Incubators in Schools to Unleash Potential Creative Energies

What if schools were places where learners could explore their interests and produce objects, ideas, and initiatives that made impact in the community? What if schools encouraged learners to build networks of mentors and non-age dependent peers and contribute to writing organic, personalized curricula centered around intent, not content? What if students could evidence their learning through showcasing their accomplishments and documenting their journeys, free of the constraints of test scores? What if students were able to provide employers and university admissions officers portfolios of what they’ve achieved and which skills they’ve mastered to highlight their abilities and potential inside and outside the classroom?

What if schools functioned like start-up incubators where learners re-appropriated their learning and determined their success based on the positive impact they had on themselves and their community?

This piece is a thought experiment and there will be kinks to work out, but stay with me as we can create and implement this idea together. Like in politics, we should not be expected to replace an imperfect (education) model with a perfect one we dream up, and we have to accept that it may be messy. This thought experiment is messy, but it is tries to provide an alternative for those who feel the system squashes creativity and suffocates potential. Accountability, testing, and prescribed curricula can contribute to stressed-out or disengaged kids who are less and less prepared for the world of work or personal fulfillment later in life. This thought experiment is for those students who are likely to benefit from being set free and cultivating their entrepreneurial spirit.

Let’s imagine a parallel pathway that would not replace traditional education, but rather provide opportunities for those students for whom the parallel pathway makes sense.

First, let’s address the idea that students need high test scores so they can get into university. Beyond the fact that university is not the only path for high school graduates (even those academically inclined), college admissions in the US has long purported to embrace a holistic approach—admittedly still perfectible—which values the person behind the scores and their evidencing of consistent leadership, caring, and initiative. The COVID pandemic has accelerated the movement toward healthier, more qualitative ways to stand out in the university admissions process and there is no reason to believe that the system will inevitably revert to purely quantifiable measures.

The US is unique in this sense, but even in the UK and Ireland there are weak signals that universities will move away from admissions processes that almost exclusively value high stakes test results (A levels). Many prominent universities including Trinity College, the University of Nottingham, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Cardiff are attaching “employability” awards to their certificates (diplomas), reacting to the in-demand skills that employers believe they will need by 2025 and beyond, none of which stress traditional measures of success such as the memorization and regurgitation of content. If British and Irish universities are beginning to recognize that their diplomas are no longer sufficient to reassure employers that graduates (the output) will be successful in the workplace, how long before they alter the measures by which they admit students (the input)? 

How long before universities across the world eschew (almost) exclusively test- and score-based admissions criteria in the name of equity? Black Lives Matter and all the tangential movements that denounce inequality and inequity are thundering signals that change is coming. 

This is assuming that university is the only path, which it’s not.

K-12 schools should pay attention to these signals and allow students to explore parallel pathways that cultivate creativity, problem-solving, resilience, ideation, innovation, design, communication, leadership, and the human-centered production of things and ideas. If not now, when will it be too late?

These pathways may not be for every student. Some may prefer more traditional academic routes to graduation, and that’s ok. If schools are to be places for learning, they need to provide the right context for the right learner. Personalization does not exist if the outcomes are standardized.

For this thought experiment, I would like imagine one of many possibilities to create such a parallel pathway, the incubator*.

Traditionally, incubators are “places where ideas become businesses—where startups receive support and guidance as they tackle the market and search for investment.” Many universities already have incubators as part of their entrepreneurship programs. Almost every reputable university with a business school has an incubator (or at least an accelerator). I trained at Syracuse University to deliver an Entrepreneurship course as part of SU’s concurrent enrollment program (SUPA) and spent quite a bit of time in their incubator. I also visited a number of other university incubators and, from what I saw, each was a vibrant, creative, and hope-full environment of learning and collaboration. Why can’t these exist in K-12 schools?

Incubators in schools don’t have to be places where students’ ideas become businesses, but they should be places where students are free to be entrepreneurs. I have written elsewhere how entrepreneurs identify needs, find solutions, take risks, invest themselves, reflect, lead, and influence. Entrepreneurialism doesn’t necessarily require profit-making. It is a spirit we should cultivate in many of our learners. Entrepreneurialism may just be what makes learning—and school—meaningful for students who don’t fit in the traditional context of the system. 

