2011 Lesson #7 – Educators can learn from entrepreneurs

Never too young for entrepreneurial thinking & strategy ...


A valuable part of our professional journeys as educators is to look beyond our own experience and learn from others. One strategy that has worked very well for our circumstance has been to bend budgets so that we can recurrently send teams of teachers to learn from others. This strategy commenced a decade ago when we took advantage of cheap domestic airline fares and visited any school that in some way had been described as ‘innovative’. We learnt much from people such as Helen Paphitis, then Principal of Salisbury Enterprise High School (Adelaide) and Di Fleming, then Principal Kilvington Girls Grammar (Melbourne).

I loved an anecdote from Kilvington, one that I have subsequently referred to as the ‘sledge hammer’ approach – when frustrated by the slow pace of change, Di Fleming initiated a late afternoon walk around campus for any staff member who was interested in discussing change in education. Those interested finished up with an off-the-scale opportunity when compared to what they may have initially thought. The invited colleagues were asked to literally smash through walls in order to create the connected spaces that were deemed pivotal to growing a stronger learning community. (I suspect there was a deal of necessary orchestration behind this, lest walls fall in!) Sometimes I know we need this approach in the classroom. What would happen if we gave the kids the chance to apply the ‘sledge hammer’ technique to classes that were unbearably boring?

Opportunity Plus
In 2005 I was the recipient of a Macquarie University travelling fellowship and took the opportunity with two colleagues to visit 22 schools from 6 northern hemisphere countries – a strategy that eventually sparked thinking that lead to both the creation of the SCIL: the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning (www.scil.com.au), as well as our online distance learning program (www.hsconline.nsw.edu.au). Since then, we have used opportunities as they have arisen to visit other people and places, many through further awards. While the awards have been humbling, it is the associated ‘prize’ money, that has been the real asset. That money has always been earmarked for further visitations.

Fast forward to 2011
Two different strategies have helped accelerate the mission and vision of SCIL. The first is a simple strategy – actively learn from other schools and outstanding educators in a scheduled recurrent program with a clear focus for targeted improvement and involve as many as possible in the process. Recognising that SCIL can learn a great deal from institutions other than schools, in the last two years the focus for such tours has broadened to include innovative libraries, outstanding museums and influential change agents. With a collaborative mindset at its core, we have now taken that one step further and SCIL now hosts an annual innovation and inspiration tour for external schools or systems. The tours are organised using a dynamic group process, allowing participants to progressively debrief, contextualise and add new layers of possibilities to their thinking. It is a simple process – but highly worthwhile.

(There is a tour planned for October 2012 – most likely Finland, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and the UK – feel free to contact aknock@scil.nsw.edu.au for more information.)

The second method to stretch thinking is related to the first – but recognises the tremendous impact entrepreneurial thinkers can have on education. In 2011 I have been privileged to spend time with some highly entrepreneurial thinkers. I met Matt Spathas (ibrary.com), a businessman and entrepreneur from San Diego – with a passion for contributing to educational change. It was sensing Matt’s perspective and passion for learning that helped shape my interest in the contribution that entrepreneurial experience may provide to accelerating change in education paradigms. In one of his presentations, Matt asked the question as to whether the secondary school learning experience was akin to going on a long distance flight: (paraphrased) ‘You have to keep quiet, sit in rows, face the front, watch the movie selection pushed on to you and hope that the final destination in some way compensates for the boring, uncomfortable ride’. A great analogy!

Interestingly, when I project forward to growing my professional network in 2012, I know that I will include as many opportunities to meet people such as Matt as I know it will grow my thinking more rapidly than anything else.

In 2011, I also met and enjoyed extended time with Berlin-based business entrepreneurs – Bea Beste (www.playducation.org) and Oliver Beste (www.founderslink.com). As with Matt, I have enjoyed every moment of conversation and reflection. It was the explorer heart of Bea that first found us via Twitter and then proceeded to visit SCIL during an international journey (having recently let go of the Phorms schools that she started in Germany, with the new goal of determining the next project on which to devote her energies). Bea’s gift to me has been reflective listening and observation on our practice and journey and then analysing our activity through a sequence of blogs and videos – a powerful present! (www.playducation.org/blog…/the-special-agents-of-change.html; www.playducation.org/blog-reader/items/the-oyster-of-good-learning.html)

Through Bea I met Oliver whose own background is not school related – but business entrepreneurship. Through them I have also met the wider team at playDUcation and separately other German entrepreneurs. Through Basti Hirsch (@cervus), one of the playDUcation founding team members, I am about to spend some time with the global Sandbox Network at their first global Summit in Lisbon (www.sandbox-network.org). The Sandbox Network is an inspirational organisation that seeks to harness and shape the collective energies of young entrepreneurs (18 – 30 age group). I am really looking forward to this, as while I might be able to provide some wisdom and mentoring, I suspect I am about to gain a fresh injection of innovative and entrepreneurial perspectives.


