Creatively Destroy Your Curriculum

When Joseph Schumpeter shared his idea of creative destruction with the economic world, he intended to praise entrepreneurs for contributing to economic growth.  The basic idea was that innovative entrepreneurs created companies that shattered the value of existing market actors.  However, the benefits of this destruction far outweighed the cost as they generated economic growth through improvements like value added inventions and/or enhanced productivity.  In other words, innovative entrepreneurs create new value, but in the process destroy the value proposition of an existing business.  A good way to look at this is through the lens of music.  From records, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, to mp3s new innovation destroyed older business models, but also provided tremendous benefits to the consumer and the music industry.

In many ways I believe our education system is in need of more entrepreneurial teachers to ‘creatively destroy’ it.  That’s one of the reasons I started this blog: to extend the idea of thinking entrepreneurially to the education field.  I don’t always agree with Bill Gates on education, but this is a really important statement that I think fits here: “Training the work force of tomorrow with the high-school students of today is like trying to teach kids about today’s computers on a 50-year old mainframe. Our high schools were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age. Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will keep limiting — even ruining — the lives of millions of Americans every year.”

What are you going to do to ‘creatively destroy’ your curriculum this year?

Being ‘Opportunity Aware’ as a Teacher

As an entrepreneur, you’re almost unconsciously on the hunt for new opportunities.  An almost cliché refrain in entrepreneur circles is “where others see problems, entrepreneurs see opportunities.”  After all, successful business development stems not just from a great idea, but also a great opportunity.  For entrepreneurs this can take many forms: fulfilling an unmet need, leveraging popular trends, improving on an existing product or service, or inventing a new product or service.  I often discussed taking advantage of trends with high school entrepreneurs; the iPod trend really resonated with teenagers.  Think of the myriad businesses that have either a) leveraged the trend of the iPod or b) created a whole new business centered on the tremendous use of the iPod.  This proved to be a really instructive example for my students.  Prior to attaching ‘opportunity’ to entrepreneurship, students simply thought creating a business centered on having an idea.  “I want to start a club because I like going to the club” or “I like fashion so I want to design custom t-shirts.”  The key was to get them to understand that the strongest businesses come not just from an idea, but an idea that is paired with an opportunity.

As teachers we can follow many of the same entrepreneurial maxims to make our classrooms a better place.  When planning a lesson, or even a unit, are we simply planning based on our ideas or are we using both ideas and opportunities.  Can we pair our ideas with a ‘hot trend’?  Does our lesson fulfill an unmet need (perhaps a learning style or skill we’ve been neglecting)?  Have we invented something new in this lesson or unit that uses our unique knowledge of this specific class or are we using ‘stock’ material?  You get the picture…

The paragraph above represents taking advantage of opportunity in the ‘planning phase’ of class, but there is a much harder time to take advantage of opportunity: in the class itself, on the fly.  Obviously, this requires a dynamic mindset permitting us to veer off course.  I struggle with this almost everyday.  I would come prepared to class with (what I thought) an amazing lesson plan, only to see the class get hooked on a theme that was merely tangential to my plan.  As someone who is pretty ‘opportunity aware’ this would be both frustrating and exciting.  Sometimes I would do nothing with that insight except file it away.  Other times I would immediately leverage this opportunity and use this insight to reach my objectives for the rest of the unit.  I recognize that, as teachers, we cannot take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself in class, but being ‘opportunity aware’ can mean a tremendous amount, if only for being a ‘tuned in’ teacher.  I finally realized that whether or not I stuck with my plan, the class or student was implicitly telling me something about how they learn (and what they wanted to learn about).

Teaching Narrative and Manifesto

The difference between good and bad teachers comes down to one thing: entrepreneurship.  Well, more precisely, I would say that good teachers must be entrepreneurial.  This is a strange juxtaposition for many educators, but the myriad parallels between the two occupations are staggering.  Many of the same characteristics that make a good entrepreneur make a good teacher: being resilient, adding value, seeking opportunity, planning ahead, adapting to change, and understanding one’s client.

Before returning to the classroom in 2008, I worked for The National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE).  While working at NFTE, I consulted with over 30 teachers from the poorest school districts in the Washington, DC region.  As I visited different classrooms, I unconsciously collected a wide body of evidence as to what makes a good teacher.  Early on, I noticed a trend among the stronger teachers: many teachers were actually entrepreneurs – and not just those that teach Entrepreneurship.  The teachers I met owned everything from a small IT business to a small chain of barber shops.  Others simply did photography or tutoring, but they all saw themselves as entrepreneurs.  This surprised me at first and I chalked up the trend to the most obvious factors: summers off and low pay (not to mention the fact that by pitching an entrepreneurship curriculum I was bound to run into a few entrepreneurs).  As I spent increasing time with these educators, however, I learned one thing: these people were entrepreneurs because it is what they were good at, not just in the business world but in the classroom.

As I tried to make sense of this correlated evidence, I began to realize that it wasn’t important whether or not a teacher owned a business, but whether or not that teacher was entrepreneurial.  In fact, for many teachers their classroom was their business.  They saw their curriculum like entrepreneurs see business plans and their students like entrepreneurs see customers.  Some entrepreneurial ideas that good teachers are already thinking about: How is my lesson adding value?  How do the objectives fit into my future plans?  Can I review the plan and adapt to unforeseen change?  Does my plan take into account the student perspective?  What opportunities exist to extend this plan in the future?

In many ways, teachers are the ultimate ‘serial entrepreneurs’ because they are doing this every day.  And just like small businesses fail, so do teachers’ lesson plans.  In fact, sometimes they fail miserably.  Good teachers are inherently resilient to this failure, because this process must take place all over again … tomorrow.

All teachers should be trained to think entrepreneurially.  While traditional wisdom says entrepreneurship cannot be taught, I object to that notion.  I prefer to think the entrepreneurial faculty exists in us all.  While some are born with the entrepreneurial mindset ‘turned on’, others are born with the switch ‘turned off’ and it takes someone to come along and flip the switch.  This is why all school administrators should not only look to hire entrepreneurial teachers, but also should be working to ‘flip’ on the entrepreneurial mindset of their current faculty.  In fact, if being entrepreneurial means all of the great behaviors above, would any existing professional development be better than imparting the entrepreneurial mindset on teachers?  If educators begin thinking about curriculum and lesson plans like entrepreneurs think about business plans it will only enhance the student experience and improve the American educational experience.

This blog will be about my teaching experiences and interests.  Most content, however, will center around this idea of entrepreneurial teaching.  It’s not something I do perfectly (or even close to it), but it is an idea that I think could inspire teachers in a positive way.