10 of the Most Inspiring Educational Entrepreneurs & Pioneers of All Time

There are many competing definitions for educational entrepreneurship, but to keep it simple, a successful educational entrepreneur is someone who demonstrates the mindset, attitude, and skillset of an entrepreneur to pursue and achieve signficant and positive outcomes in the broad field of education, often breaking ground on new products, practices, and perspectives. Note that this need not be limited to schooling. Education involves formal and informal learning, growth and development that happens in school contexts, but also that happens in the broader world.

There are countless models and sources of inspiration when it comes to educational entrepreneurs and pioneers, many of whom are not included in this list. Nonetheless, I offer the following as a good starting point. These are people who left (or are leaving) as lasting mark on education, and in my assessment, for the better. Consider sharing any suggested additions in the comment area at the bottom of this article.

Also note that this is not a top ten list, but the influencers are provided in chronological order.

10. Confucius (551-479 BC)

This list is an admittedly Western list and, as such, absent of many incredible educational entrepreneurs and pioneers from many cultures and civilizations. One of the more well know, however, is Confucius, whose philosophies continue to influence Asian education and thought today. Confucius (551-479 BC) represents the oldest and one of the most persistent educational influencers in this list. While I might not agree with all of his ideas or philosophies (as I don’t with any on this list), those who study his work and influence will find a truly holistic approach to education that included far more than curriculum and content. For Confucius, education included a complex and expansive plan for formation that extended across time and contexts. In fact, his vision for education, in some ways, parallels what many contemporary writers envision as they write and think about concepts like connected learning, even if they do not explicitly build their thinking on his work. In this way, his vision for education was far ahead of his time.

9. Socrates (470-399 BC)

This great philosopher in the Western tradition was an early champion for the concept that we sometimes refer to as academic freedom today. Further, his discussion and question-based approach (as described in Plato’s writing) became what we refer to as the Socratic Method, one of the most persistent and pervasive teaching methods across time and context. Today you can find champions of the Socratic Method everywhere from classical schools to the most progressive project-based and self-directed learning schools and communities. Of course, Socrates’ influence goes far beyond these two areas as well.

8. Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Some consider Martin Luther the father of modern education. He is most notable as the great protestant reformer, but he saw education as a key means of this reform. As such, he was an early champion for universal education for boys and girls, literacy for all. He, along with some of his contemporaries, can also be credited as early entrepreneurs with regard to the flipped classroom. Thanks to the parallel expansion of the printing press, Luther and others were early adopters of individual learners having texts (the iPad of the day) where they could study content outside of class and come to class for further exploration of the ideas. Luther was certainly not averse to a good lecture, but his embrace of the cutting edge technology of its day, the mass produced book, was certainly a pioneering effort in modern education.

7. Johann Amos Comenius (1592-1670)

This 17th century Moravian Brethren minister and educator was the predecessor to countless well known names in the annals of education history. His early vision for structures of education likely contributed to the modern schooling system as we know it in the United States (which is not necessarily a positive in my opinion). Nonetheless, he was an early champion for education across gender and class, was a serial founder of schools across multiple countries, championed systematic innovations in teaching, and pioneered the first known use of visual illustrations as an approach to language instruction, as demonstrated in Orbis Pictus. He was an philosopher, educator, school founder, learning theorist, and creator of a widely successful educational product that became a model for centuries.

6. Maria Montessori (1870-1952)

One need not look further than the massive number of Montessori schools today for her legacy and impact, but it extends far beyond that. Today the Montessori method and philosophy of education is finding its way into homeschooling, traditional schools, and more. We even find that some of the most well-known entrepreneur’s of our age received a Montessori education in their childhood. Among other things, her methods highlighted progressive learner independence in different areas of life, the importance of observation and following the child, the role of preparing a learning environment, and what she described as the absorbent mind.

5. Margaret Bancroft (1893-1986)

Bancroft was a 19th century pioneer for special education. She was instrumental in shifting public thought about the education of people with disabilities, and championed this work through advocacy, writing, and pulling up her sleeves to launch and lead schools for such children.

4. John Holt (1923-1985)

Holt (1923-1985) was an outspoken critic of modern schooling, arguing that it was corrupt beyond repair, became an outspoken advocate for homeschooling and later a variety of alternative education systems. His 10+ books continue to be influential reading for those who are advocates for learner-centered environments, and you can find his influence on everything from the modern alternative schooling movement to select higher education institutions, homeschooling, unschooling, and beyond.

3. Paulo Friere (1921-1997)

This Brazilian educator framed education as a search for and pathway to justice, equity, ownership, and identity. He made a powerful case and offered a compelling vision in what is arguably one of the most powerful education texts of all time, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In this text, he illustrated and defended the idea that education is never neutral, that it is deeply political and ideological, and never without consequence. His life work served to celebrate and nurture learning and communities of learning the resulted in greater freedom. Friere wrote that, “People are fulfilled to the extent that they create their world (which is a human world), and create it with their transforming labor” (145).

2. Fred Rogers (1928 – 2003)

The person behind the childhood television show, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, was much more than a television personality. He was a deeply principled and mission-driven person on a quest to leverage the cutting edge technologies of his day to share simple but profound messages with children near and far. He used music, skits, guests, modeling, a deep understanding of developmental psychology, and so much more to construct an experience that was formative in the lives of generation of children in the United States and beyond. For one of the most inspiring examples of an education startup “pitch”, his 1969 testimony to a Senate subcommittee.

1. Howard Gardner (1943-)

Gardner’s research on human intelligence and class text, Frames of Mind, truly changed the paradigm for many in the modern world as it relates to intelligence. It helped many escape the reductionist concept that a single number (an IQ) could adequately represent human intelligence, instead offering a more holistic view of the brain. Among other things, Gardner studied people with brain injuries to help isolate distinct intelligences ranging from musical to mathematical logical, linguistic to visual spacial, bodily kinesthetic to interpersonal and intrapersonal. While critics (and Gardner himself) have lamented misuses and misinterpretations of his theory of multiple intelligences, it has left a permanent mark on modern education, expanding our sense and awareness of human intelligence.

Beyond this core concept, Gardner went on to research and public on countless other topics, providing a steady stream of insights on everything from creativity to good work.

Conclusion

These ten each continue to leave a mark on education, and will likely do so long in the future, and there are many others that we could add to such a list. Regardless, I offer these ten as a small spark for your own role as an educational entrepreneur and pioneer, pursuing mission-minded innovation.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation; as well as Founder and CEO of Birdhouse Learning Labs. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

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