How to Make Sure Every Child is "Innovation Ready”? Teach Entrepreneurship

Tapping into the entrepreneurial spirit teaches kids the skills they need for the knowledge-based economy of the future.

[dropcap]K[/dropcap]ids pretty much have a monopoly on the lemonade stand industry. They’re especially adept at managing the natural market forces at play—the heat index, traffic flow, demand for new products like iced tea, maybe even competition. In other words, they have a natural entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to problem solve—two skills that evidence shows will be needed more than ever in the future economy.

The jobs of the future will demand that workers reinvent themselves over and over again. That requires critical thinking, lifelong learning, and a sense that workers have to invent their jobs as they do them in order to stay ahead of the curve—the entrepreneurial mindset in action. Some schools are already cultivating entrepreneurial skills with specialized programs. But museums and other institutions of informal learning may be even better suited to teach this skill than traditional elementary and secondary schools.

“Informal learning environments tolerate failure better than schools. Perhaps many teachers have too little time to allow students to form and pursue their own questions and too much ground to cover in the curriculum and for standardized tests,” writes Dennis Bartels in Scientific American. Bartels writes that informal learning environments like museums or Maker Faires encourage kids to follow their own passions, ask deeper questions, and become intrinsically motivated to learn.

Harvard education specialist Tony Wagner defined in a recent New York Times interview how exactly problem solving and the intrinsic desire to learn will be critical in the future. “The capacity to innovate—the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life—and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge. As one executive told me, ‘We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think—to ask the right questions—and to take initiative,” Wagner says.

Because Siri and our smartphones mean we no longer have to be a walking encyclopedia of facts, we can turn our attention the higher-order skills like the ability to innovate, adapt, ask questions, and reason—skills that will be in high demand when kids today graduate.

The winners of Entrepreneurs’ Organization’s Global Student Entrepreneur Awards exemplify those critical skills. First placer Chelsea Sloan (also the first woman to win the competition) founded Uptown Cheapskate, a fashion-exchange franchise that now has 20 locations in 12 states. Other winners include Elizabeth Aguirre Moreno Valle, who started a company that provides fresh fruit kiosks at schools, and Mandar Tulankar, who invented a shoe charger that uses the pressure created by walking to power cell phones.

While the EOGSE winners might already be bona-fide entrepreneurs, making a profit isn’t the goal for teaching kids the entrepreneurial mindset. To prepare kids for the future, educators must create entrepreneurs, in spirit at least.

The Nueva School’s entrepreneurship elective course is leading the pack in this respect. It offers  seventh and eighth graders the chance to invent things they find a need for by investigating problems and interviewing experts. The course goes a step further and teaches students to create business models and even meet with venture capitalists and social entrepreneurs. For example, when students followed their own curiosity, it led to ideas for a soap dispenser showerhead, a newly designed trumpet mouthpiece, and an expandable wheelchair.  Their discovery process is exactly what Wagner emphasizes when he says that learning how to learn is the most valuable skill for the future.

Other schools, such as the 500 K-12 schools affiliated with Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning Initiative and a consortium of 100 school districts called EdLeader21, are developing new ways to teach 21st century skills, like problem solving and critical thinking, which are so necessary for entrepreneurship.

In Colorado, YouthBiz is training young people to organize, investigate, plan, and eventually launch their own profitable businesses. And in Pittsburgh, Entrepreneuring Youth coaches young people through creating and managing their own businesses.

These opportunities come none too soon. As Thomas Friedman, author of The World Is Flat, wrote in his New York Times column:

This is dangerous at a time when there is increasingly no such thing as a high-wage, middle-skilled job …. Every middle-class job today is being pulled up, out or down faster than ever. That is, it either requires more skill or can be done by more people around the world or is being buried—made obsolete—faster than ever. Which is why the goal of education today, argues Wagner, should not be to make every child “college ready” but “innovation ready”—ready to add value to whatever they do.

Published September 12, 2013