Innovation and entrepreneurialism go hand in hand. Creativity is about ideas and innovation is converting these ideas into impact. Entrepreneurialism is the mindset that flourishes when the structures and systems promote and reward innovation by stimulating and actuating creativity.  Just like governments create pursue macroeconomic strategies to foster innovation and entrepreneurialism (or on the contrary, structures to prevent them), schools need to nourish environments that encourage and stimulate innovation and entrepreneurialism, while 

What would this look like? Well, this is a thought experiment and not intended to be an unalterable plan of action so let’s imagine one possibility. The point of what follows is to have a platform on which to prepare the students practically and metacognitively for success in the incubator. It also helps to identify who may be well suited for the incubator but may otherwise not have self-recognized.

Perhaps we can start grouping students by interest as means of lubricating the process. The sad reality is that too few schools keep organic repositories of information about what students are into or curious about inside and outside schools. That said, we can perhaps bypass this lacuna by having the kids sort themselves initially. Perhaps we could set up open-ended challenges based on real problems and issues that the community (however defined) faces—generated by school staff, the greater community, and the students themselves—and divided into broad categories: Arts, Science, Engineering, Writing, Music… we are only limited by our imagination. Students would volunteer to tackle alone or in mixed-age groups based on what they found most interesting and personally rewarding**. The program would take place outside the traditional curriculum initially (after school or, even better, during time carved out in school) so as not to make too many waves in the beginning—unless you want to, of course. On a predetermined date, several months after launch, each team would present its respective solution to a panel consisting of experts and members of the community who are affected directly or indirectly by the chosen problem. The winner(s) would see the solution implemented and assessed for impact. Every team keeps a record of the process and solution for their personal and professional portfolios. Each team would have access to adult mentors (note this is important for what follows).

We then implement the “winning” solutions to each problem and create consulting teams to see each through, most likely drawn from the team members who provided the adopted solution. After completion, we assess how well each solution was able to meet its goals, comparing progress with the scope on which everyone agreed at the beginning (or changed along the way using an agile approach). This is the equivalent to the closeout stage of any consulting project.  Importantly, we measure impact by deriving a Net Promoter Score, which I believe to be one of the most effective forms of assessment for any project in education. We sustain the project for as long as possible, hopefully until its completion. 

We hold these competitions every year and see how they evolve. We document them through video and market through official channels and through under-the-radar approaches such as word-of-mouth, social media, and podcast episodes. Higher visibility will allow us to have more submissions of projects within the community, thereby providing more choice.

(I will ask in an upcoming blog whether curriculum is still relevant when we don’t know what the world will look like in 5, 10, 30 years. What will always matter is the ability and willingness to have positive impact on the local community. That is, arguably, unalterable, especially in a VUCA world.)

These types of open-ended challenges, with complete life cycles, are nothing less than junior replications of what happens in the professional world. They provide opportunities to lift the ceiling on creativity†, foster collaboration, encourage empathy††,and perspective-taking, and break down the silos of academic disciplines. They teach independence and interdependency, responsibility, accountability, promote leadership, and hone problem-solving. 

Once this largely extra-curricular program has gone through a few iterations (or just one?) and the students have developed a sense of what they can do (practically and metacognitively) and have been guided by adult mentors, it is time to set up an academic program to support the students’ learning and academic pathway. 

What if the students continued the above model in school, problem-solving full time or developing a product they would see to market (or whatever else we can imagine), as part of a parallel pathway (and “curriculum”) and were assessed on impact and how well they met their goals? What if, in order to graduate, they had to demonstrate mastery of diverse and progressively more sophisticated skills and used their projects as the vehicles for learning and honing these skills§? 

What if we set up an incubator inside the school to guide, support, and encourage learning and the production of things and ideas?

Within the incubator, each student would cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit and play a part in writing their own curriculum, but one that would hang on mastery of skills and application of content. The incubator would promote action over retention. 

