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Curriculum Opinion

If You Were a Learning Entrepreneur

By Kirsten Olson — March 01, 2011 5 min read

If you were a learning entrepreneur, you would consider school part of your “balanced portfolio” of learning experiences, but one—and only one—venue for learning some kinds of things. If you were a learning entrepreneur, you would craft a lifelong learning plan that would help you chart your cognitive, social, and practical learning goals over your lifespan. (These goals would change a lot, but you’d still have a view of them year to year.) If you were a learning entrepreneur, you would see yourself as the manager of your own learning—authorized to use hundreds of different tools to get the information and skills you need, and you’d know how and when to ask for help. If you were a learning entrepreneur, you would understand the importance of finding mentors and key supporters to challenge you to excel at what you’re doing, and you would encourage others to step up into their own learning. If you were a learning entrepreneur, you would think of every day as an exciting opportunity to learn something.

Are you a learning entrepreneur? Does your school allow you to be a learning entrepreneur? Does the classroom you’re in encourage kids to be entrepreneurs of their own learning? Do you think of your learning as one of the most vital and important aspects of your life? Are you the “owner” of your own learning?

Steve Mariotti, the founder and president of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship—an organization that teaches business entrepreneurial skills to kids who are not wealthy and do not go to fancy schools—says the power of entrepreneurship is that it challenges kids to be “owners” instead of outsiders, responsible risk-takers instead of passive recipients. Since many conventional schools and traditional instruction still reward passivity and compliance as well as encourage kids to accept someone else’s evaluation of them, there is tremendous educational value in owning your own learning. When you own something, you are its creator. You are responsible, and your rewards are commensurate with the risks you are willing to take, and the effort you are willing to make.

As many edu-tech experts point out, education is increasingly, inevitably, and inexorably moving away from this thing we call “school.” As dozens of books, social media philosophers, and everyday folks have discovered, the institution is facing increasing challenges to its power to define valuable knowledge, to purvey specific content, and to determine how the student learns. Anya Kamenetz notes in DIY U, “Changing education makes people really, really nervous. In a shakeup, the current elites have the most to lose.” Whether you think this separation of learning from school is a fabulous new world or a frightening turn toward social chaos and intellectual superficiality, the movement is happening right now—during every day in every school on every wikispace, edmodo platform, friend request, and tweet.

‘Business Plans for Learning’

As the educational sector struggles to adapt to these challenges to its authority and utility, what are individual learners to do? What are they doing? Back in the 1970s—before the Internet, social media, and social entrepreneurship—one of history’s most ardent critics of education, Ivan Illich, described something he called “learning webs.” In a life without schools, Illich proposed, individual learners would educate themselves through apprenticeships and communities of practice, in “webs of learning"—created by the learner and his or her larger community. We are fooled, Illich felt, by the perceived need to be educated by schools. Education as an institution serves its own purposes and is intent on insuring its own survival, whatever the costs to the learner. While well-off schools regularly give students the freedom to learn what they want based on their dreams and interests, it is becoming the norm in economically disadvantaged schools for students to be asked to sit in “SLANT,” and in some cases to be penalized if the do not, for instance, track the speaker. When the most important message to children is how to hold the teacher in his or her gaze with utter and fixed attention, what does this say to students about the nature of learning? Is a child the owner of his or her own learning when “there’s one acceptable percentage of students following a direction: 100 percent. Less, and your authority is subject to interpretation, situation, and motivation.” (That’s Doug Lemov, in Teach Like A Champion.)

As education becomes more inflexibile, redundant, and unwilling to reflect on the meaning of its current favored practices, students need to become learning entrepreneurs. They need to begin to write their own business plans for their learning, to analyze their learning lives, and to learn the skills of risk-taking and reinvention. Children at the K-12 level need new models for thinking about learning in their lives—models that are lifelong and emphasize the need for flexibility and creativity; models that embolden the learner to be more risk-taking and self-authorized; models that challenge children to discover and model best practices and important bodies of knowledge, but do not see acquisition of them as the purpose of education.

Being a learning entrepreneur combines some of the freedom of “unschooling” with the intention of business planning. Learning entrepreneurs ask: “What is my goal? What are my unit costs? What raw materials or skills do I need to achieve my plan?” Unlike one-on-one learning or full-time virtual learning, becoming a learning entrepreneur is a mindshift—a movement toward collective engagement in learning that is not attached to a particular institution, set of courses, or authorizing body.

Where are these learning-entrepreneurship models developing? Everywhere. The Anytime, Anywhere Learning Foundation profiles schools all over the world that focus on the development of passionate learning. “All that matters is what the experience becomes for students,” proclaimed the AALF. Or as iconic entrepreneur Richard Branson recently said, “My biggest motivation? Just to keep challenging myself. I see life almost like one long university education that I never had. Every day, I’m learning something new.”

Our minds, our fears, and our lack of prevalent models—not the absence of tools to achieve the vision—are our greatest barriers to learning entrepreneurship. Who are the greatest learners you have known in your life? What made them great? What do you admire about them as learners? How can you adapt these qualities to your own learning projects?

As we work toward describing the how—and the what—of learning entrepreneurship, lowering students’, parents’, and teachers’ barriers to the concept is the greatest hurdle.


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