10 Ways to Spark Innovation & Social Entrepreneurship in Your School

Imagine if learning organizations around the globe started to nurture thought and practice related innovation and social entrepreneurship. In Creating Innovators (2012), Tony Wagner proposed “Seven Survival Skills” to emphasize in our learning organizations. They include “critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration across networks and leading by influence, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurship, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, along with curiosity and imagination.” Few of these typically show up as distinct titles of classes, but it doesn’t take much convincing to recognizes that these are valuable traits in the contemporary world, traits can can help people: affect positive change in the world, benefit others, increase one’s employability and value in the workplace, that serve one well as an active citizen, and that help people develop high levels of human agency and self-direction. What if learning organizations were known less for tests and homework, and more for being places that empower difference making and positive change agents?

Are you ready to get started? If so, here are ten ideas. Most of these are simple projects and strategies that any willing school (K-12 or University) could add. I left out the efforts that require larger financial investments, instead suggesting strategies that most willing learning organizations could launch in the 1-12 months.

1. The President’s (or Principal’s) Challenge – Harvard does this annually. The President identifies a global or social challenge and invites groups of students across the campus to engage in entrepreneurial efforts to address that challenge throughout the year. There is a launch event, mentors to work with interested students (yes, we might not all have a staffed Innovation center for such a project, but we can improvise), times to share and celebrate the work of students, along with an annual winner. This could be replicated in elementary schools, high schools, flagship state students, or smaller liberal arts colleges.

2. Missions over Majors – Sarah Stein Greenberg vast a vision for a future University where students declared missions to solve problems in the world instead of declaring traditional majors. That would not be a quick or easy change, but we could still include the spirit of the idea. Colleges could allow students to declare a mission instead of a minor, allowing them to create a personalized learning plan that helps them pursue that mission. Or, what if students or groups of students in K-12 education had an annual challenge of identifying a personally meaningful mission and pursuing it throughout the year, keeping a portfolio of their learning and progress. This could even be included as a “course” on their transcript.

3 . Tell the stories – There are so many amazing stories to tell and innovation in service of society, about social entrepreneurship. Find them and invite those people into your school to share their story with the students. If they can’t make it in person, bring them in via Skype and Google Hangouts. Simply being a place that values social impact storytelling is a great way to ignite the passions and interests of many young people.

4. Make Why a Top Priority Across the Curriculum – Start framing “Why do we need to learn this?” answers around how knowledge and skill in each discipline can benefit society. How have people in the past used math, history, or biology to benefit the world? How can our knowledge and skill help? This is in contrast to answers that are more about schooling than society. We don’t learn math so we can be ready for the math in college. We learn math so that we can use mathematical thinking to solve real and important problems in our lives, the workplace, and the world. Give examples. Challenge students to find these examples.

5. Create Dedicated Community-based Learning Courses – I first learned about this one at a conference presentation from someone at Dominican University. Faculty can identify certain sections of a course as a community-based learning course. It has the same course-level outcomes as other sections of the same course, but this designation means that part of the learning will take place in and through community-based service learning. In other words, you can take some art, psychology, history, or science classes that not only teach you about those subjects, but they do so, in part, by having you use that budding knowledge to help with a community issue. Students can opt to sign up for these courses or more traditional versions of the course.

6. Turn a Course Project into Engines for Addressing Social Needs – Maybe a school isn’t ready to create full community-based learning courses, so why not try it on the assignment level? Create an assignment in a class where students propose or seek to create proposed solutions to real-world social issues. You can even launch the event with a quick field trip to see the problem in person, or by having a community representative explain the problem. Help students learn how to ask good questions, research and investigate, and then use what they are learning in the class to solve the problem.

7. Use Case Studies and/or CaseQuests – Students are challenged use their knowledge in a subject by analyzing real-world case studies. This helps students see the relevance of what they are learning, but case-based learning also focuses on helping them be able apply to use that knowledge in contexts that they are likely to experience beyond the classroom and school. This is one of those methods that be used in kindergarten through graduate school.

8. Internships and Shadowing – Many colleges and Universities have opportunities like this, but why not make an effort to build partnerships and create opportunities with groups and people working on social issues in the world, whether this be non-profits or for-profits with a for-benefit mindset?

9. Teach Social Entrepreneurship Skills – This might entail an elective course on social entrepreneurship for interested students, or even a commitment to teach about social entrepreneurship and related skills across a major or the curriculum. Regardless, if we are serious about this idea, we might want to find a way to include it into the formal curriculum. Here is a great collection of resources to get started.

10. Build Connections with Outside Groups – There are a growing number of events and groups dedicated to social entrepreneurship. Connect with and learn from them. Participate in social entrepreneurship challenges that are open to the public and schools. Connect with groups like the social venture network, Changemakers, The Social Enterprise Alliance, the Social Enterprise Association (focused on Singapore but great resources), or the countless social entrepreneurship groups, programs, and efforts in colleges and Universities. While we are talking about entrepreneurship, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Network, collaborate, and building meaningful connections with other groups who might have people or resources to help your local efforts.