Traditional education and entrepreneurship often pit against one another: you can either finish high school and get a college degree, or you have to drop out of school to found the next Facebook.
Author: Josh Collins, Founder and CEO of Quarter Zero
Entrepreneur and best-selling author, James Altucher, once said: “. . . the first thing I'll tell you to do is don't spend two hundred thousand dollars on a college degree and waste four years of your life.”
That may be true for some students, but that broad, blanket statement does a disservice to both traditional schooling and entrepreneurial curriculum—and ultimately, to the students themselves. As with most things in life, it’s not so black and white. Sure, for a small minority of students, it may make sense to start a company without finishing school. For others, completing school and following their own path (entrepreneurial or otherwise) from there is a better fit.
I believe that there’s incredible value in both forms of education—especially when they work together.
Traditional education teaches students the importance of innovation, critical thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, and taking initiative. A high school entrepreneurship curriculum gives students real-life opportunities to put the skills they’ve learned in the classroom into action.
When paired together, teaching high school students both a traditional curriculum and an entrepreneurship program not only offers opportunities to communicate, collaborate, and create; it also strengthens their confidence, encourages their creativity, and puts critical thinking into practice . . . whether they plan to be the next Mark Zuckerberg or not.
The skills learned through entrepreneurship encourage high school students to get started without instruction, to try new things without fear of failure, and to think bigger than solutions that may already be provided in a textbook—lessons that complement what’s being taught through a traditional curriculum and encourage students to pursue their full potential.
Finding the Answer AND Figuring Out Why
What is a traditional high school experience if not an opportunity to solve problems: math problems, science problems, sports problems, relationship problems? The entrepreneurial experience also exists because there are problems that need solving—but unlike in a traditional curriculum, these problems aren’t often well-defined with one right answer. A high school entrepreneurship curriculum not only helps students problem-solve by teaching them the skills to do so in many different real-world situations; it also teaches them to get to the root of the problem, gain new insight, test their hypotheses, and define why their answer is the correct one.
Problem-solving in entrepreneurship encourages students to truly understand the intricacies and nuances of the problem they’re solving and create a solution (rather than simply finding out a pre-designated “correct” answer) through new insights. It does so by encouraging rapid iteration—trying something, getting feedback, making changes, and slowly improving until you get it right—which allows for the exploration of many possibly correct answers and a greater understanding of why one is the best. And that’s a problem-solving skill that they can apply to building a new app or solving a Geometry proof.
Exposure to a New Definition of “Right” and “Wrong” Answers
Not all answers can be found in the back of the book—an important lesson that’s learned both through a traditional high school curriculum and through entrepreneurship. While a math problem, a basketball game, and a science proof all have a definite “right” answer and an end point, real life is not as neat. A high school entrepreneurship curriculum exposes students to this ambiguity, and offers new parameters to success beyond getting the “right answer” on a test. How? With entrepreneurship, students quickly find that sometimes you’ll get the wrong answer, but it will give you insight that points you to a better solution; other times, you won’t be able to access the “right answer” because it’s too expensive or you need to get buy-in from other members of your team. And sometimes, you’ll find the uniquely perfect right fit.
While a traditional high school curriculum offers a lot of opportunities to think critically and come up with the right answer, an entrepreneurship curriculum especially encourages critical thinking by asking students to consider new ways of looking at new and old problems—knowing that there could be many “right” (and many “wrong”) answers. And since the answers to these problems don’t exist yet, there is no opportunity to look in their textbook or on the Internet for the right one. Students get to create the solution.
Building the muscle of leaning on their own intelligence and intuition for answers is an important entrepreneurial skill, too—and it extends itself to every aspect of a student's life, including traditional lessons in a high school classroom.
Facilitating True Collaboration Within Traditional Teamwork
One of the greatest perks of high school is the connection, community, and socialization that comes from learning alongside peers. And all entrepreneurs know that their greatest asset is a smart team of people whose skills complement theirs. While life is a team sport, a traditional high school curriculum is often structured to encourage individual pursuit. Even during team projects, each student often claims responsibility for one part of the project and everyone combines their efforts at the end. The connection and collaboration is still lacking.
And yet, team-building is a naturally-developed skill in a high school setting, even if it’s outside of the classroom: friendships and cliques are born out of shared interests and daily interactions. Incorporating entrepreneurial skills into the traditional high school learning experience gives students a wider lens to witness the value of those connections. By implementing the practice of entrepreneurial skills into the classroom, these relationships move beyond a shared love of after-school sports or Snapchat filters—students quickly see how working with a broad mix of people (with different interests and skillsets) can help them brainstorm better, communicate effectively, and build supportive teams by combining their complementary skills.
Entrepreneurship is an impactful way for students to learn how to truly collaborate on team projects in school, in business, and in life—a skill that’s important now and even moreso once they graduate.
Encouraging Leadership Inside and Outside of the Classroom
High school is when most teens start to take a proactive role in their education, and in their lives. They’re responsible for their own homework assignments, for their grades and performance in extracurricular activities, and even for getting themselves to school on time.
Incorporating an entrepreneurship curriculum into high school classrooms augments the importance of being proactive and taking initiative. Because entrepreneurs are self-starters, too: they see problems or needs, and take it upon themselves to find or create the solution. They rarely wait for someone else to tell them what to do (or tell them what they can’t do)—they just get to work.
This can be difficult to encourage—and certainly to grade—in high school students. Even the brightest students often find themselves bored or unchallenged by a traditional curriculum that offers little space for new ideas or innovation. Letting students pursue projects that are more entrepreneurial in nature gives them the opportunity to take the lead and do just that: create something new with a mission and a purpose.
High school entrepreneurship programs encourage students to be leaders in their own lives, both inside and outside of the classroom.
Push for Passion-Based and Lifelong Learning
The best entrepreneurs are those that know they always have more to learn; the best high school teachers know (and encourage) this perspective in their students, too.
At the end of the day, getting up and going to high school every day is not about just memorizing the date World War I started in history, reading The Great Gatsby in English, or hanging out with your friends at lunch—though a few students might argue otherwise. Teachers know that leading a classroom is also about instilling a lifelong interest in and desire for learning, often by connecting directly to students’ natural interests and curiosities. It doesn’t stop after the tests are over or the projects are complete or you’ve walked across the stage at graduation. Well-adjusted adults—including and especially entrepreneurs—continue to learn throughout their lives.
Adding an entrepreneurship curriculum into the high school classroom highlights the importance of learning—in particular, around topics that students are curious, passionate about, and invested in—and cultivates a natural interest in it that lasts for years to come.
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Traditional high school curriculums have long been based on the idea that students must be given every opportunity to succeed when they become adults. High school entrepreneurship programs have a similar goal. And when combined together well, they offer students every resource possible to successfully choose their own path—whatever path they want—before they even get to college.
By implementing entrepreneurship alongside traditional high school curriculum, we’re giving students the opportunity to expand upon classroom-based lessons by solving real-world problems and offering them a tangible and important purpose in high school and as adults.
And there’s no better learning opportunity than that.
Interested in learning how to incorporate entrepreneurship into your classroom? Sign up here to get access to our “Zero to Pitch” Startup-In-a-Box Training. You’ll get five, one-hour lesson plans and additional startup resources to help you teach—and grade!—your students’ entrepreneurial efforts right away.
See case studies of high school entrepreneurs and high school startups to share with your students. Here's our 5 step guide for how to start a business in high school which is written for a high school audience.