning environments. Be not afraid – teachers will always matter because teaching is about love, inspiration and building lasting relationships.

The future of learning is permeable and it is probably also more flexible, fun, relevant and engaging. As the distinctions between work and life melt away with mobile technology, so to should the distinct spaces of school and life.

Most important, perhaps, is that permeable learning gives students reason to believe two essential truths: we are all connected; we are all in this together.




*I wrote this guest blog post for the Traverse Conference:http://www.traverseconference.org/ Check it out and I hope to see you in Boulder in June.

From a lose-lose to a win-win: Internships of the future

Students crave internships.  Every year I see students sacrificing wages from a summer job to spend their summer interning for a local law firm or at a non-profit or with an investment banker or as a lab assistant at OHSU.  Unfortunately, these internship experiences more often teach kids what they don't want to do with their lives instead of revealing new passions, teaching new skill sets, or cultivating connections that will help students once they graduate from school.  High school and college students not only lose wages from internships, they often lose out on valuable learning experiences and connections because they don't have a mentor who has the time, capacity, skill-set or desire to help them throughout the internship experience.  

On the flip side, internships are often a losing proposition for businesses.  Businesses agree to take on interns because they believe it's the right thing to do, but the whole experience often feels more like a burden than a gift as students lack specialized knowledge, skills, direction and ability. 

Right now, internships are a lose-lose for students and businesses.  However, we all know that our society experiences a win-win when internships work well.  Ideally, students gain valuable skills, connections and experiences from their workplace that are more authentically aligned with the demands of a workplace and/or industry of their choice.  At the same time, businesses should win by training future employees, creating brand advocates and benefiting from the intern's projects.  This can happen if we reframe what internships mean in some of the following ways:

  • Make apprenticeships out of internships and riff off of models that work in Europe and Australia where businesses receive tax subsidies for teaching skills to apprentices.  In addition, students are paid a small wage to do actual work with an assigned mentor that has a decreased workload in order to train future generations.
  • Make classrooms and workplaces more permeable and connected.  What if students and workers worked in the same buildings (physical connection) and/or worked on projects in collaborative ways in different spaces (technological connections)?
  • Embed teachers in businesses over the summer and pay them to learn skills needed by these businesses so that teachers can serve as effective mentors for students in a way that unburdens businesses.
  • Use digital portfolios to hold students and businesses accountable for their experiences with skill development, project execution, and overall experience.

As a teacher, I know students want better internships.  I am writing to reach out to businesses who seek better interns.  Let's develop education-industry partnerships to make internships a win-win for all.


The 4 "Rs" of Education

We're all familiar with the 3 "Rs" of education: reading, writing, and arithmetic.  These "Rs" represent foundational skills that students need to develop and master to be personally and professionally effective individuals.  Though this phrase has been politicized in recent years due to the "No Child Left Behind" program that tested and financially incentivized schools to focus on English, math, and science to the detriment of arts, music, physical education, world languages and social studies, it's an adage that's worth thinking about as we consider the future of education.  

I had the opportunity to chat with Steve Brown, Intel's Futurist, about futurism and the future of learning.  We talked about my recent presentation on "The Future of Learning for a Freelance World" at Design Week Portland.  Steve posed a question that is existential for me as a former Advanced Placement US History teacher and classroom teacher at an independent school that gives me the freedom to design a curriculum that matters -- which is, "what is essential for students to learn in school?"  My response to this question has changed dramatically over the course of my career and in response to rapid advances in technology.  I have become much more skills focused now that we have these external brains in the palms of our hands.  With the a few "pushes" and "swipes" on our smartphones, we can access the world's knowledge.  It's not about "what" students need to know - it's about their why's, and who's and how's.  

First, why skills?  We live in an information based economy that has not yet figured out how to price information.  Sure, the NY Times and Netflix have figured out the monetization of the web through their monthly subscriptions, but, for the most part, the internet and information on the web is free.  The information revolution has made information much more accessible, but not financially lucrative in and of itself.  With the all of this content at our fingertips, students need to learn how to make sense of the volume of information available to us - how to find the best information, synthesize information, parse information, use information, and communicate information effectively.  Those vocational, technical, creative, and physical skills that have long been relegated to alternative schools and "alternative" students need to become mainstream again as making, designing, and building skills are more scarce and more valued (ironically) in our information based economy.  

