What Innovative Education Startups & Schools Can Learn from the Rise of Craft Beer

I follow the news feeds on topics like entrepreneurship and startups, but I focus on news related to the education sector. Recently, a different type of headline caught my attention, What Your Company Can Learn from the Rise of Craft Beer. I don’t even drink beer, but something caught my attention in the title. The writer explained that craft beer sales increased by 17.2 percent while “overall beer sales” dropped by 1.9 percent. These craft beer makers are not just imitating the practices of the big name beer companies. They show a spirit of cooperation with other craft beer makers,  experiment with beer in new and creative ways, are driven by founders with a true passion for the product, and they are (collectively) looking ahead. As I read these suggested lessons in the article, I couldn’t help but notice how they also apply to those breaking new ground in the education sector, whether it is a new education startup or an innovative school model.

Do More than Imitate the Big Names

Education is full of imitation. In the higher education sector, we have a history of organizations striving to be like Harvard, Stanford or one of the élite schools. In the K-12 sector, we have private schools that often do little more than imitate the practices of the public schools but with a varying levels of exclusivity. Also in the K-12 sector, we see schools constantly striving to do and be what is trendy at the time, sometimes aided by the force of mandates. I’ve also seen University schools of education that talk more about state policies and mandates than any of the current research or cutting edge developments in the field. Among education startups I see some of the most innovative work, but even there we see people wanting to be the next [fill in the blank]. There is nothing wrong with learning from other organizations (I certainly do that all the time), but there is so much need and opportunity in taking the road less traveled in the education sector. The largest organizations are not always the best to imitate, and some truly compelling and promising innovations in the education sector are difficult or unlikely to scale. That isn’t going to captivate venture capitalists, but there are plenty of other workable funding models. This is about more than finding a blue ocean strategy. It is about breaking new ground, exploring new possibilities, and creating new opportunities. As stated by Todd Henry in the Accidental Creative, “Cover Bands Don’t Change the World.” If we are going to nurture a craft beer equivalent in the education sector (both with startups and schools), that calls for original work, or at least existing work with some creative twists.

Embrace a Spirit of Cooperation with Others Education Startups and Innovative School Startups

Years ago, when I conducted a study of the ten traits of leaders in innovative schools, this is something that stood out instantly. It didn’t take a formal study to see that these people loved to share and collaborate. They were often quick to help others who wanted to do something similar. They embraced a spirit of openness, recognizing that they were in this for something more important than patent and financial profit. This doesn’t mean that they ignored the importance of financial or competitive realities, but it does mean that they were driven by a vision that, regardless of the finances and competition, led them to lend a helping hand, share, cooperate and nurture a broader community around their work. We see this in innovative charters, magnet schools, private schools, amid certain groups like democratic and PBL schools, and elsewhere. I’d love to see this expand.

Experimenting with Education in New and Creative Ways

The article pointed out the interesting experiments coming from craft beer makers. You can find chocolate beer, hot pepper beer, oyster, key lime, peanut butter, banana and a hundred other flavors. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a widespread market for an oyster stout, maybe not for any oyster beverage. Yet, amid these experiments are some truly promising discoveries. That same thing is true in the “craft education” marketplace. As I’ve written before, I do not advocate thoughtless experimentation on children. Yet, given that the product, service or environment meets some of the basics (although even that is debatable), there is ample room to experiment, especially when we invite the learner(s) into the experimentation, making it part of the learning experience.

Passion-Driven Work

I don’t want to confuse emotion with passion. While some definitions of the word focus on emotion, I think of it more in terms of the conviction and drive. What I’m thinking of here goes far beyond a specific personality type. This is about the extent to which people truly care about what they are doing and why it matters.  They are “true believers” and while there are many challenges, they find joy in their work, and they are driven to be a difference-maker. In the education sector, I contend that work must be driven, in some way, by a desire to do something of significance, that ultimately and genuinely benefits learners. I sometimes call this the “Mr. Rogers Mindset” and it consider it a non-negotiable educational innovators.

Looking Ahead

Tradition has its benefits, but as traditions become more established, there can be a resistance to ongoing exploration of how to respond or adapt to what is new. The author of the article on craft beer explains that this looking ahead and openness to embracing the new is more welcome and open  among craft beer makers than the broader beer industry. It is the same for educational innovators. This means working through or moving behind cliché statements about new developments. I still find people who assume that using technology is somehow less personal. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. There are others who resist any number of developments because they have an opinion about it, but they have not truly investigated the affordances and limitations. Looking ahead is not about adopting every new development or buzz word, but it is about keeping our eyes open, being really curious, and allowing ourselves to explore them without having our minds made up before we begin.

The “craft beer” equal in education is alive and well. We see it in new education startups, open source projects, new school starts and restarts, even in those areas with long traditions like publishing and higher education. These are movements not trying to become the next [fill in the blank], driven by leaders with a passion for their product or service, cooperative, forward thinking, and experimenting in interesting and sometimes unusual ways. Many of these are unlikely to ever become mainstream in education, but that is not always the point. They meet needs of a niche audience and they support of vision of education that is not fixed, one that realizes variety of options is a far better direction to universal standardization.