George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Five young elementary students are sitting around a six-sided table in a classroom. They're all wearing headphones and playing on iPads. A female teacher is assisting one of them.

Many educators that seek to incorporate design thinking and collaborative processes into teaching and learning are looking to the unique culture exemplified by startup companies. Both nimble and energized, today's startups are redefining how "work" looks by championing disruption in innovation and enterprise. Fueled by passion and charged with a desire to make a positive impact in our world, startups creatively incorporate voice and choice, flexibility, personality, and fun into learning and working environments.

By embracing these business models for learning, teachers are taking on this entrepreneurial, DIY spirit and transforming the process of making meaning and searching for knowledge. Schools and educators who choose a startup culture can essentially place a renewed focus on the role of the learner by empowering students to find authentic and meaningful problems and to search for solutions through design activities and iteration. Much like engineers that optimize their designs through building, testing, and then redesigning and building again, students in classrooms that follow a startup culture can freely explore, wonder, and evaluate over multiple iterations until they have reached success or mastery.

Looking to leverage the power of the startup culture in your classroom? Check out these three distinguishing features found in the startup ecosystem, and get ready to propel ideas forward and scale learning!

Use of Space

Startup cultures in a classroom use space to tell a story. The narrative of the class is visible throughout all areas of the room, and students feel ownership and a sense of belonging. The learning environment is motivating and playful, incorporating different spaces for varying functions:

  • Lounge seating for reading and thinking
  • Active spaces to ignite ideas
  • Collaborative spaces for group work

As this kind of environment encourages physical movement, along with communication and "social networking" within the school, students within a startup culture move between learning environments over the course of a school day to spark discovery and new perspectives. Workplace and seating flexibility are available to all students, including furniture and items such as standing desks, clipboards, and work rugs. Prepared environments are equipped with materials that allow for transparency of thought within visible thinking routines. Students are encouraged to interact with multiple modes of communication and document ideas with items such as flip charts, post-it notes, drawings, sketches, and recordings of active and interactive dialogue. Digital tools such as Slack, Google Docs, social media platforms, and Nearpod are further used to support collaborations and partnerships both within the classroom and with global friends.

Intentional Designs

Classrooms that follow startup cultures are strategically designed to support learning and growth. Environments and curricula are intentionally structured to incorporate brain-based practices that recognize the importance of time for rest, food and drink, movement, and play. Startup-culture learning cultivates student agency through voice and choice. Purposeful pedagogical decisions aim to create paths for connection to past experience as well as address meaningful problems facing the community.

Flexible schedules within a classroom startup culture are agile, responsive, and based on immediate needs of learning activities and work types -- individual work, face-to-face group work, and virtual collaborations. With reflection viewed as an integral stage of learning and growth, built-in "white space" enables students the freedom and time for deep thought. Schedules in this environment can be adapted to learning opportunities at any given moment, which encourages co-teaching and cross-curricular work between different content areas. Divergent and convergent thinking, experimentation, and opportunity for adventurous thinking are encouraged through stimulating activities such as:

  • Class design challenges
  • Long-term focused individual projects
  • TED talks
  • Genius Hour
  • Real-world scenarios

Building Identity

Classrooms following the entrepreneurial mindset of a startup company exist in a constant state of beta -- always testing and retesting through the process of iteration, innovation, and improvement. Though focused on growth, the culture remains dedicated to staying mission-focused. Clearly defined goals and a synthesized message allow for a scaled impact across all areas of learning. The class mission represents every member of the classroom community, and each member is able to effectively articulate that mission.

Teachers in a startup culture can work together to build the classroom "brand" through activities such as proudly displaying the mission in the students' learning spaces, sharing messages of success on class websites and blogs, or designing a class logo and fun swag like t-shirts, water bottles, stickers, and pens. Students can also get involved by creating commercials, composing jingles made with digital programs such as Garageband or Soundtrap, or developing a class elevator speech (a concise message designed to convey a thought in the time that it typically takes to ride an elevator from the bottom to the top of a building). An ongoing goal for members of the class in a startup culture is to feel a sense of ownership and pride as they work to protect the integrity of their class identity -- because it's also their identity.

As part of a community of young creators, engineers, problem solvers, designers, collaborators, and dreamers, students can work as a classroom learning team, find inspiration in unanswered questions, and ultimately push ideas forward into a reality to make a positive impact on our world.

You may already be practicing elements of a startup culture in your classroom. Please tell us about it in the comments section of this post.

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afton_burns's picture

Such great information here that is useful for all educators! Culture is such an important aspect in ensuring that the students are comfortable, safe, and can learn in a great environment! Thanks for all of your thoughts.

Dr. Joy's picture
Dr. Joy
Professional learning specialist and blogger passionate about bringing joy to schools.

Long-term focused individual projects provide learners with an opportunity to experience the stages of the design thinking process.

Thanks for all of your wonderful thoughts!

Lisa_MCcoy's picture
Lisa_MCcoy
Parent. Teacher. Budding Writer

I never thought there could be an analogy between start up culture and classroom learning. Great writing and informative article!

Jennifer Williams's picture
Jennifer Williams
Educational Program Developer/Literacy Specialist

So thankful for your kind comments and feedback. You bring up such an important point about making students feel comfortable! I so agree and find that students that feel safe are set up for success and readied to learn! Thank you again for reading and commenting! Kind Regards,
Jennifer

Jennifer Williams's picture
Jennifer Williams
Educational Program Developer/Literacy Specialist

So value your thoughts and opinions! Thank you for your support! Love so much connecting here and on Twitter! #grateful

caterina musumeci's picture

What an exiting way of becoming protagonists: teacher's being part of a team and students' ownership of their identity as a whole! Great ideas..great entrepreneurship ! Thanks a lot!

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