Second, education has to be about the "who's."  I believe that everything I teach is about identity and that students need to start their journey towards answering and revising their answers to three big questions, "who am I, who are we, and what is good?"  Answering these questions is the work of a meaningful, authentic lifetime and this process needs to start in school.

Finally, there's the question of how --  and a return to the "Rs" of education.  The 3 Rs stand the test of time because they are skills that students need to master in order to be successful personally and professionally.  The 3 Rs enable students to communicate clearly and make financial decisions that are sound for themselves, their businesses and their families.  The 3 Rs are essential skills that need to be part of what we teach and learn.  

The final R is for rubrics.  I will say that we need to teach and learn from rubrics that matter because they create a system of expectations and rewards.  The use of innovative rubrics in the classroom has the potential to powerfully realign what happens in the classroom with what happens outside of the classroom.  To often, rubrics have been used in a narrow sense to make grading easier for teacher - after all, checking boxes is a lot easier than making substantive, personalized comments on student work.  Not only have rubrics been misused as a one-size fits all method for teachers to assess student work, they have also traditionally focused on product (is your paper polished and error free, did you use x-number of facts in your presentation, does your poster have a certain number of visuals, etc.)  Instead, rubrics have the power to incense and reward process -- skills --- that are needed in our information based economy.  My final response to Steve, and myself, about what I absolutely need to teach and what students absolutely need to learn, looks like  this.  Curiosity, initiative, independence, transfer, and reflection appear on the AACU's Rubric for Lifelong Learning.  Let's continue to teach the 3 Rs because they matter.  Let's also recognize that the 4th R, rubrics, have the power to elevate process, risk, and reflection - skills not included in the original Rs, but skills that matter more than ever.


3 Questions in case you get Lost

I find one of the most difficult parts of curriculum design to be curation.  At a time when millions of fascinating ideas, books, articles and resources are at your finger tips, it can be overwhelming to select the *perfect* reading to capture students attention while engaging them in higher level thinking and learning.  More agonizing still is the process of deciding what to include and what to leave out in daily activities.  We only have so much time with our students and there is so much we think we need to, want to, and aspire to teach.  I've been in many conversations with colleagues over the years and it's often surprising what gets cast off in history because we just don't have time (from the Spanish Flu to voices of marginalized groups outside of the grand narrative).

I find it helpful to have touchstone questions for the courses I teach.  When I feel lost or overwhelmed, I come back to these questions and they orient me towards where I would like my students to wind up.  Unsurprisingly, President Obama, a man who is faced with overwhelming decisions of an entirely different magnitude and consequence, also frames his decisions and actions in the context of questions, which evolve over time.  In a 2013 interview with the New Republic, Obama says, "so, I've been spending a lot of time just thinking about how do I communicate more effectively with the American people? How do I try to bridge some of the divides that are longstanding in our culture? How do I project a sense of confidence in our future at a time when people are feeling anxious? They are more questions of values and emotions and tapping into people's spirit."  It's comforting to know that the most powerful person in the world uses questions as a guide.

When I teach geography, my three touchstone questions include: What is where?  Why there? and Why care?

For all of my other classes, I try to design a curriculum that enables students to respond to these three questions: Who am I?  Who are we?  What is good?

I can't include everything in my curriculum, but I take solace in knowing that we are guided by questions that help my students develop their identities, sense of purpose and global citizenship.

School gets Schooled by Food

Sometimes, ok too often,  I am unable to fall asleep at night or wake up too early on my days off thinking about some version of this question, "Why do we culturally embrace innovation in food while we shun innovation in school? A student from the 19th century, when high schools became publicly funded in America, could walk into a classroom and feel right at home with the rows of desks and chairs, textbooks, teacher and a board of some sort.  Even if this hypothetical 175 year-old student walked into my classroom at Catlin Gabel, where classes are capped at 18, we don't use textbooks, and all students use a laptop in class, I'm pretty sure this 175 year old could figure out how to "do school"  -- listen to the teacher, work hard on assignments, sit in your seat, be on time, try to get good grades, etc.  Though I like to think of myself as an innovative teacher- I write curriculums, develop unique means of assessment, create authentic learning experiences and focus on skills rather than content, I realize that this innovation only goes so far in the confines of school and grading as we have known it for centuries.  There are lots of reasons for this stalemate in school - our federal system of government, bureaucracy, the "sacred cow" status of children and schools, childhood memories of what school means for teachers, parents and administrators alike, school funding and the concrete....what would we do with all of the schools and all of the walls and all of the parking lots and.....

