Teachers Adopting an Entrepreneurial Mindset (TAEM)

As part of the work I’m doing for the Design Lab at my school, I’m reading a lot of books about entrepreneurial mindset. Currently, that means two books:

  • Seeing the Big Picture by Kevin Cope
  • Business Model You by Tim Clark, with Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur

I like them in conjunction with one another. The Kevin Cope book is definitely what we’ve learned to call left-brain, because it’s all so very wordy and verbacious and linear, even though it’s describing a very non-linear process. The Tim Clark book on the other hand is very right-brain-y, with lots of diagrams and photographs and sample images and forms to fill out, and questionnaires to fill out — although the questionnaires are as much left-brain linear as they are right-brain, the way these boxes are arranged winds up leading me into thinking about weird patterns and cross-curricular arrangements of information, and what does this thing over here have to do with that thing over there?

It’s all very powerful.

A bunch of my teacher colleagues from all over the country, perhaps all over the world, are currently at ISTE 2012. I hope they’re having a great time. It should be wonderful. Maybe it’s amazing. I went in 2008 or 2009 and had a very interesting time. ISTE is the International Society of Technology in Education — I gather that Sir Ken Robinson was the keynote speaker, and if you haven’t seen his TED talk at some point, you should.

The thing that impressed me most about ISTE, though, wasn’t the keynotes or the workshops, although I got a lot out of mine — and it made me want to incorporate wikis and blogs into my regular active practice as a teacher. No, the thing that got to me was the astonishing range of products and services available in the vendors’ area on the first floor, and the astonishing range of companies and organizations actively involved in siphoning money out of the schools, both public and private.

I can only imagine that it’s gotten worse, not better. It was also clear that companies like FableVision, concentrating on tools to expand students’ creative skills and mindset, were getting outclassed and outsold by companies that manufactured ever more complex content-delivery systems like SMARTboards and Mimios and Prometheus systems.

And I was immediately reminded of the Nuremberg Chronicle. Produced in 1490-91 in Nuremberg by one of the most prominent Catholic printers in Europe, this was a coffee-table-sized special edition of the history of the world. Albrecht Dürer did many of the illustrations, as did his master and many of his co-apprentices. It had maps and family trees, and year-by-year chronologies of most of the major events of the previous six thousand years, right back to the creation of the world.

The book bombed. It came out in 1492 at the Frankfurt Book Fair (still a major release date/location for, six hundred years later!) after a two-year lead-up in production. Two weeks before, Columbus had left for his first voyage of discovery; by the time he came back, the Chronicle’s maps and chronology were utterly outdated. The prestige clients the publishers had hoped to attract — archbishops, university libraries, kings, princes, prominent financial families — bought the book, but in insufficient quantities. They didn’t like type, and they didn’t like print. Manuscripts were the prestige books to own, not printed ones. The lower and middle classes couldn’t afford the Chronicle; it was too expensive. And by 1494, the book was outdated, and outclassed.

The middle classes could afford the cheaper versions of it produced by rival printeries, though: Books produced in quarto or octavo form, usually at a sixth or even a tenth of the price of the massive Chronicle, and without illustrations. Dürer’s plates and woodcuts for the chronicle began to find their way into cheaper documents, like broadsides and religious tracts.

The author that the Nuremberg printer turned down, in order to produce the vanity-press-like Chronicle? Martin Luther, the most popular and bestest-selling author of the entire 16th century.

Look, there’s no denying that educational technology is important. But it’s also become more than a little too Nuremberg Chronicle-like. It’s too expensive, and it diverts enormous amounts of resources from the students and teachers to the companies that service (or perhaps prey) on the educational system. It requires software upgrades and technical support and machine after machine after machine — more cables, and more wifi hubs and more… more… more. The prestige clientele have largely already abandoned the general public schools in favor of private or elite public institutions, though. The public schools are already not offering a product that the current elites want for their own children. And more big-ticket items are not going to help public or private schools succeed better at completing their (current) mission of producing better test-takers.

