Building Educational Birdhouses & Social Entrepreneurship

What does it take to build a birdhouse? How about an educational birdhouse? That is a question that I’ve asked several audiences amid keynote presentations over the last year. I ask this question because I’ve found it be a helpful way to illustrate the role and importance of educational innovation.

When I ask the question, I prime the responses by showing a picture of an ordinary birdhouse. As such, the replies are always the same. It takes wood, a hammer, nails and/or screws, and a drill. The tools are standard as our vision of birdhouses is often standard.

Then I ask again. How do you build a birdhouse when or if none of those resources or available, or if you want to take advantage of other resources? Then I show a second slide, this time with a wide and wild range of designs. There is the discarded cowboy boot with a hole drilled in the side. There is the dried gourd. There might be a clay birdhouse or one made of a recycled can or bottle. Now, looking at these options, what does it take to build a birdhouse? This shift of images opens eyes to the possibilities in our thinking about education. What does it take to build an educational birdhouse?

The ultimate mission is largely the same, to build a birdhouse that serves as a house for birds. Lose that mission-minded focus and you can build wonderfully creative contraptions, but they don’t accomplish a compelling mission. As such, it is valuable to start with the mission, vision, values, and goals. Then we can assess how to best build it. With such approach, innovation becomes one of our greatest allies. Without a mission-minded focus, innovation can quickly move us toward chasing shiny things, the bells and whistles approach to educational entrepreneurship.

Now consider the role of policy and practice in education. If we start with the assumption that you build a birdhouse one way, and that way requires a hammer, nails, drill, wood, and the like, then we risk losing out on some wonderfully creative and impactful opportunities. This happens all the time in education. We crave clarity or a simple recipe, and we start with too many assumptions about what education should look like. So we build something that is largely the same as what we had before.

Then we establish policies, regulations, and standard practices that force others into the same type of educational birdhouse building. When we see rich and creative alternatives, the educational equivalent of the repurposed cowboy boot, we look with doubt and suspicion. Or, sometimes we try to regulate those groups back into more standard practice. If all that fails, we just label it “alternative”, unrealistic, not scalable or something that allows us to dismiss it as the exception to the rule that should dominate our work in education.

Steve Hargaddon recently interviewed me for Teacher Entrepreneurship week, and he asked me to provide my definition of teacher entrepreneurship in advance, a one-sentence description. I wanted something that added a twist on what I thought others might do. So I went with this: “Teacher entrepreneurship is a creative, radical, passionate, mission-minded pursuit of the unconventional.” Why creative? It is because entrepreneurship is usually about coming up with an idea and turning it into a business. Ideation is usually a key part of the entrepreneur’s mindset. The same it true for educational entrepreneurship. Why passionate and mission-minded? It is because entrepreneurship in the education sector is a form of social entrepreneurship. It is missional in nature, about using the tools of the entrepreneur to bring about a social good. To be a teacher entrepreneur is to have an educational mission and to be both passionate about and committed to that mission.

What about radical and unconventional? This comes back to the birdhouse analogy. Many of the challenges in education are more difficult to address because of the policies, practices, regulations, rituals, and standard practices that we have embraced. We get stuck on one way of thinking. If we could find a way to look at things differently, we could see a world of solutions or better ways of going about something. These policies and regulations were usually added for good reason, but over time they lose their value. They either serve no purpose or they become downright obstructions to addressing some of the greatest challenges and pursuing some of the most promising opportunities.

There are so many current examples. There was the “aha” moment about competency-based education that leads to great opportunities, but the expansion is stunted because outside agencies can’t figure out how to regulate it. Online learning is increasing access and opportunity in amazing ways, but in higher education, it is challenging to keep up with and comply to the shifting (and even competing) standards and regulations coming from various agencies. Personalized learning is serving diverse students but many still get stuck thinking about education as an act of mass distribution of content or standard instruction for all. Individual teachers see students with distinct needs and try to personalize the learning experience only to get their hand slapped by administrators or others because they ventured into a non-standard practice or something that doesn’t fit their existing model or framework.

As a result, there are many losers. Schools lose out on being as effective as they could be. They also lose amazing and innovative teachers who too often leave for places where they can better tap into their entrepreneurial spirit. Students lose out on great learning experiences. The world loses out on gifts and abilities not nurtured or discovered among students during their school years. Restricting ourselves to a single, standard approach to building educational birdhouses squelches potential in organizations, individuals, even entire communities and cultures.

At the same time, we are in a promising era in education because there are more people trying new and unconventional approaches to building educational birdhouses than any other time in history. There are experiments within the most regulated realms but also important education experiments that are incubated safely beyond the influence of many policies and regulations. This creativity and ingenuity is promising. It is a strength of modern education. Now our task is to help it spread. Let’s help nurture a world of crazy, unconventional, diverse and mission-minded educational innovations. Let’s resist the temptation to build a massive yard full of the same, standard educational birdhouse. This means letting go of the temptation to centralize and overly standardize. It means seeing the value in diversity and creativity; and accepting the fact that this will not be as easy to quantify. It is time for a new era of building educational birdhouses.