I digress.  This isn't a post about why there's been such limited educational innovation, but a reflection on the possibilities for our educational system based on comparisons with a few innovations in food.  School has a lot to learn from food, as evidenced below.

Fast Food: Maybe the educational equivalent would be Khan Academy or MOOCs, but just like we haven't figured out how to feed ourselves via the internet, I'm not sure that quick, online tutorials are actually sustaining.  What if we transformed schools, libraries of community spaces staffed by an intergenerational cadre of "teachers" willing and able to help solve problems on a drop-in one-on-one basis and offer 20 minute fast classes on a variety of subjects.

Food on a stick: Let's make school portable, enticing and part of our public spaces.  Let's bring back the Chautauqua Movement and enable a forum where people can engage with ideas rather than risk life and limb on questionable carnival rides.  I'm also saying that listening to NPR's Marketplace on my ipod is the new corn dog.

Food carts: Let's make mobile maker-spaces, roving innovational labs and coding vans.  Let's use the mobility of carts/vans/buses to bring students to authentic projects and places, organizations and business and let's load up these vehicles with the tools kids need to learn skills to solve problems and innovate.

Pop-up restaurants: Pop-up classrooms.  Let's pop-up classrooms in vacant store fronts, in giant corporations, in small businesses, at the park, on a road trip.

Local, organic food: Let's tap into our local ecosystems to prepare students with the skills sought by local employers - Portland kids would all know how to grow kale, catalogue books at Powells, design their own outfits with Pendleton wool, market the next Air Jordan and program for a startup in the Pearl. 

Gluten-free: Not everyone student can/should handle the same diet of classes.  Though I am a firm believer in the liberal arts, students should not have to wait until they are in their senior year of high school before they take classes they actually enjoy.  Some students are allergic to history or science and that's ok  - let students thrive in the subject areas they love and design curriculum around interdisciplinary, authentic problems that make it possible to see the value/connections between not-tolerated subjects (riffing off the gluten theme) and tolerated subjects.  Let's let students and teachers work together to build educational menus that don't make kids sick of school.



The Power of a Beginner's Mind

I highly recommend the book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki.  Suzuki beautifully, concisely and eloquently reflects on Buddhist precepts and meditation.  It is a book to read, put down and think, process over many days/weeks/months, pick up the book, put down and think, process over many days/weeks/months down and think, etc.  It is an exercise in existentialism, reflection, Buddhism and reading all at once.  As a teacher, I keep coming back to the power of a few passages which I will quote below: 

"The practice of Zen Mind is Beginner's Mind.  The innocence of the first inquiry -- what am I?  -- is needed throughout Zen practice.  The mind of a beginner is empty, free of the habits of an expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and to open all the possibilities.  It is the kind of mind that can see things as they are, which step by step and in a flash can realize the original nature of everything." (pp. 13-14)

"In Japan we have the phrase Shoshin, which means 'beginner's mind.'  The goal of our practice is to keep our beginner's mind.    Suppose you recite the Prajna Paramita Sutra only once.  It might be a very good recitation.  But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times, or more?  You might easily lose your original attitude towards it.  The same thing will happen in your other Zen practices...If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything.  In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few...If you discriminate too much, you limit yourself.  If you are too demanding or too greedy your mind is not rich or self-sufficient.  If we lose our original self-sufficient mind, we will lose our precepts."  (pp. 21-22).

