Teaching Innovation and Entrepreneurship to Fuel 21st Century Success

By: Andrea Keith

When you hear the word “entrepreneur,” you likely think of Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey, or Elon Musk. It’s easy to think of entrepreneurship in the context of people who have built global empires and are worth billions of dollars and, while they provide admirable models of success, they would be far on one end of an entrepreneurial success range. Everyone with an idea won’t be the next billionaire, yet entrepreneurial thinking could be the most important skill the world will need in the future. That’s why it is crucial that we define entrepreneurship in the 21st century based on the skills required, not the money we make.

At its heart, entrepreneurship is the process of developing, organizing and managing a business venture to (hopefully) make a profit. Of course, that means taking risks, and likely failing, painfully and often. Steve Jobs said, “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”  Harnessing the power of creativity and moving an idea through the process of innovation to reach a final result―be it a business, a product, or a social movement―is the true manifestation of entrepreneurial thinking. The component skills are valuable whether or not the venture makes a profit. Providing authentic and meaningful experiences for students to learn the process is critical to developing an entrepreneurial mindset and capacity to apply those skills in any endeavor.

At the beginning of every venture is an idea, which is why the innovative process begins with creativity. When asked if they consider themselves to be creative, many adults answer “no,” because we often associate “creative” with “artistic.”  If an idea results in something new that is valued for its beauty or emotional power, like a painting or a dance, then it is usually considered art, but that definition is extremely limiting. It’s very interesting that children generally see themselves as creative but lose that creative confidence the older they get. Unfortunately, much of that is a result of an educational system that is designed to reward conformity and compliance while compartmentalizing creativity into electives and extracurriculars.

To create is simply to bring something into existence by using your talents and imagination. That “something” can take any form; an object, a cause, or an experience. Human beings are innately creative but don’t often recognize it. The home cook who throws together random ingredients to make a casserole, the teenager who decorates her bedroom and the teacher who designs an engaging lesson plan all are creating.

When an idea for something new is combined with a meaningful purpose, creativity rises to the level of innovation. Technology, especially artificial intelligence, robotics, and virtual reality continues to improve at breakneck speed. It will relieve humans of much, if not eventually all, of our mundane, daily tasks, both at home and in the work world, which is why the youth of today must learn and develop the skills that can’t be replaced by machines.

The world is facing so many seemingly insurmountable problems, from pollution, climate change, hunger…the list goes on! These are “wicked” problems that can only be solved with innovation and passion. This is where we need young entrepreneurs, not machines. In the past couple of years, we’ve witnessed that students are passionate about many things and that they can translate that passion into change. Bullying and gun violence are just two causes that have inspired youth action. Teaching them that they have a voice and helping them develop methods to act on their passions will empower them to reach their potential while their enthusiasm and energy are high, rather than the common attitude that they can’t accomplish anything until or unless they earn a degree. Challenges such as these have no obvious solution―creativity is key.

The process of innovation doesn’t begin with entrepreneurship, and jumping straight into design thinking doesn’t provide the foundation children need to develop soft skills like collaboration, critical thinking, and resilience. Just like core subjects, innovation needs to be started at a young age, taught, experienced, and built upon as a student progresses through their educational career. Ideally, innovation should be a core subject at every grade level, scaffolding from creativity through storytelling, collaboration, design, and entrepreneurship by the end of middle school. Students beginning high school would then have the skills to bring to their chosen focus areas and tackle wicked problems with real, meaningful projects to solve issues within their school, community, and even the world!

While changing the standard public education curriculum is its own wicked problem, there are strategies teachers and administrators can employ now to start addressing this gap in preparing students for success.

1. Build a strong culture of innovation within your district, school, and classrooms.

  • Words are powerful! Introduce and reinforce key vocabulary. Frequent exposure to terms like creativity, innovation, collaboration, and entrepreneurship will start the foundation for these capacities, long before a child can spell them!
  • Expose students to entrepreneurs and innovation in the greater world, and in your own community. This could be done with posters, current events, guest speakers, or a career day.
  • Recognize and reward students for demonstrating these skills. Not only will this reinforce their importance, but it will also often spotlight students who aren’t traditionally recognized for typical awards based on grades or attendance.
  • Provide opportunities for children to express their ideas and opinions to their peers, and also to adults, to build their confidence and show that their ideas are valued.
  • Start small and let students work to change or improve things in their own environment before talking about world issues they feel powerless to change. Wicked problems don’t have to be global!
  • Solicit and embrace student participation in decisions that affect them and follow through so they can see results.

2. Involve your parents and community in supporting student innovation.

  • Ask parents in creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial jobs to share their experience through visits, interviews, blogs, or newsletter articles.
  • Educate parents about creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship and ask them to identify situations and examples in their own lives to reinforce what their children are learning.
  • Provide a forum for community activists to share their cause with students, and to ask students for help. Something as simple as participating in a charitable event shows students that they can take action and make a difference.
  • Get the word out and share student innovation, causes, and projects with local reporters and through social media.

3. Practice communication, collaboration, and reflection. Students can’t learn the “how-to” of innovation without regular practice.

  • Teach methods of personal communication, including attentive listening, paraphrasing, and “I” statements.
  • Help students identify their own character traits, embrace their natural strengths, and improve on capacities that are less developed.
  • Provide frequent opportunities for collaboration in diverse groups and teach students to begin group work with foundational techniques to establish trust and effective communication.
  • Encourage regular self-reflection as well as peer reflection and formative assessment to promote and recognize skills growth.
  • Reinforce the concept that in most cases, a collaborative group can accomplish much more than an individual.

In the process of innovation, entrepreneurs are the individuals who pull everything together and lead the action. Through their leadership skills, they activate, focus and accelerate the journey to the desired outcome, which is not necessarily the achievement of personal wealth, but rather contributing to a more just, peaceful, and sustainable society. Innovative and entrepreneurial thinking may very well be the key to the future, and it is up to us as educators and parents to make sure our children can use it.

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Andrea Keith is Vice President of Customer Success at EdgeMakers, where she has developed and presented dynamic, engaging professional development used by educators in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico to build their own and their students’ capacity for innovation with EdgeMakers programs. Keith works with middle and high school teachers to help students develop skills such as creativity, storytelling, design, collaboration, entrepreneurship. She started her career in education more than 25 years ago, spending time as a classroom teacher in California, Colorado, and Illinois, before working for multiple edtech companies. Follow @edgemakers to learn more about innovative thinking.

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