As each student goes through their school experience in the incubator, they would continue to develop their ideas and products to address human-centered problems. There would be iterations and reiterations based on the success (measured through impact on the community, the self, the bottom line, or whatever else is decided by the stakeholders) of the idea or product. Problems would come at them or be self-generated. Students would be like consultants, product developers, artists, thinkers, composers, or anything and everything they chose. They would be guided by teachers and professionals along a true apprenticeship model. An expert from the world outside of school would bring a different set of skills, experiences and perspectives to the table, that would complement the pedagogue’s craft. Imagine if an architect collaborated with a math teacher to guide a student in designing a structure for the local community garden. What if, when the time was right in the learning cycle, a restauranteur and a science teacher collaborated, and then an art teacher and the architect again. The benefits of this kind of exposure for the student are endless. 

Let’s take a couple of examples. A student has demonstrated an interest in and certain flair for marketing, which has come out through a challenge posed around having to increase sales of kids’ bicycles at a local shop. This student could set up his own marketing business in the incubator. He would be hired (for free) by a local bakery to work on a marketing project. Through this business, the student could learn—from teachers and industry professionals—about colors (art, science), design principles (design, art, science, psychology), messaging (literacy, design, psychology, history), ethics, statistics, geometric reasoning (think of ad placements and their impact), accounting, economics… and of course baking from the points of view of chemistry (how baking happens), humanities (food production in history, the role of food in society, food as a motif in literature and film), biology (nutrition), physics (heat)… the list is only as short as we make it.

Another example: A student is passionate about robotics and has an idea to construct a solar panel that senses when it needs to clean itself in order to maximize the capture of energy. She would learn—again, from teachers and industry experts—about physics, coding, robotics, marketing, algebraic reasoning, geometric reasoning, literacy (reports, explanatory texts, argument formulation, research), design, arts (eye-pleasing objects always sell more than their equivalent unattractive ones, especially if they need to blend within the aesthetics of a house), and so forth.

And these lists don’t even cover the transferrable, essential skills that employers say they crave such as collaboration, creativity, problem-solving, synthesizing and applying knowledge, self-direction, resilience, self-motivation, agility, and so forth. 

Students would have a portfolio of authentic products and ideas as well as documentation and measures of the impact they had, even quantifiable measures such as NPS. These would be submitted as part of a university or job application. It’s no different from the certificate of employability the UK universities are providing upon exit. Instead of using grades to place bets on potential, admissions officers and employers would have a record of accomplishments much like what a professional brings to the table when she is interviewing for a job. 

Bring blockchain technology to the mix and everything changes.

This isn’t an action plan. It’s not a roadmap. It’s a thought experiment about possibilities, about starting conversations about what could happen. Of course, there will be contextual, administrative, and logistical hurdles, but is that not the case for every innovative endeavor? Let’s try something. As they say, it will be messy but worth it—because it would unlock possibilities for so many students. 

If you would like to continue this conversation with me, please, let’s get in touch.

* Dwayne Matthews refers to it as a Learning Lab. See the Meaningful Learning Podcast S2E2.

** The choices that the students made before the competition would serve alongside intra- and post-competition reflection as qualitative data about student interests. It certainly takes much more than this to build a robust and valuable repository, but it’s another entry point… as is just talking to kids.

†Creativity as the “blissful opportunity for the mind to exercise its autonomy, that magical power to concatenate images freely and to see within them a bristling expression of something intelligent,” which involves every area of human life. It’s unfortunate that creativity is so often seen as limited to the Arts. See this article.

††Human-centered design and Design Thinking  promote empathy by coming up with solutions to problems by seeking to understand the problem from the user’s perspective.

§Even schools that prefer to keep grade-oriented transcript systems could create their own assessments in each discipline. This may be slower going in the UK, Australia, and countries with similar systems, but the signals point to changes. Ultimately, unless one believes the curriculum to be canon, there is no reason we shouldn’t make sure it meets the needs of each learner. We have to teach what is, and will be valuable, to students, not what someone, somewhere brought down from a mountain. If it’s not worth learning, it’s not worth teaching.

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