One of the most challenging aspects of being a teacher is maintaining a "beginner's mind."  It's easy to default into expert mind when you teach the same thing multiple times a day over many years.  Often times we're assigned the same course year after year.  Even though we're constantly revising our courses and starting new classes, in general, we teach the same subject matter throughout the course of our career - making us ever more prone to becoming an expert throughout our careers.  And, to be honest, it's scary to be a beginner and somewhat vulnerable in front of a group of teenagers - that's why so many of us want to seem like experts all the time - it's our defense against our own insecurities in challenging environment

I consciously avoid the expert mind because it's then that I lose my sense of wonder and excitement over the material and it's then that I speak with "expert" words in a language that my students find hard to understand.  I teach with a beginner's mind so that I can break down all steps and explain all components of a problem that "experts" take for granted.  I teach with a beginner's mind to inspire my students to want to learn more.  In addition, the most effective teachers are the most empathetic teachers.  To maintain empathy for student learning requires us to be learners with a beginner's mind as well.  That's why I am taking classes in arduino, metal, wood-working and 3D printing this summer.  It's powerful to experience the simultaneous fear and possibility inherent in a beginner's mind.  I predict my summer of learning with a beginner's mind will help my teaching going forward.  

Let's embrace the potential and power of a beginner's mind.



4 Reasons for Learning Portfolios in High School

I think portfolios are absolutely essential for innovative teaching and learning at the secondary level for several reasons 1) they allow students to highlight process and progress (this move away from "product" based grading is essential to helping students embrace failure as part of the learning process) 2) they allow students to highlight their skills – some of their essays/artwork/math equations should be showcased because these are the types of skills that will get students internships and jobs down the line 3) They allow students to develop their personal brand and web presence at an early age – a personal brand is increasingly important as we move towards a freelance economy.  A recent study predicted that freelance jobs will comprise 40% of jobs by 2020.  Students are going to have to sell their skill set 4) Prestigious universities like MIT are embracing portfolios in the admissions process and I have a feeling that Stanford is not far behind – colleges increasingly recognize the superficiality of grades and test scores and are looking for students to differentiate themselves based on their skill set and ability to execute on projects.

A learning portfolio, in my mind, isn't just for art majors and it need not be fancy.  A simple website can be a learning portfolio - no need for school subscriptions to expensive student portfolio software.  Students and teachers can immediately start building and curating a website that acts as a learning portfolio with platforms like Squarespace, Wix or Google Sites.  Learn on and show your work.


Show your Work

Austin Kleon’s book, “Show your Work,” was the spark I needed to purchase my own domain name and begin this online portfolio.  Thank you, Austin, for writing concisely, precisely and eloquently about the importance of showing your work in ways that spoke to my heart and mind. 


Over the last year, I’ve thought quite a bit about how I show my work, our work, and my students.  As a teacher, I am broadly interested in the “why” and “how” for student learning.  As an educator set on teaching citizenship, empathy, and innovation, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to reimagine education to realize these goals.  I believe online portfolios have the potential to radically transform the way we learn in ways that foster relationships, empower problem-solvers with new skills sets, reframe the meaning of failure and build connections between people and communities far and wide.  Learning portfolios are tools to foster citizenship, empathy and innovation for a lifetime of learning.


I was originally drawn to portfolios as a replacement for the numbers/letters (grades) we assign to student work that falsely signal that 1) learning is complete for that particular skill/content area 2) they should follow all assignment expectations 3) The end result (product) matters more than the process and progress 4) Failure is the worst possible outcome. 


I believe creativity and entrepreneurship can be taught, but only if we move beyond the archaic, limited, often-arbitrary architecture of the point and letter based system we have to come to perceive as the ultimate gauge of educational success.  It’s vital that we move beyond grades and start “showing our work” through the use of online portfolios to:


1) Value progress and process more than product

2) Highlight life-long learning and celebrate learners (encourage voracious learning)

3) Learn publicly, fail publicly and empower others to take learning risks

4) Creative skill development beyond the confines of rubrics and expectations

5) Transform the role of teacher into learner

6) Align incentives structures in the classroom with incentive structures in life


However, online portfolios are more than alternative means of evaluation.  Portfolio-based assessment is a powerful tool for transforming school, but it also resonates into many other areas of life. 


This portfolio is my attempt to unlock the power of learning, failing, and voraciously pursuing goals -- publically.  I also don’t think it’s fair to preach the importance of portfolios without developing one myself because I think modeling is fundamental in the learning process.  This is my learning journal and part of my personal transformation from thinking of myself as a teacher to considering myself as a learner amongst many.  Finally, I consider this site to be a small contribution to the web of knowledge from a beginner’s mind.  Thank you for your interest in my process and progress.