Because that mission, ultimately, is not in alignment with what the parents want for their kids. In fact, the only reason that home schooling hasn’t really taken off like a shot yet is that not enough parents really understand how much genuine harm these tests do to their kids. They’re being sold on a Nuremberg Chronicle-style education, replete with bells and whistles and Dürer illustrations and incorrect maps… And Khan Academy’s free software is just down the Internet aways. It may be wrong, but it’s cheaper.

Meanwhile, the private school kids are getting a different education. I won’t say better, just different. The teachers have fewer pupils, the students get a lot of motivation at home (because mom and dad could afford a new car for what this educational service costs for a year, or make a down payment on a house for what it costs for several years… and it’s not quite breaking the bank… yet… but a lot of the middle-income families are feeling the pinch, even with financial aid, because there are layoffs at work, and mom’s been home taking care of the kids, and orthodonty costs the earth, don’t you know?), and there are different kinds of accountability in private schools. There’s an exemption from a lot of testing for private schools, and that leaves more time for music and art and drama, the alleged “extras” of the western curriculum (even though they’re not extra, they’re core to the Western world’s imagination of itself… but that’s a different rant on another day).

Anyway, back to entrepreneurship, after a long but relevant detour. The point is, there’s all this educational technological hardware and software, which is largely about expensive hardware delivery. A digital whiteboard doesn’t do anything more elaborate than record pen strokes, really, or show movies — things that can be done much more cheaply with an iPad, a $40 dongle, and a digital projector. Or even more cheaply with an ordinary whiteboard and a cellphone camera. Or even more cheaply with an old-style chalkboard, and the externalized costs of the kids’ own cellphones.

The Nuremberg Chronicle guys thought they were going to make a killing marketing to the 1%-ers who ran things, never imagining that the whole business of making books was going to collapse in on the heads of the old landowning Catholic elite, and that publishing — honest-to-Gods books — were going to be the cheap new power base of the Protestants, the merchants, the city-dwellers and the financiers. Just like these edutech folks making elaborate devices such as clickers and Digital White Boards and the rest, though, the NC publishers misjudged the market badly. They’re producing elaborate machinery for public schools that can’t afford the tech, and for private schools that don’t have enough students or the pedagogical model to use the tech. The homeschool market will never buy this high-powered stuff, either — it fits neither their pedagogy nor their inclinations nor their pricepoint. And at means, sooner or later, it’s likely to be an oversaturated market.

On the other hand, there are a lot of you teachers who have specialized learning — what to teach, how to teach, and when to teach what to whom — who are in a position to start thinking entrepreneurially about teaching and about learning, and to identify the real markets in education. But that means starting now. Read some books. Write a business plan. Change your business plan. Research. Talk to people in school and out. What are you going to need to make it? To make it big? To survive? To thrive?

How will it help you? How will it help your school? How will it change your relationship with your students? These are not idle questions: school districts all over the world, but especially here in the US, are disempowering teachers, diminishing their credentials, damaging their reputations… what’s your overarching plan?


  1. Andrew, this is a most interesting post, as I sometimes wonder if my career in educational technology will turn into an extended curmudgeonly riff on “educational technology: you’re doing it wrong…”

    I’m only partway through my MSci, so these observations are only preliminary, but from where I sit, the landscape looks sort of like this:

    a) There are commercial hardware and software companies who can market themselves extensively to schools but whose offerings often cost far too much for many low-to-middle-income school districts (leading, in some cases, to “sweetheart” or “donor” deals which extract as much money for the corporations over a longer time by locking schools into a single platform).

    b) There is free and open source software (FOSS) which in some cases is superior to the commercial offerings –and therefore attracts very vocal partisans in some quarters. What these partisans seem not to understand, however, is that going all the way down the FOSS route requires considerable expense in IT staff who know how to support the stuff. (Not to mention, parents, teachers and administrators are unfamiliar with the paradigm and afraid of migrating children away from the corporate software they’ll encounter “in the real world”.)

