(L-R) Ira Socol, Matt Shields, Minahil Amin, David Lourie, Sammi Rocker, Eric Siegel, and Chad Ratliff discuss the entrepreneurial mindset in the schools

Charlottesville High School physics teacher Matt Shields can remember the day his students already knew the content he wanted to teach.

“I felt like some of my power had been stolen from me,” Shields said of the class that had skipped ahead in the curriculum by watching YouTube videos.

Now Shields thinks of a teacher’s role a bit differently.

“We have to recognize that it’s a completely antiquated model for me to think that my job is to send out knowledge,” Shields said. “Now our job is to help students make sense of the information that’s out there, and help them build understanding and wisdom out of this deluge of information that they live in.”    

Shields’ experience marked a turning point in his career, and is representative of a shift in education where a teacher’s true challenge is sparking student interest. Doing so, however, is easier said than done, and was the subject of this year’s Tom Tom Founders Festival panel “The Entrepreneurial Mindset in Our Schools.”

Chad Ratliff, the panel’s moderator and Albemarle County Public Schools’ Assistant Director of Instructional Programs, drew a clear distinction between entrepreneurial thinking and entrepreneurship.

“Entrepreneurial thinking is thinking about solving a problem and taking the necessary risk to do so,” Ratliff said. “Entrepreneurship is taking something to market.”

To that end, Ratliff said Albemarle is trying to create a culture of entrepreneurial thinking within the division to improve student learning.

But it’s also a culture of risk-tolerance on the part of administrators, which means supporting your educators when a new style of instruction fails.

Ira Socol, Albemarle’s Design Program Manager, agrees.

“One of the things business leaders in the community have told us is that you have to celebrate everyone’s risks even if they fail,” Socol said. “You can’t just celebrate the successful risk, or no one will take them.”

One way of innovating, Socol said, is to spin content around student interests and give them choices.

While a teacher will continue choosing the books a class might read, he or she would stop expecting all students to express their learning in the same way.

“One girl created a charm bracelet that explained all of the parts of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Socol said of a class he’s worked with recently. “Others made food that was significant to a story.”

Small innovations like these, Socol said, often result in fewer classroom disruptions and increased student engagement.

Minahil Amin, a graduate student in public policy at the University of Virginia’s Batten School, said engagement is the key to active learning, which is the key to student ownership.

“The traditional model is still the lecture, and you might sit with your laptop browsing some site and you may or may not pay attention,” Amin said. “That’s a passive way to learn.”

“Ownership means you see a need and you take charge about how you’re going to solve it,” Amin added.

Sammi Rocker, a senior in Albemarle High School’s Math, Engineering, and Science Academy, said her project-based program has allowed just that.

“We’re able to take on multiple projects at the same time, and that requires prioritization,” Rocker said, adding that MESA’s emphasis on soft and hard deadlines allows students to learn at their own pace.

In addition to the panel’s agreement on how educators can innovate instruction, they also agreed that the current state of the accountability movement is standing in the way of growth—particularly the weight placed on standardized test scores as the most significant measure of learning.

“It’s pretty explicit to the kids that the reason they’re here is to take a standardized test,” Shields said. “It’s good that schools in Charlottesville and around the country are trying to figure out another way to do this.”

Rocker said as Advanced Placement test season approaches, the teachers are altering instruction.

“The teachers are only focusing on the tests,” Rocker said. “We’re taking practice tests, and that’s all we’re pushing out, day after day after day.”

David Lourie, Head of School at St. Anne’s-Belfield School, which is not subject to the Standards of Learning because it is a private school, said he noticed a similar task-oriented mindset amongst his senior class, who showed a majority interest in studying STEM fields in college because that’s where the jobs will be.

“It’s this idea of value being associated with the job you’re going to get, and that this is where the jobs are and this is where we’re going to make the money,” Lourie said. “We have got to get that out of the discussion.”

“I think there’s a lot of great discussion to have alongside STEM that talks about purpose and why we do things,” Lourie added.

Moving forward, Eric Siegel, the Director and Chief Content Officer at the New York Hall of Science, said that educators could help reinforce the notion that great innovations aren’t plucked from thin air.

“New ideas come from periphery of where old endeavors were,” Siegel said. “The exemplar of entrepreneurial thinking is looking at the resources around you…and understanding what’s already been done.”

Socol plans to keep providing students with choices, and supporting their ambitions.

“Our kids need resilience, but where they get resilience from is knowing they’re supported,” Socol said. “So we want to say to kids ‘Try it out, and if you fall down we’ll pick you back up.’ And I think that’s what we try to say to teachers too.”