I am pleased to initiate the teacher blog associated with the Charter Partners Institute /Lincoln Leadership Academy partnership. For me, this partnership is a major step in a long journey.
For almost two decades I worked helping entrepreneurs in one of the most recognized state programs, the Ben Franklin Partnership. When the original model for this program did not work, we developed an entrepreneurial assistance approach that has since been adopted extensively both in the U.S. and globally. We learned to help budding entrepreneurs with a full range of business and finance related services, and there are many successful entrepreneurs today who credit Ben Franklin as a major contributor to their success.
As we moved into the late 1990’s, however, I started to be concerned. We were helping a number of entrepreneurs launch and grow their companies each year. However, I could not really say that we had changed the business environment to make our region more entrepreneurial, despite substantial dollars and effort expended over more than a decade. Since my Ben Franklin colleagues and board did not want to make significant changes in a program deemed at this point so successful, I left to work on this issue.
Over the next years, I began to see that the emerging global creative economy has created a whole new ball game for competition. Only companies that keep advancing their industries through constant innovation can thrive. In this new dynamic, there just are not enough natural entrepreneurs to drive the level of innovation that is needed. This raises serious challenges for economic development (can we help potential entrepreneurs and company leaders with the creative side of business, not just the business side?) and education (can we teach the entrepreneurial spirit of innovation?).
As I went back to examine how the most successful creative entrepreneurs in my experience worked their magic, I discovered something very important that answered those questions. The best entrepreneurs follow a radically different development process, a kind of non-linear, iterative approach driven largely by their natural intuition. By comparing the actions I observed among many different entrepreneurs, I came to see how this innovation process could be learned and supported.
About that time I started working with a local entrepreneur, Todd Welch, who was teaching high school students to start businesses in the creative way he did — which was consistent with what I had learned. With our combined experience, we were able to make the hands-on program Todd started, eVenture, into a remarkably successful activity. Students of all different styles and capabilities are literally transformed as they learn, most for the first time in their lives, to identify and develop novel solutions to issues they identify. However, since eVenture can only reach a few students each year, we started seeking opportunities to help schools implement our approach.
For several years we made very little progress. Some pioneering educators expressed interest, but their school systems were too consumed with testing requirements to try our radically different way of learning, especially when neither the state authorities nor the public are demanding anything like what we are promoting. This changed when we met Lincoln Leadership Academy Charter School and its Founder/CEO Sandra Figueroa-Torres. Sandra is an experienced educator who grew frustrated that the schools where she worked were incapable of supporting the kind of holistic learning environment she envisioned. Sandra believes that teaching kids to pass exams is only the most basic goal. She wants to take students from challenging urban environments and make them into leaders for the 21st Century. She started her own charter school to execute that vision. We resonated as two entrepreneurial organizations with a common goal.
We are now partnering to incorporate the lessons and approach toward innovation and related leadership skills into the core curriculum of Lincoln Leadership. Sandra has built a unique education environment wrapped around the needs of her students, and she has an excellent faculty and staff committed to doing what it takes. CPI has extensive experience and understanding of innovation and related leadership skills that truly distinguish the ideal 21st Century graduate. The immediate goal is to teach the 11th graders initiative, innovation, and related leadership skills, and to document how we do it so that others can do it, also. However, while not ready to make any promises, I think we all sense that we are into something that can more fully transform the way students learn at Lincoln Leadership and perhaps, at some point, provide the illusive model for transforming many other schools.
There is more about this on the website. Basically, the students have been asked to come up with a complex issue in the school or community for which no good solutions or even directions exist, form teams, and develop and implement novel solutions over the rest of the year and into their senior year as their graduation projects. We started by having the students evaluate their personalities and discuss how styles affect interactions. We also got them thinking about issues by studying newspaper articles to ferret out the complexity of issues behind the stories. To begin the process of identifying projects and forming teams, we took the students to Charter Farms (CPI’s training facility) for a day where they took charge of the process with light guidance from our team and several business mentors.
As we experience with eVenture, the first hurdle was getting the students to come up with their own ideas. We had to bite our tongue when they asked for suggestions, and give them some time to work through ideas. Once a few identified ideas, others saw what was expected and started to find their own ideas. After they got a reasonable idea, the teams went through another struggle to determine where to go next when there was no answer or model to guide them. Those who reached out early to research their issues and particularly to talk to various people in the community with relevant experience got over this second hurdle and they started to blossom. At this point, many have shifted among ideas and teams, sometimes several times, but they are beginning to settle on both. Most of the teams are still struggling for the courage to reach out to people they do not know for information and guidance, recognizing that they will gather information but must decide what it means and how to move forward themselves.
We keep reinforcing elements important in the innovation process. An example is focusing on the problem. It is very easy to move quickly to an idea for a solution, and in developing that solution to lose track of the problem they want to solve. Another is finding issues that kindle their passions. Many initially seemed to pick a reasonable idea that they thought their teachers would like. We keep reinforcing that developing an innovation is too challenging to carry through to success unless one is really passionate about the goal. Those moving forward are gradually coming to grips with the enormity of their ideas, including the amounts of money needed and the detailed and extensive work required for implementation. Again, these responses are all expected. Students in traditional education have never done anything of this nature.
In general, I believe that the educators on the team are pretty pleased with what we are seeing at this point. From the outside, the learning probably appears chaotic. That is normal in this learning approach. We see sparks of learning, along with remarkable insights, regularly now. These kids have a firsthand view of complex issues such as abuse, poverty, drugs, gangs, and youth acting out that is unmatched. It will be interesting to see how they translate that powerful understanding and perspective into novel solutions.
One of our big challenges is building student confidence fast enough to keep them from being discouraged. The innovation process can be fraught with frustration and challenge because one must learn to move forward with incomplete information not knowing if what you are doing will work or provide value. In the early stages, the deeper you get into the issue the more challenges you see. We have had mentors work with the teams for the last few days, and that seems to help. Once they start talking to relevant experts and getting some reinforcement from them, the confidence begins to build. Based on CPI’s experience, if we can guide them through this rough path the first time, the next steps will be easier because they will begin to trust their intuition and work in directions that will provide feedback without undermining their project. They are learning by practicing.
I have learned to never underestimate today’s students. I am looking forward to what will emerge. We invite you to follow us, and also to contribute if you have ideas either through comments or emails. Our goals are very ambitious, but we feel they are important enough to justify the effort.