    The real problem happens however with

    c) Many software and hardware designers are very good at what they do and can imagine their product (commercial or FOSS) being used to teach people like themselves. This is a relatively small demographic and the few members of it who concern themselves with “teaching” usually have a background in corporate training. Training, of course, isn’t the same thing as teaching. Information is chunked together differently and the desired outcome is usually something along the lines of “master this topic that your employer needs you to know about” as opposed to bringing students to real critical, independent and creative thinking skills.

    Which actually brings me to my meta-concern: we’re talking about education in terms of “entrepreneurship”. The dominant metaphors in late American Capitalist society are continually drifting to the language of business, markets and corporatism. The older, Humanist paradigms are being devoured by the shift to a commodified and reified entity called “Education” –which operates in the frame of business metaphors and ultimately serves the interests of Capital.

    I know that your work is part of a movement to bring teaching and learning onto another path. And almost certainly, the fragmented way I’ve had to fit my own studies around my job schedule make me more pessimistic than is warranted. But I think it’s not unreasonable to worry that the really good changes computers can make in learning environments are going to be swallowed by the Molech of commercialism…

    • Gene,

      You raise a lot of good points, and I’ve been hard-pressed for a few days to consider how to respond. You also talk about the issues in a clear and deeply philosophical way, which I’m about to condense and capture so that I can respond. If I’m wrong about what you’re saying, then what follows may be wrong, as well.

      If I understand you correctly, you’re saying,

    • (a) commercial hardware and software is often marketed to schools in ways that leave schools at a deep disadvantage;
    • (b) FOSS solutions require a greater investment in IT personnel and training, which most schools either don’t understand or don’t value; and
    • (c) a lot of ‘tech teaching’ in schools is actually ‘corporate tech training’ in disguise, and it rarely serves the underlying mission of the school, which is to teach critical thinking both about the tool, and how to use the tool to show critical thought processes.

      You then go on to point out that (c) is a real threat to education, because the older paradigms of education like humanism and the liberal arts are being swallowed up by the language of business. And here’s me — intent on talking about education in new ways — arguing about including business in the educational paradigm. Pessimism suggests strongly that I’ll be misinterpreted, misunderstood, mis-quoted…

      Or simply ignored. 🙂

      Anyway, to continue to my response. I think there’s two basic problems. The first is that the teaching profession continues to be staffed in large measure by people who have rejected business and business ideals, and have chosen a different measure to their lives: call it humanism, call it liberalism… it goes by a lot of different names, but in essence it boils down to agreeing to accept a call to service to the world. It’s not to say there aren’t greedy or incompetent teachers, or time-servers, or all the other kinds of faulty teachers that there are; but in general that’s the kind of people who go into teaching, and stay there. The trouble is that the people who manage teachers are more and more influenced by the language and models of business, and it becomes harder and harder for teachers to communicate with their managers. The managers can’t change their language or models or mindset — those mindsets are how they run schools’ interfaces with the rest of the world, which operates on a business mindset. So teachers have to at least understand that mindset, in order to be able to communicate.

      The second problem is a lot more serious, and that’s hinted at in your point (a), which is that schools are being gradually strip-mined of their wealth for the sake of technological infrastructure; and in your point (b), because the FOSS-aware IT people are constantly getting hired away from schools [I know, because this happened at my school in January]. So more and more schools are getting locked into bad mindsets because they’re losing the personnel game to the business world, and they’re losing the tech game to the business-minded corporate tech providers.

      This isn’t a sustainable model. At some point, quite possibly with people who are currently teachers, teachers and the schools in which they teach are going to be disaggregated — we saw it with the record industry, we’re seeing it with publishing and news organizations, and, as more ‘educational’/’training’ content becomes available online, it will happen to schools. It’s what the current discussion about an “educational bubble” is about, and the problem of the $1 trillion in outstanding student debt.

      The short version of this argument is, I don’t know that I want teachers to be thinking like business people. But I fear — yet believe — that they must, for the sake of their own personhood, learn to think in business terms and think about themselves as ‘in business’ in at least some ways, before that disaggregation really gets underway.

      This is a huge conversation, and maybe I’m being overly paranoid, but I don’t think that the school systems we have now are in any way guaranteed to survive as-is.

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