Building a 'Startup Culture' in Schools

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For most, start-ups and school districts couldn’t be more different. One is constantly changing, trying new things. The other is stuck in time, mandating a one-size-fits-all solution for unique situations.  In the Albemarle County School District, we see things a bit differently.

At Albemarle County Schools in Virginia, we’ve come to support both district and school-level “skunkworks” innovation and design teams. By encouraging an entrepreneurial mentality in our schools, we are constantly exploring new kinds of learning spaces and pedagogies.  We are integrating digital technologies in meaningful ways and expanding the portfolio of customized, intra-district program options.

What School Districts Can Learn from Start-Ups

Visit Albemarle County’s 726 square miles and you’ll see 26 schools with very different identities.

That’s why we support an alternative approach, one that recognizes the value of grassroots--rather than top-down--research, design and development work in our schools.

We believe entrepreneurial thinking is critical to driving organic, meaningful change. We face the future boldly, reversing the traditional risk-averse culture of many school districts to create one where educators at every level are willing to break traditions and take instructional risks. We believe the startup mentality offers a good model to support educators in accomplishing that. Here is one way we build an entrepreneurial culture within our district walls.

Start With Connected Educators

In the world of contemporary technology, one key ingredient is connectivity. It is both a fuel for a startup mentality and a by-product of the startup process. We skype, tweet, facebook, blog, and google hangout within schools, across the district, and outside the boundaries of our local community.  We find resources, explore expertise, share ideas, ask questions and engage in research that allows us to create new pathways for our learners to sustain curiosity, creativity, passion, and enthusiasm in their own learning.

Connect With The Outside

We also think it’s valuable for our educators to experience a variety of learning environments--other Pre-K-12 schools, universities, hospitals, museums, businesses, art galleries, cafes, playgrounds and parks--to gather new ideas and consider possibilities that we might not have on our own radar screen.

Yet we know we can’t afford to take every Albemarle educator to visit those sites. Connectivity provides a new, effective pathway for educators to pursue potential ideas that might result in grassroots invention, design, and innovation of work with contemporary learners.

It started with the Maker Movement. We began to explore the Maker Movement several years ago as a perfect dovetail with our efforts toward a student-centered educational model.  Through this, we became aware of Maker Faire.  

We found it easier to connect with other risk-takers via Twitter than with more traditional communication avenues. Email sometimes gets lost in the avalanche that clogs our inboxes today. Phone calls never make it through the office hierarchy of those outside the district with whom we want to connect. But a tweet can usually gets someone’s attention.

And that’s how we found Dale Dougherty. Dale led us to @makeredorg, itself a startup that spun out of MAKE in response to a children as makers movement spreading across the U.S.  As we studied the movement, we could see the value of make-to-learn work its way into education, allowing young people more experiences for hands-on work, problem-solving, and connecting with others. This caught our attention because it was consistent with our district’s vision to educate children as lifelong learners, not standardized test-takers.

Design Something New

This year, we offered startup design funding to 26 schools in an effort to make transformative learning go viral across 726 square miles. Schools essentially shared proposals with a central team, receiving feedback and eventual funding. Several elementary schools wanted to transform the traditional summer school into a make-to-learn program, experimenting with the hopes of implementing the model into the general curriculum.

As we connected staff with makered.org, we found the opportunity to be a part of Maker Corps--recruiting and selecting interns to help us run maker school summer programs. We reached out across our professional learning network (both face-to-face and virtual) and found college and post-high school students who were interested in being a part of maker corps. The prospective interns posted video portfolios to youtube. After selection, they participated in eight weeks of virtual maker ed training to prepare for working with elementary children in our “start up” summer maker schools. We also reached out via twitter to the folks running the Tinker Lab at the Chicago Children’s Museum and sent an elementary teaching team there to learn more about setting up

Results

We see connectivity as key to a startup mentality across Albemarle County Public Schools. And this start-up mentality has delivered results.

We’ve engaged in research and development to bring three middle school mechatronics labs to reality, a return to fostering the natural maker spirit of our young people while adding a contemporary technology “attitude” into the mix. Kids in these programs use Arduinos, K-nex, Maker Bots, and other techie tools along with traditional saws, hammers, and other construction tools. In our STEM high school test-bed academies, teachers are experimenting with flipped classroom strategies, case studies, design challenges, take-it-apart opportunities, real-world internships, and transdisciplinary curricula. This past year, a diverse team of students at MESA entered an international sail-bot competition traditionally for college students--and took first place.

We believe in our work to create a startup culture in our schools. We see connectivity--face to face, across school communities, and beyond our county boundaries--as integral to our startup culture. Connectivity offers opportunities to unleash the potential of our educators as they develop as designers, creators, builders, engineers, and makers of learning.

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