Why teachers don’t behave like entrepreneurs

Should classroom teachers behave more like entrepreneurs?

What would that even look like?

In a recent article on EdSurge, Senior Editor Mary Jo Madda, a former middle school teacher, argued that we should run our classrooms like “lean startups,” borrowing Eric Ries’s term. She suggests this process:

  • Think of what you want your students to know and how to measure it
  • Create a hypothesis — or a “students will be able to…” statement
  • Develop a “minimum viable product” — basically, an instructional strategy
  • Track student progress through “feedback loops”
  • Learn from your data and adapt your teaching

The lean startup process sounds like Wiggins and McTighe’s Backwards Design, dressed up in trendy MBA vocabulary. Nothing to celebrate or fear.

But I think most people who use the “teacher as entrepreneur” analogy have something more dramatic in mind, which is what makes many teachers nervous. We are not business people. What would we have to do differently if we adopted an entrepreneurial mindset?

Entrepreneurs are the innovative thinkers and risk-takers in our economy. They come up with great ideas, like the iPhone, as well as flops, like the Apple Newton. (Look it up.)

They are driven to succeed, and they don’t give up. When something doesn’t work, they chalk it up to experience and move on.

When I think of teachers behaving like entrepreneurs, I think of those who will jump head-first into something completely different – like flipping their classrooms, using Socrative seminars every day or replacing their entire curriculum with project-based learning. But even those strategies are well established now.

What could I try in my classroom that would be truly innovative?

Last year, at a tech conference in Minneapolis, one teacher described how he had replaced his entire curriculum with a semester-long Minecraft game. Now that’s innovation, though not one I would try. All I could think was: That is NOT going to work.

That’s the thing about entrepreneurs. They can handle that risk, and they can handle the naysayers. The typical outcome for an entrepreneurial venture is failure — only about one in 10 startups actually makes it, and that’s what venture capitalists expect.

Entrepreneurs are also driven by a profit motive, and they are OK with risking other people’s money.

I just read an instructive story on Wired.com about Nick Edwards and Chris Monberg, two young entrepreneurs behind Boomtrain, a personalized web content site. A few years into their effort they had a negative cash balance, no revenue and no customers. They had to raise over $1 million quick, or they wouldn’t be able to make payroll.

That kind of risk might be business as usual in Silicon Valley, but it wouldn’t go over well with the school district bookkeeper.

So how does entrepreneurship translate into a classroom teacher’s reality?

Everyone wants us to take risks, but failure is not an acceptable outcome. Imagine explaining to a group of 150 parents how you took a chance on a brand new way of teaching biology, and sorry, it just didn’t work. Or why 9 out of 10 new teaching strategies you try will probably fail. Or why your school needs $1 million quick.

If you do develop an innovative strategy that boosts your students’ achievement, don’t expect to become the next Steve Jobs. If you’re lucky, you can parlay your idea into an education consulting gig (or a movie like Stand by Me), but most likely, your success will just be a quiet victory for you.

Let me be clear – I do think there is a lot of opportunity in education for innovation. We need teachers who are willing to try new strategies, refine them, and disseminate them. But education lacks the incentive structure for true, risk-taking, no-holds-barred entrepreneurship.

Maybe that’s why experts are constantly complaining about the lack of innovation, even in charter schools, which were designed for this very purpose.

U.S. News recently lamented, in its Knowledge Bank blog, that most charter schools are just like traditional schools, but with more discipline.

“Yes, today’s students have computers and iPads and the Internet, but the core of U.S. schools is largely unchanged from a century ago,” they wrote.

The main causes they noted are not surprising:

  •      Parents want schools like the ones they attended
  •      Teachers don’t want to be viewed as “experimenting” on their students
  •      The regulatory structure doesn’t incentivize or reward innovation.

So should teachers act more like entrepreneurs? Maybe so. There’s certainly nothing wrong – or even all that innovative – about embracing the lean startup process.

But the politicians, pundits and business people who promote this analogy need to unpack it more and think about what it would cost – in money as well as risk to students’ progress – to truly make classroom entrepreneurship happen.