Do you have any up and coming learners (senior students or teachers) who could fit the description of potential Sandboxers? Perhaps they should join the Sandbox Network. We need to constantly seek to bridge the gap between education and business.

How has this impacted my thinking?
It has been extremely useful having people closely observe our work from a perspective removed from education. It has also been fun. Oliver and Bea decided to visit SCIL for a week during a recent holiday at the end of November 2011. It provided Bea the chance to test run some of playDUcation’s developing quests and afforded Oliver the chance to become more familiar with our work in promoting change and innovation through SCIL. I found the de-briefing conversations highly stimulating and they have challenged me to think about ways to better develop the practice of the school, as well as consider ways to become more entrepreneurial in our practice as a professional business. In a world where funding models will inevitably be affected by global financial trends, I suspect more entrepreneurial thinking – especially in directions not immediately in our sights, will become an imperative, whether we work in government or non-government schools.

If your experience is anything like mine, I never had training or experience in business management or business thinking and although I know many would regard me as being highly innovative and entrepreneurial in my thinking, I know I have a lot to learn still. I have been blessed to work with a visionary school Board over the last decade, led for the majority of that time by Peter King AO, himself an entrepreneurial businessperson, community advocate and an expert on governance. This has provided outstanding mentoring for me. I need to do the same for others.

The point I am seeking to make is that school leaders should be actively looking beyond the normal school community to find people with insights that will challenge your thinking, accelerate change processes and help embed a culture of deep learning.

Advice time
A few years ago I spent a week in Queen Charlotte Sound on the northern tip of the South Island of New Zealand. It is spectacularly beautiful, but it can rain heavily. In the remote out-of-range, non-connected region in which we were staying, during those seasonal downpours, I had to read a book! The one of the shelf of the lodge was one written in the early 1990s on ‘outrageous service’. I have forgotten the exact title, but not the content. It was providing examples of businesses that had thrived as a result of ‘outrageous service’ – especially small, local businesses that ran the gauntlet of being wiped out by larger organisations. But they weren’t. The reason – focus on providing ‘outrageous service’. I learnt a lot from the book. I connected with many of the anecdotes mentioned – times when someone within an organisation has been outstanding in their service. Word-of-mouth growth then inevitably follows.

The point – apply the thinking
So, how might we provide ‘outrageous service’ to parents? To other educators? How might we provide ‘outrageous service’ to the difficult and hard-to-engage student? How might I provide ‘outrageous service’ to a parent who clearly has an issue with some person or aspect of the school’s operation? How might I provide ‘outrageous service’ for my staff? It did start to change my thinking. Thinking back now, I have embedded this thinking into my practice, ‘outrageous’ faith in all individuals to excel – students and teachers. Everyone has a skill that can be discovered and shaped.
Business has a lot to teach educators, but unfortunately the business world and education world have not always mixed well. That’s perhaps because we tend to stick within the confines of the education universe and have often limited our contact with outside world to just product suppliers or the occasional attendance at a local business forum.

We need to be the ones to make the move to link our schools with the business world. Find local entrepreneurs. Invite them to come and closely observe your school. Get their left-of-field perspective on the school. Find business mentors, invite them on to your school boards and councils. Get your staff thinking about the ‘client service’ they provide.

My hunch?
My hunch is that the closer the ties we forge as school leaders with entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial thinking, the faster the speed of transformational change in our schools.

What have I learned?
Innovation is only really game changing if it can be easily scaled up, replicated and put into practice. I have taken on that challenge. I am passionate about learning, passionate about providing opportunities for the learning environment at NBCS/SCIL (www.nbcs.nsw.edu.au; www.scil.com.au) to lead to the shaping of lifelong, deep engaged learning habits for every learner in the school community (myself included). But I need to network, I need to share our successes and failures. I need to hear your successes and failures. We need to grow together. We need to create the global tribe of educators who know schooling is changing rapidly and will continue to do so. Governments aren’t doing a good job setting vision. We need to. We need to share practice and scale our work into new directions. We need to learn from entrepreneurs how to do that.

There is a moral imperative to bring the developing world with us
We should not leave the developing world out of this process. I am about to visit Rwanda again because I decided that I could not devote all my energy to improving educational opportunities for students in an already well-resourced world. There is a whole world of under-resourced schools in regional, rural settings or perhaps the ‘slums’ of global developing-world megacities that need to be included in the conversations. There are many passionate educators in those places craving professional development and encouragement.

Innovate Rwanda
You may be interested in our project – starting with a ‘collision of ideas’ conference in northern Rwanda (scil.com.au/Rwanda) in late May. The intention is to come up with suggestions and strategies that could be applied to improving the educational experience anywhere in the developing world – in order to help kick start the process of enabling a shift away from the imposed colonial model of schooling, to something that will at least provide job creation skills. Beyond this project, there are still 70 million children in the world with no access to education. Plenty of scope for entrepreneurial thinking there!