Walking into an Early Years classroom can often be a disorienting experience for a high school teacher. There are sand tables and water table; shelves with blocks in one corner, easels in another; firefighter, doctor, and police officer getups in a third; and an adult or two who observe students and take notes on the school’s early learning goals and sometimes asking questions like “why do you think that tower fell down?” It can seem very disorganized and, without desks or a structured timetable, it is not obvious to the uninitiated eye where and when the learning is taking place. Is it just free time? In a way, yes it is, but a more accurate way to describe learning during the early years is through the development of skills and competencies within a balance of free choice and adult guidance. Children learn about themselves, others, and the way the world works, while introduced to fundamentals that prepare them for more technical (in this case, often times academic) learning.
There is a reason the poem “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” makes so many adults nod with the wisdom of hindsight and the search for lost time. The Early Years classroom is one of the only places in the world where humans have the freedom to imagine, discover, and play almost at will, with few restrictions other than those that allow us to coexist safely together, and with the acknowledgement that we learn by doing and reflecting, through choice and self-pacing. Thinking about what awaits these young curious minds after they move on from kindergarten in many schools, I am struck by the relevance of Einstein’s words: “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” If school is meant to prepare learners for the world outside the classroom, why is it that many schools institutionalize and dictate the experiences students go through until graduation? Why do they purposefully limit creativity and self-directed learning in the name of content acquisition and achievement of academic standards that emphasize mechanics?
I will put forth the following unabashedly: High School and Early Years classrooms should share the same ethos and provide similar experiences: allow learning to happen by giving learners the freedom to explore, have fun, try, fail, try again, build relationships, reflect, innovate, choose, discover, question, challenge, develop resilience and self-awareness, improve continuously, and grow as human beings.
In other words, schools should provide the context for every student to be an (social) entrepreneur! Entrepreneurs identify needs, find solutions, take risks, invest themselves, reflect, lead, and influence. They are passionate, independent thinkers, optimists, self-confident, and resourceful, and tenacious, with a vision and focus that drive their endeavors. (My hope is that a majority will be social entrepreneurs who prefer to effect positive change in the world, rather than have profit be the principal motivator.) Entrepreneurs of all types exist independent of academic disciplines and their work is assessed on impact (more on impact in another blog posting). Schools should cultivate these dispositions in order to prepare students to identify and solve the problems of tomorrow (and today). There is also a pragmatic reason for this approach; it makes applicants more attractive to US universities, which increasingly seek applicants who will enrich the university and alumni communities with their personal values, passions, and (not only academic) achievements. Entrepreneurship is a pathway to standing out and demonstrating personal values and potential through action. Of course, not all students will attend university, but the skills learned through a curriculum of entrepreneurship are life-worthy in their own rights.
High School and Early Years should be opportunities for learning without the rigidity of disciplinary silos, where, at worst, Chemistry is taught in isolation or History is disconnected from Literature and Art. In fact, the disciplines should be treated as vehicles for piquing and (partly) satisfying curiosities, not as ends in themselves. Students’ questions should come first and then be explored through a range of disciplines. Is there any profession, hobby, or life choice outside the classroom that operates any other way?
We should approach curriculum as the creation of experiences within a context that maximizes learner agency. Creating a context for students to be entrepreneurs is the most effective way to develop transversal skills, which employers have identified as the most important skills of the future in the workplace (and transversal skills have always been necessary in our personal lives).
It may make sense to think of a whole-school curriculum that stresses entrepreneurialism as taking the shape of an hourglass. During Early Years, the curriculum maximizes opportunities for exploration, discovery, and self-directed learning. It looks the same (at an age appropriate level) in High School. The curriculum narrows in the middle, when it is time to learn core skills (e.g. writing, pre-algebra, the Scientific Method). This means a few more constraints during those years when it is important to master and apply with intention phonics, spelling, arithmetic, organization, and so forth.
Of course, there is no reason that social entrepreneurship cannot happen in Primary or Middle School, but it might look a bit different because there may be more emphasis in traditional academic areas, simply because these skills have to be taught in a more explicit way. How this would work requires perhaps another train of thought for another time, and I am conscious that entrepreneurship must be cultivated in this “middle section” as well. In the meantime, the whole-school curriculum would look like this, wide at the top and the bottom:
The curriculum has more scope in the Early and High School years to have students drive their own learning, guided by a more seasoned learner (teacher). By the time students graduate, they will have developed the competencies and applied skills through entrepreneurship, providing them with learning experiences that will prepare them for the future, including university. Of course, they will still need to master study skills, essay writing, and test-taking to excel in college, but these can be built into the curriculum as dispositions, not ends in themselves.
In order to equip students to find and solve problems that are meaningful to them, young learners should feel safe enough to take risks, manage themselves, and take responsibility today, within the protective environment of the school.
Thinking about school as a place that prepares young learners for the future, schools should be incubators for the application of knowledge and ideas. They should be spaces where students find meaning and purpose in what they do and gain the skills that will make them not only more attractive to universities and eventually employers, but also those that find fulfillment—both professional and personal—and perhaps do so good for the world along the way.