Using Entrepreneurship to Nurture Creativity and Innovation
Two educators share how they use innovative real-world projects to build entrepreneurship skills and inspire creativity in their students.
By Grayson McKinney and Zach Rondot
Let’s change that, shall we?
We’re attempting to change this narrative and inspire innovative thinking in our students through real-world project-based learning. Our favorite project of the year, Entrepreneur Day, gives us a front row seat to amazing creativity from young innovators… our students. From the outside, Entrepreneur Day may seem like an afternoon of 20 minutes rotations through each of the participating classrooms where students are come through to “buy” each others’ “products”… cups of slime, drawings, and bookmarks… but for the teacher who has gone through this process four years and counting, there is so much more going on below the surface that you might miss at first glance. We’re happy to introduce you to this process which has become a mainstay of our 4th-grade approach to innovation for education.
Why Teach Entrepreneurial Skills in School?
While you may not be asking yourself this question, I can guarantee you that some of your students’ parents might be. As common sense as this seems, if it’s not written in the curriculum or something that has already been done for years, some people may be resistant to trying something new. ::GASP:: Yes, it’s true.
An entrepreneur is a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so. That’s not what we are trying to get our kids to do though. We are really all about pursuing the related synonyms that can also describe this type of person. We want our students to be enterprising traders, dealmakers, self-promoters, whiz kids, movers and shakers, go-getters, and high flyers. We celebrate the ideas and the failures and the growth mindset that develops along the way.
Here are some great resources that may help to convince you and others of the importance of teaching kids to think like an entrepreneur, even if they aren’t going to become one:
Ben Johnson, an educator quoted on Edutopia.org, describes a magical process that can happen in the classroom: “Great teachers engineer learning experiences that put students in the driver’s seat and then get out of the way.” Entrepreneur Day fits squarely in this category of a project-based learning experience that focuses on nurturing creativity and innovation. It is our small attempt to raise kids in an environment where entrepreneurs are the heroes and idols, just as much as youtubers, Fortniters (yes, that’s a thing), musicians, and sports stars are.
How Can We Teach Entrepreneurship Skills?
Our approach is simple. We give the students the opportunity to do a lot of pre-planning before they settle on what they will create as a micro business. First, we get them to brainstorm problems that they face in their lives. We ask them to think about problems they face at home, school, at sports practices, or on vacation. The thinking here is that their product or service has to help them solve a problem they face, and one that someone else may face as well. For example, someone might have the “brilliant” idea to make a bookmark. Great! So what? There are billions of bookmarks in the world, how will this help your life or the lives of others? It saves your place in the book, you say? Weak.
We push them (not so harshly) to think deeper and try to solve a bigger problem. When they finally arrive at the idea that their bookmarks could have inspirational messages for reluctant readers to keep reading, we say now we’re getting somewhere! Inspirational message bookmarks with a built-in timer to track your reading growth with digital faces that you removed from watches at the dollar store? Now that’s innovative!
We go through this design thinking process, beginning with empathizing with the people who have similar problems and might find a use for your product. Slime? No. Therapy putty to help you focus in class? Yes! Bouncy balls? No. Baseball training balls to help with hand-eye coordination? Yes!
The ideate stage is for all of the ideas to come out. We want them to think of every good, bad, and ugly way that they could create something that would add value to somebody’s life. It’s especially hard to get some students to think of a second idea once they’ve had one, but this is part of the learning. We try to get them to create a minimum of four possibilities that could be solutions, in order to move past the attachment that they have with their first idea. It’s the same hurdle some students experience in writing – a resistance to the revision process. Ego gets involved and stops kids from coming up with a second idea, but that’s the name of innovation. We need new ideas or iterations of one that’s come before.
One of the steps we have them go through helps by including a lot of great writing practice. It becomes a combination of all of the first few phases, written out in a way that could be used in order to make a pitch to an investor. They describe the problem, trying to make the audience empathize with their dilemma. They describe their solution to this problem and emphasize why their idea is a unique and helpful one. It’s at this stage that they have their first check-in with a mentor (teacher or someone else). We want to get them in the habit of checking in along the way so that the big day doesn’t come and they find that they are way off base or underprepared. See a previous post HERE for more on our method of conferencing with students during project-based-learning.
