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Can Students be Taught to Think like Entrepreneurs? Dennis Pierce

Teaching students the skills they need to become leaders and innovators is more important than ever

When you think of imparting entrepreneurship skills to students, most educators will likely go the obvious route — how can we teach students to build successful businesses that will help them in their post-graduation careers. But there are also a host of skills that successful business leaders use every day that can help students no matter what path they choose.

“Most schools that are working with this topic are teaching students to conceptualize new ideas and build business plans around those ideas—or to actually go out and create a company,” said Cheryl Lemke, who is president of the Metiri Group

, an education technology research firm. “We think that’s a great idea for a subset of kids, but you’re probably not going to reach every child by doing that.”

In her many years of studying 21st century skills, researcher Lemke has identified five key skills that are essential to becoming a successful entrepreneur. She describes these skills as tolerance of ambiguity, calculated risk-taking, persistence, evidence-based reasoning, and self-direction.

In January 2015, Lemke’s firm received a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a personalized professional learning platform for teachers to take online courses on how to foster those skills among students.

In one of several sessions that will focus on student entrepreneurship during the 2016 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in Denver later this month, Lemke will be discussing the result of this project, as well as practical strategies that teachers can use to ensure success.

“We believe there are foundational skills that will prepare students to be entrepreneur-ready by the time they graduate from high school. These skills should be developed among children starting as early as kindergarten and first grade, building toward a deep understanding of those skills as students get older.”


Entrepreneurs are adept at taking ideas from different sectors and combining them in new ways that nobody has thought of before, Lemke said. To do that, they must be able to see connections between ideas and make new meaning from them. And that’s what learning is about as well. By teaching students the skills they’ll need to become effective leaders and innovators, educators are preparing them to be better learners, too—which is why these skills are important for all students to develop.

“We want out kids to be entrepreneurial inside the classroom,” she said. “We want them to think new thoughts and put ideas together in interesting ways.”

Take tolerance of ambiguity, for instance, which Lemke described as “extremely important.”

“We want students to stay with a question long enough so they develop a full, comprehensive view of all of the issues around that topic, and they keep asking further questions until they get deeper and deeper into the subject. We don’t want them to take a first shot at answering the question and then say, ‘OK, I’ve got it,’” she said.

“For some kids, this is very difficult—they just want an answer. They’re not comfortable with understanding it’s a complex issue and there are several sides to the story. But we need to teach that.”

One of the ways to do that is by asking open-ended questions. But rather than having students answer the question and then move on to a new topic, make it an iterative process in which they stay with the topic for a few days, Lemke suggested.

“You could give students a question and ask them to come back tomorrow with three ideas,” she said. “The next day students share their ideas during class, and then you might say to them, ‘Now that you’ve heard everyone’s ideas, I’d like you to come up with another idea that’s a combination of what you heard.’ And on the third night, you could have them run their idea by a parent or an outside expert and refine it even further.”

Encouraging social entrepreneurship

Class projects in which students develop initiatives that can change the world can be a fun, effective, and deeply meaningful way for them to learn entrepreneurial skills, says WarrenApel, who is heading to a new job this fall as director of technology for the American School in Japan.

Apel has led social entrepreneurship projects as educational technology director at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, India, and at the International School of Amsterdam. He’ll be discussing his experiences during a separate session at ISTE 2016.

While in New Delhi, Apel saw crushing poverty on a daily basis. Looking to make a difference in people’s lives, he and his wife created an online business selling yoga equipment. They worked with a tailor in the slums of New Delhi to create the products, and over the course of eight years they recovered their initial investment and raised more than $10,000 that went directly back into the slums.

Apel has brought this social entrepreneurship to the students at his schools, helping to lead projects in which students raise money to support socially conscious initiatives worldwide.

“Online platforms like KickstarterEtsyShapeways, and Indiegogo are getting easier to use,” he said. “It’s so simple to start a business these days that even children can do it. When students launch their own businesses, they learn valuable real-life skills in (subjects like) math and communication.”

Students who publish and sell their writing, music, 3D sculptures, and art projects “find a real-world audience that is much more motivational than simply turning in assignments to a teacher,”Apel said. “But what’s more, the money they earn can fund microloans to support entrepreneurial projects around the world.”

Adding an altruistic motive to student-run businesses gives students a deeper sense of purpose, he believes. It also helps motivate potential customers.

“When people see a group of middle school students is selling mugs online, they don’t really get excited,” he said. “When they see that the goal is to sell enough mugs to dig a well in East Africa, then they want to be a part of that.”

By selling their work online, students learn self-promotional skills such as how to communicate about themselves and how to market themselves on social media. “That skill doesn’t get taught a lot in school,” he said, “but it’s an important skill for students to learn.”

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