Since October 2014, 13 Toronto District School Board (TDSB) schools have been collaborating with MaRS to embed entrepreneurial thinking tools and techniques into their day-to-day learning strategies. Through five full-day professional development sessions, in-school demonstrations and visits from entrepreneurs, both teachers and students have been given an overview of the entrepreneurial process and have been challenged to adapt and apply it to their unique learning environments. On March 6, a diverse collection of teachers, students and administrators from these schools filled the MaRS Auditorium to share their experiments and experiences with this pilot program, which has come to be known as Entrepreneurial Thinking.

Over the course of 13 presentations, the potential of entrepreneurship as a framework for creative, student-led learning became increasingly apparent. While this simple blog post cannot possibly capture all of the richness coming out of this initiative, it can provide a glimpse of some highlights.

Different schools, different entrepreneurial thinking tools

The presentations made it abundantly clear that each school is finding unique applications for the entrepreneurial tools and techniques they learned about throughout the Entrepreneurial Thinking pilot.

  • Grade 7 students at the Duke of Connaught Public School are harnessing pitch techniques through a series of student-led social media campaigns.
  • Biology students at Northern Secondary School are using strategy tools like the business model canvas to investigate the context and scalability of their hypotheses.
  • Touchingly, Grade 8 students at Sir Ernest MacMillan Senior Public School are using customer discovery techniques to empathize with a woman suffering from multiple sclerosis and are rapid prototyping to design a new wine glass that will allow her to once again enjoy something that her condition has robbed from her.

The collaborative aspect of Entrepreneurial Thinking was also on full display. Cedarbrae Collegiate Institute described a cross-class collaboration in which physics students pitched the mechanics of new gravity-defying sports to a business class, which judged the merits of those sports according to the brand identities of the television networks they had researched. John Polanyi Collegiate Institute also cross-pollinated business with science. With the goal of increasing the school’s eco rating from silver to gold, they had science classes conduct experiments about energy use in the school, then brought in business students to craft a marketing plan to leverage the data these experiments generated. It was also wonderful to see that the multidisciplinary nature of Entrepreneurial Thinking was making a difference within the staff at participating schools. Joseph Howe Senior Public School stressed how this initiative’s focus on building diverse teams encouraged the staff to partner on initiatives that would have otherwise been done independently.

Schools using entrepreneurial thinking to effect positive change

Another prominent theme that emerged was the growing confidence demonstrated by schools. This confidence was tied to the realization that, with the right tools and mindset, schools can be a source of positive change rather than a place for passive consumption of content. John A. Leslie Public School worked with students as young as Grade 2 to identify problems with water in their community and had them prototype and test solutions. Queen Victoria Public School worked with their Grade 7s to investigate and design solutions to problems faced by Toronto’s Parkdale community. Humber Summit Middle School explored ways of improving mental health and nutrition for their students.

Several schools, including Runnymede Collegiate Institute, George S. Henry Academy, H.A. Halbert Junior Public School and Central Toronto Academy used the Entrepreneurial Thinking project to investigate, refine and more effectively communicate their school brands. Not only did these branding exercises provide lessons in self-assessment and creative multimedia communication, they also served a very practical function. On the heels of an announcement that TDSB schools are suffering from under-enrollment, the ability to creatively communicate a school identity is becoming an increasingly important recruitment strategy.

“I’m not failing, I’m iterating”

It was truly remarkable to see the wide variety of applications these teachers and students came up with for the entrepreneurial process. But in the midst of remarkable projects, there is one comment that stands out as particularly emblematic of what Entrepreneurial Thinking is trying to accomplish. It was uttered, half in jest, by a Grade 9 student. Struggling with a particularly difficult challenge during her project, she quipped: “I’m not failing, I’m iterating.”

What was so powerful about this comment is the fact that it reframes a problem and it is this ability to see things from a more constructive perspective that lies at the very core of entrepreneurial thinking. Successful entrepreneurs think of problems as opportunities and conduct research to challenge rather than confirm what is already known. They see projects as evolving processes rather than static products and understand that things that don’t work are learning opportunities and chances to iterate. The Entrepreneurial Thinking initiative provides exemplars, tools and language that can encourage these pivots in perspective.

Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, has identified pivoting as a fundamental component of innovation. He first described the concept in a short blog post titled “Pivot, don’t jump to a new vision,” in which he emphasized ongoing testing and iteration as the catalysts for entrepreneurial success. Organizations that can easily pivot, he argues, are “built to learn.” He refined his explanation of this concept in subsequent work, stating that a pivot is a “change in strategy without a change in vision.” Helping students and teachers become more flexible in their learning strategies without losing sight of the curriculum’s vision for academically robust education is the ultimate goal of Entrepreneurial Thinking.

The road ahead in entrepreneurial thinking

The TDSB has expressed its enthusiastic support for continuing to grow Entrepreneurial Thinking. We are also in talks with other school boards about getting this initiative into their water supply. The growing interest is highly encouraging, but it is not the only condition for the continuing success of the initiative. Fundamental to the scalability of Entrepreneurial Thinking is our ability to practise what we preach.

Throughout this pilot we have been gathering customer feedback from the schools involved, prototyping new lesson approaches and constantly looking for ways we can pivot its form, content and user experience. We are currently exploring strategies to better match entrepreneurs to schools and to more effectively leverage the unique skills those entrepreneurs offer. We are also considering options for a more intensive version of the program structured around a hackathon model in which teachers and students collaborate to solve problems that are unique to their school. Being able to better share the process and not just the products of Entrepreneurial Thinking is also an ongoing challenge that will continue to inform our pivots.

As we continue to grow this initiative, one thing is absolutely certain: we will try things that won’t work. This is what it means to learn like an entrepreneur. And as we examine what hasn’t worked and plan out our next pivots we will continue to draw inspiration from the words of a Grade 9 student who wasn’t failing, but iterating.

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Ryan Burwell

A teacher by training and entrepreneur by disposition, Ryan built his career by identifying and pursuing opportunities for innovation in the education system. He landed his first teaching position in 2004 by pitching a small liberal arts high school on the first of many interdisciplinary courses he would design throughout his time in the classroom. Based on the success of these courses, Ryan was asked to help launch Toronto New School in 2009. See more…