Honing in on the Product
Here’s an amazing video of an entrepreneurship project that was made as a reflection by one of our student pairs in an entrepreneur day a couple of years ago. Remember when fidget spinners were all the rage? Well, they created a product that would help keep your spinner in tip-top shape and help prevent losing it (their big problem to solve).
By listening to their explanation, you can tell that a lot of time was spent in the prototyping phase. We teach that failure is just another point of departure and that the biggest takeaways are these lessons learned – not simply the amount of profit you took in with your product or service.
We love packing so much into Entrepreneur Day, and another aspect is the advertising component. We get students to unleash their innate talent for persuasion (something they’ve been doing since they were toddlers negotiating with their parents about extra dessert and toys). We allow a wide range of strategies – from PowerPoints and posters to iMovie trailers and guerilla marketing on our class SeeSaw Learning Journal.
One of the most convincing methods that I’ve ever seen realized by a student was a cross-branding symbiosis with another student. His idea was that if he would be allowed to put flyers in the other kids’ booth, that he would cut him in for 5% of all sales generated from this marketing. It’s the same thing that companies do all the time!
“Mention this ad and get a free can koozie with any purchase.”
“Tell us you heard this commercial and get free undercoating when you buy your new car.”
“Say you heard us on WXYZ and we’ll throw in a free styrofoam cooler for your minnows!”
Finally, students are asked to polish up their public speaking skills. We encourage everyone to have memorized their 30-second sales pitch memorized. We show them a couple of memorable Shark Tank introductions for inspiration, and have them pay close attention to the way that the speaker conveys their passion, knowledge of the product, makes good eye contact, and confidently puts out their positive energy.
Here are a few of our favorite Shart Tank videos:
The BIG Day!
On the day of Entrepreneur Day, it’s all about making it real. Their planning, hard work, and dedication deserve an authentic audience to appreciate it all! We set up in the cafeteria and invite students from other grade levels, parents, and anybody else who we think would like to see the students demonstrating an entrepreneurial tour de force. Purchases are made using fake money on punch cards, where shop owners cross off the amount of the transaction from the customer’s card and make a record of it on their sales ledger. Shoppers circulate until they are out of credits, and leave with all their purchases.
To add an extra layer of excitement, we like to dress up on the day like real life “sharks”, listening to sales pitches and watching how they interact with customers. We give feedback to each student so they know what they could do better, and in the past we have even chosen our top ten to win a special prize.
The Follow-Up and Further Learning
In the past, we hosted an Entrepreneur Day Luncheon for the top students. At this pizza and salad lunch, we invited members of the community who either were entrepreneurs themselves or had some business expertise and knowledge that could help these students learn even more about starting a business. We’ve brought in Troy city council members, the president of our local chamber of commerce, the superintendent of our district, realtors, lawyers, and manufacturers. Each person brings with them a variety of experiences, and can help answer questions that our students think up. They get to give them their pitches and a sample of their product. The adults love to be included in this process, and it helps to establish school-community relations.
This year, we decided not to limit this experience of learning from an expert to the top entrepreneurs. Instead, we gathered our whole grade level together to learn from experts with whom we Skyped. We were lucky enough to welcome the creators of FlipGrid as well as one of the top people in Microsoft for Education to relate to some words of wisdom and encouragement.
About the Authors
We are Zach Rondot and Grayson McKinney, two young(-ish) and innovative teachers from Troy, Michigan. We are passionate about being innovative in our practice and pushing the need for innovation in education. Our goal in blogging is to show you how we have come to leverage technology in our classroom to cultivate critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity – skills that empower our students to find their voice and make their thinking visible – while preparing them for the jobs of the future. For more examples of our quest for innovation in education, check out our blog or follow us on twitter @GMcKinney2 and @MrRondot.