In a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, Michael Ellsberg created a stir by asking, "Will Dropouts Save America?" After dropping names of illustrious dropouts -- the late Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, among others -- he argues that school as we know it does little to prepare students to be entrepreneurs whose creativity will create jobs.
"Simply put, from kindergarten through undergraduate and grad school, you learn very few skills or attitudes that would ever help you start a business," Ellsberg writes. The author of The Education of Millionaires says he spent two years interviewing entrepreneurs about how they learned what they know.
What Ellsberg overlooked is the growing number of classrooms where learning about entrepreneurship is a thriving tradition. By simulating a business launch, students engage in critical thinking and deepen their financial literacy. They gain experience collaborating with team members and networking with outside experts.
"This kind of experience teaches students important life skills," says fifth-grade teacher Francie Kugelman from Dahlia Elementary in Los Angeles. "For some, it's also planting the seed that someday they'll want to start their own business."
Kugelman is among some 5,000 educators worldwide who have used entrepreneurship education resources from the Biz World Foundation. Her students use ready-made materials to "launch" businesses that produce friendship bracelets. The project is a simulation, "but they believe in it," she says. And the friendship bracelets are very real -- and wildly popular.
Students have to apply for roles such as president or chief financial officer. They make strategic decisions, such as whether to borrow start-up funding from a bank or solicit venture capital. They prototype bracelet designs and also decide how to produce their products -- on an assembly line or by individual artisans? They develop marketing campaigns, host a bracelet bazaar (with fake "bucks"), and track profit and loss. "When I'm deciding whether to invest in their businesses," Kugelman adds, "it feels real."
April Bond, a former teacher who is now Biz World's vice president of education, says more than 350,000 students have taken part in the program since it launched in 1997. Bond compares learning about financial literacy to learning a second language. "The earlier the better," she says.
Biz World Foundation, with a board of successful entrepreneurs, has always sought to encourage entrepreneurial thinking. The current economic climate makes the topic even more relevant. Events like Occupy Wall Street "have kids asking questions," Bond says. "Families are making decisions based on the economy. Students see the value of knowing about finance as something that extends beyond the classroom."
In addition to BizWorld materials, the foundation offers two additional simulations. BizWiz has a focus on investing. In BizMovie, students run their own movie-production companies. BizMovie also teaches object-oriented programming skills, which students apply in the creation of animated films. BizMovie was developed in collaboration with the National Center for Women in Information Technology. Currently, classroom materials are available for free to interested teachers in the U.S.
For many teachers, resources like these provide an accessible entry to project-based learning. "It's PBL in a box," says Tristan de Frondeville, a long-time PBL advocate and Edutopia contributor who serves on Biz World Foundation's education advisory board. For teachers who are new to PBL, or who don't have time to develop standards-based projects from scratch, this kind of resource "can lead to high-quality work," he says.
Some teachers build on the ready-made materials to develop more open-ended projects. For example, students might follow up on the friendship bracelet simulation and design a campaign to raise money for a real community cause.
Thinking on Their Feet
Mike Harris has been using BizWorld with sixth-graders at Northstar Academy in Redwood City, Calif., for the past eight years. He typically introduces the project early in the school year as a way to find out "who the kids are and what they can do. It's a chance to watch them work together." The project naturally builds teamwork skills, as students work in small groups to develop business plans for their start-up companies. Harris keeps formal instruction to a minimum, which challenges students to think on their feet. Within the project structure, students encounter a series of open-ended questions that cause them to evaluate different scenarios.
Northstar Academy happens to be located in the heart of the Silicon Valley. Harris takes full advantage of the setting to engage with local experts. When his students pitch their business plans, they pitch to real venture capitalists.
Throughout the project, Harris adds, students have opportunities to learn and apply a range of important content, ranging from math to language arts to digital media. They also learn systems thinking. "They're growing up in a capitalist system," adds Harris, who came to teaching after a career in business. "They need to understand how it works."
Global Entrepreneurship Week takes place this year from November 14-20, with projects underway around the world. How do you engage your students in entrepreneurial thinking?