If You Were A Learning Entrepreneur

This is cross-posted at Teacher Magazine.

You decide.

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 helped 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 have a sense of 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 get good at what you are 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 (NFTE), an organization that teaches the entrepreneurial skills of business 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, risk takers and responsible, instead of passive recipients.  Since a lot of conventional schools, and traditional instruction still reward passivity and compliance, and 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 the creator of it.  Instead of being outside, you are the agent, you are responsible, your rewards are commensurate with the risks you are willing to take, and the effort you are willing to make.

As those who hang out at here, and at #edchat and EduCon and thousands of blogs say all the time, education is walking away from this thing we call “school”– increasingly, inevitably, inexorably.  As dozens of books, social media philosophers, and everyday folks have discovered, the old-fashioned power the institution to define valuable knowledge, to purvey specific content, and to determine how the student learns, and how the learner is to value him or herself within that institution, is increasingly challenged.  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 decoupling of learning from institutions of education is a fabulous new world, or a frightening turn towards social chaos and intellectual superficiality–the movement is happening right now, everywhere, every school day in every wikispace, edmodo platform, friend request and tweet.

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 most profound critics of education ever, Ivan Illich, described something he called learning webs.  In a deschooled life, 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 in school–education as an institution serves its own purposes and is intent on insuring its own survival, whatever the costs to the learner. As those of us who get around in the socioeconomic strata that describes schooling, in well-heeled schools, for children of privilege, freedom to learn what one wants, and in relation to who one is or might become, is much greater than for poor kids, where KIPP-like behavior regimes, and sitting in SLANT and tracking the speaker are becoming the norm. What does it say to a child about the nature of learning when the most important messages to children in class are how to hold the teacher in his or her gaze with utter and fixed attention, where 100% attention is an absolute good?  Is a child the owner of his or her own learning, in a profound sense, 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 school as we know it breaks up on the shoals of its own inflexibility, redundancy, and unwillingness to engage in reflection on the meaning of its current favored practices, students need to become learning entrepreneurs–to begin to write their own business plans for their learning, to analyze their learning lives, and to be taught the skills of risk taking and reinvention. Children at the K-12 level need new models for conceiving of learning in their lives–models that are lifelong, emphasize the necessity for flexibility and creativity around the developmental nature of learning, 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, which conceives of the whole world as a curriculum designed for learning, with the intentionality of business planning:  what is your goal? What are your unit costs? What raw materials or skills do you need to achieve your plan?  Unlike one-on-one learning, which is still organized around laptops and avenues of information acquisition, or full-time virtual learning, which requires extensive parental involvement and resembles school-at-home; becoming a learning entrepreneur is a mind-shift, a movement towards collective engagement in learning that is not attached to a particular institution, set of courses, or authorizing body. It is, in the words of Tony Baldasaro, a trouble-making principal of a virtual high school in New Hampshire, about, “passion based-learning models.”

Our minds, our fears, and our lack of models, are our greatest barriers to learning entrepreneurship, not the absence of tools to achieve the vision.  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, right now, where you are, knowing what you know now?  As we work towards describing the how, and the what of learning entrepreneurship, lowering students’, parents’ and teachers’ conceptual barriers to learning entrepreneurship is the greatest hurdle.

Where are these learning entrepreneurship models developing?  Everywhere.  The Anytime, Anywhere Learning Foundation profiles schools all over the world that see the development of passionate learning as central. “All that matters is what the experience becomes for students.”  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.”

Do you see learning at the center of your life?  Are you conceptually bold enough, hardheaded enough, and persistent enough to become a learning entrepreneur?

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