Classroom practice - Learning stalled? Try a start-up approach

Students are enthused by the dynamic, trial-and-error approach of new businesses, so inject some uncertainty into your lessons

It is 8am and a team of seven high school students aged 14-18 arrive to begin an important project. They get breakfast, then walk over to a table and work while they eat. One student pulls up a whiteboard and records suggestions, while another facilitates and organises the chaotic outpouring of ideas.

Five hours later, the same group is to be found at the same table. Except this time they have lunch next to their laptops, while they work individually or in pairs on smaller objectives.

Fifteen paces away, a team of five students is working on a different project; they look stressed. It seems they cannot agree on a strategy. Frustration abounds and a couple of mentors wave me over to join the intense debate. We discuss the different directions being considered, how they might align with each other and which ones are the most realistic given the parameters of the project. This helps, but only a little. The team is still frustrated and it is not until the next day that they experience a renaissance and come together to pursue one strategy.

Neither group's experience could be considered typical of school. There were no lessons as such. There were no classroom confines or timetable obligations. This was deliberate. What I had the pleasure of witnessing was an experiment to see what education would look like if schools modelled themselves on start-up companies.

Enterprising ideas

Startup Weekend EDU is a 54-hour event in which participants from various backgrounds - including business, education, design and programming - come together to form teams and build education-related start-ups to pitch to experts.

The experiment I witnessed took place because the organisation was for the first time hosting a special edition of the event specifically for high-school students in New York City. The 40-plus teenage attendees were provided with:

  • clear and strict guidelines and expectations;
  • 54 hours to bring an idea to pitch-readiness;
  • a warm-up session to get their imaginations working;
  • access to professional experts and mentors;
  • a full-time coach;
  • three meals a day;
  • office space and technological resources.
    • The results may surprise you. Students worked tirelessly - sometimes for more than 12 hours a day - and produced outputs of professional quality. One group even pitched their project at an educational technology event later that month.

      • There were other benefits, too. The students also:
      • leveraged the resources (that is, coaches, experts and mentors) sufficiently and effectively without being told to;
      • collaborated with other teams to help each other;
      • ate their meals as they worked when this became necessary;
      • failed over and over again but kept going and learned very quickly from the mistakes that they made.
        • Such was the success of the event that other schools decided to copy the format. For example, a group in Little Rock, Arkansas, put together a similar event called High School Startup Weekend in April, which involved students from several schools descending on the University of Arkansas' Clinton School of Public Service.

          Rachel Caffey, a student at eStem High Public Charter School, wrote about the weekend in a blog post. "One of my favourite things that I observed was the fact that the teams encouraged one another," she says. "They tweeted each other's surveys and switched contacts to reach a much wider audience for customer validation."

          Powerful motivation

          These events demonstrate, albeit in an isolated and anecdotal way, that the start-up model could drive powerful student motivation and create the conditions for outstanding performance in our school systems.

          Specifically, I believe the Startup Weekend EDU model worked for the students because they were given clear and concise objectives, three meals a day and the opportunity to focus on one project without interruption for hours at a time. They were also treated with respect, provided with access to a variety of experts from relevant fields and held to the highest expectations.

          Equally important was that they didn't have a fixed idea of what the finished product should look like, giving them the freedom to imagine it any way they wanted.

          These factors created a collaborative culture, empowering students to perform like professionals and to achieve complete absorption, or flow, in their activities.

          Before people start penning letters of complaint, let me point out that I am not advocating running our schools purely on the start-up model. They are responsible for preparing students for the next academic level or challenge, such as college or university, and it would be difficult to provide the required consistency of teaching in this way.

          However, what we can do is adopt certain features of the start-up model by providing meals, bringing in experts from different fields of industry, staying open for collaborative working out of hours and freeing up the timetable occasionally for this type of project.

          Try, fail and try again

          The start-up model also has lessons for the classroom. The element of uncertainty inherent to all start-ups was key to students' engagement with Startup Weekend EDU. Uncertainty means that there isn't one clear path to be taken; it suggests that trial and error is the rule. Uncertainty means students have to build, measure and learn all the time. When they do, they become comfortable with and learn from failure.

          You can use uncertainty in your own teaching. For example, in my algebra classes, I consistently create an environment of uncertainty simply by not confirming whether answers are correct or not. As a result, my students need to build, measure and learn various ways of arriving at the same answer in order to confirm and validate their results.

          As they work through each attempt, I ask them questions regarding the effectiveness of each approach. The goal of these questions is to challenge students to measure their attempts in order to compare and contrast them.

          Finally, I ask my classes to explain and defend (to pitch) the validity of their attempts so that they learn from their successful and unsuccessful approaches. Because "build, measure and learn" is more about making adjustments and improvements than it is about being 100 per cent correct on your first try, it is critical that I help my students to find something to build from, even in their incorrect solutions.

          You can trial methods of teaching with uncertainty by:

          • selecting a lesson for your experiment and identifying ways of creating uncertainty (for example, withholding answers or pertinent information, or providing abstract resources);
          • designing a lesson structure that will get the most out the uncertainty (for example, by using critical thinking questions, class activities and group discussions);
          • challenging students to defend or pitch their ideas, solutions and responses to determine whether deep learning and understanding were achieved.

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