George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

How Teacherpreneurs Spread Good Ideas

June 3, 2015

Teacher creativity is nothing new. Good teachers have always found inventive ways to make learning come alive and open opportunities for their students. A persistent challenge facing education has been figuring out how to expand these pockets of innovation so that more students can benefit.

That's why the rise of the teacherpreneur is so promising. Teacherpreneurs use all the tools at their disposal -- such as digital platforms, peer-to-peer professional development, and informal meet-ups -- to help good ideas spread and scale.

As Heather Wolpert-Gawron explained in her post The Era of the Teacherpreneur, these educators are opening new leadership pathways in education. Instead of leaving the classroom to launch new ventures, teacherpreneurs leverage their entrepreneurial spirit to lead change from within the system.

Expanding Opportunities

In classroom visits and during discussions with teachers about project-based learning, I keep an eye out for budding teacherpreneurs. They are the ones who thrive on designing meaningful projects that connect to students' lives. They don't hesitate to take learning beyond the classroom, whether that means bringing in outside experts or helping students tackle issues in their own communities. They don't need to know all the answers themselves, but instead look forward to learning alongside their students. They invite others to join their learning journey, too, creating opportunities for both students and teachers to collaborate.

These qualities, in many ways, echo what we know about entrepreneurs and innovators from the world outside of education. They are action oriented, willing to take calculated risks if they can anticipate benefits ahead. They're persistent, finding work-arounds to obstacles. They know how to network and get others engaged in their good ideas. (You can find more on these qualities in this earlier post, A Six-Point Checklist for Education Innovators.)

Teachers who bring these qualities into their work are constantly fine-tuning and improving their own lesson plans and projects. Vicki Davis explains her always-in-beta approach this way: "Every project we do has some sort of entrepreneurial, 'teacherpreneurial' aspect. There are some parts that are untried, untested, where we say, what would happen if. . .?" The new wrinkle or adjustment may be only 15 percent of the overall project design, she says, "but that's enough to keep us innovating. And that lets the kids see that we're still learning, too." (Read more insights from Davis in her post Teacherpreneurs: We're Here to Inspire.)

When teacherpreneurs share their bold ideas, we often see new communities of practice grow up around them. That happened several years ago when longtime English teacher Jerome Burg created Google Lit Trips to immerse students in literature study through the use of Google Earth. (Read more about the backstory in Google Lit Trips: Bringing Travel Tales to Life.) More recently, David Mitchell turned his idea for connecting student writers via QuadBlogging into a global phenomenon. Dan Meyer has sparked discussions about math and inquiry with 101 Questions.

Building on the #edchat model of peer-to-peer professional learning -- yet another example of a great idea dreamed up by teacherpreneurs -- we've seen similar communities of practice grow up around #geniushour, #makered, edcamps, and more.

Pay It Forward

Will the teacherpreneur movement lead to long-term system change? It's too soon to tell, but one outcome seems obvious: Students lucky enough to spend time with a teacherpreneur in the classroom will have a good chance of developing their own entrepreneurial mindset.

Consider what happened at the Hawai'i Academy of Arts and Science, a public charter school in Pahoa, Hawai'i. Students live in the shadow of an active volcano. STEM coordinator Eric Clause used that hyper-local issue to challenge students to come up with a new product. What could they design to make life better for people living near the Kilauea volcano?

Students focused on a problem that was, literally, right under their noses. Vog, volcanic fog, is a gaseous discharge that smells like rotten eggs. It poses health risks to people with asthma. Commercially made air conditioners and air filters do not eliminate the acidic compounds found in vog.

To fill this market gap, students leveraged their understanding of chemistry and engineering to design a low-cost vog scrubber. Working through the prototyping and testing process, they eventually came up with a kit to make a household-sized device. Local hardware stores agreed to sell their product, which was praised by civil defense experts.

Clause has no trouble designing STEM projects that engage students in local problem solving. "There's a million things to do," he says. "Whatever's happening in your community, just glom onto that as a project." (Read more about innovative projects designed by Clause and other teacherpreneurs in Implementing Project-Based Learning.)

Global education expert Yong Zhao, in Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?, encourages schools to "intentionally encourage children to be entrepreneurial" rather than compliant. One of the best steps in that direction: encourage teachers to be innovators themselves.

What's Holding You Back?

Do you have an entrepreneurial spirit that hasn't yet found an outlet in education? What's holding you back? What could school leaders do to encourage the work of teacherpreneurs and make sure that creative educators remain in the profession? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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