How Lean Startup Is Changing High School Education

Lean Startup Conference LogoThis post first appeared on the Lean Startup Company blog, where I blogged about Lean Startup in the high school in anticipation of my IGNITE talk.

All across the world, educators are seeking ways to better engage students and prepare them for life after high school. In poll after poll, students tell us that their education doesn’t seem relevant; they don’t see a purpose behind the daily grind, the homework, the standardized tests.

For some, Lean Startup is a part of the solution.

The Problem

So, what is it about high school that disengages students? Take a look at most high school classrooms across America, and you’ll find the answer. Students sit chair behind chair, desk behind desk, in a seemingly endless matrix, wall to wall, while at the front of the room, a teacher commands the class and delivers content, only stopping to answer the occasional question.

Teamwork is practically unheard of, and students are asked to memorize formulas and historical dates to regurgitate on tests that will rank them within their class, school, and the entire national education system.

Students aren’t ignorant, though – they see the difference between the education system and what the “real world” looks like. They want an education that will set them up for success in life after high school, not one that will deflate their creativity year-by-year, until their only hope is to graduate and go to college or get a job.

We must give students a better system, one that is deserving of their time, efforts, and talents.

Coaching Up the Classroom

Noble Impact Scholars
Noble Impact scholars choose words that
resonate with them about the entrepreneurial journey.

What would it look like if we flipped the classroom equation and put students at the center of their education? What if we challenged students to determine the course of their own educational journeys, to customize it based on their interests and the problems they ultimately want to solve in the world? Instead of teachers, we’d act more as coaches, facilitators of learning.

Students at Noble Impact take a purposed-based approach to their work, and they frequently ask, “Why?” We train students to dig deep – whether they are in the classroom, at one of our out-of-school events, or at home – to question the purpose behind what they’re doing. When students see the purpose in their work, they find relevance, and they’re excited to contribute.

The Lean Canvas and Lean Startup methodology have been invaluable tools for those exercises.

Applying Lean Startup to the High School Setting

Opportunity Gap Event
Noble Impact scholars Greta Kresse and Olivia Fitzgibbon white board
at an event about challenging the existing opportunity gap in education.

Lean Startup as a business development philosophy prioritizes speed and learning over perfection – it asks the entrepreneur to define success in terms of “learning how to solve the customer’s problem,” as Eric Ries, author of “The Lean Startup,” puts it.

Lean Startup, then, is a natural fit in a project-based learning environment, where students are challenged to work on projects in line with their interests and the problems they want to solve. Lean Startup teaches students to focus on people, to understand what a customer is and how to solve his or her problems.

Instead of sitting in chairs all day long, students are asked to “get out of the building” to do customer research, define a problem, build MVPs (minimum viable products), and validate the assumptions their business models rely upon. Students aren’t used to adults handing over the reigns, but with the right facilitation, students can and do shine when they’re asked to build, measure, and learn.

Building Noble Impact Initiatives

At Noble Impact, students work in many different environments with Lean Startup methodology, both in the classroom and beyond.

Last year, in partnership with the Clinton School of Public Service, for example, we launched the country’s first-ever High School Startup Weekend, devoted solely to high school entrepreneurs. With 80 student participants in grades 9-12, the event saw ideas that included an online homework management tool, a portable storage locker company for outdoor events, a nail polish pen, and a “don’t forget your cell phone” smartwatch app, among others.

Innovation isn’t just an after-hours affair, though. Students also work on business ideas in class using Lean. At eStem Public Charter Schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, for example, Noble Impact scholars work with local businesses and on their own ideas, interviewing customers, mocking up MVP ideas, and actually building their own businesses. In fact, we currently expose Lean Startup to students in grades 5-12 and will soon expand all the way to kindergarten.

Bolstering High School Entrepreneurs

Sydney Brazil Noble Impact
High school entrepreneur Sydney Brazil founded her own “donut holery”
called The Hole Thing through her Noble Impact coursework.

High school entrepreneurs are treated as rare creatures in our society, probably because we crush the creativity out of them in their day-to-day schoolwork. I get to work with a lot of fresh minds through Noble Impact, though, and we teach them that anyone can contribute to society or solve a problem, as long as they’re willing to put in the work and research.

I’ve had particular glee watching one entrepreneur, Sydney Brazil, flourish in our entrepreneurial environment. She used Lean Canvas to turn her idea for a donut hole business into a reality by founding The Hole Thing, Little Rock, Arkansas’s first “donut holery.” She makes the most delicious donut holes to ever grace the earth, from lemon lavender to chocolate chip cookie.

She started her journey much like any other entrepreneur twice her age (she was 15 when she got started) – she built a business plan, pitched at some local startup pitch competitions, caught the eye of potential partners, and launched a minimum viable product. Instead of buying a store location and setting up shop, Sydney went lean. Her MVP came in the form of a partnership with local restaurant Copper Grill, in which her company’s donut holes appeared on the restaurant’s dessert menu, alongside their house ice cream. Copper Grill also let Sydney use their professional grade kitchen to prepare the holes. The partnership enabled her to test her concept for donut holes, see if there was actually demand, and collect sales data about which donut holes were selling better. Build, measure, learn.

In Sydney’s words, the “grown up business community” has completely embraced her, Copper Grill and beyond. That’s what excites me as an education reformer. We need more connectivity between students and their communities, because business leaders and mentors are the ones who open up opportunities for students to learn and get experience. When a student has an idea for an MVP through a Lean Canvas exercise, it is local community that can help make that plan a reality.

Lean Startup Around the Country

Hawken Entrepreneurship Educators Workshop
Entrepreneur and educator Jeanine Esposito presents a Business Model Canvas
at Hawken School’s summer entrepreneurship educators workshop.

Noble Impact isn’t the only organization teaching Lean Startup in the K-12 education system.

DECA, one of the largest co-curricular student club organizations, rolled out the Lean Canvas this school year for all of its state and national competitions related to entrepreneurship. Students used to write full 20+ page business plans, and now they’re going lean.

Likewise, educators at Hawken School, a private PS-12 school in Gates Mills, Ohio, is one of the first organizations I’ve worked with that not only teaches students about Lean Startup, but also trains teachers from across the country how to use and teach Lean Startup in their own schools. This summer, Hawken educators Doris Korda and Tim Desmond held the first-ever Hawken School Educators Workshop for Entrepreneurial Studies at Babson College and made sure that each educator left having built at least one Lean Business Model Canvas.

Preparing Students For Their Futures

I strongly believe that it is our duty as world citizens to make sure that our children have the best education possible, so that they are prepared to thrive in an ever-changing society after they leave the halls of their hometown high schools.

From what I’ve witnessed, there are educators all across this country, focused on changing the education system, so that our students are prepared to not only thrive in, but also change the world.

Lean Startup, for many students, is the catalyst that gets them engaged and on that path. I encourage all educators to give it a try and to consider what it means when we ask students to take the reigns of their own educational journey. To build, to measure, to learn, and to rise to their fullest potential.

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