What Does It Mean To Bring Startup Principles Into Professional Learning?

As a former teacher, I know it’s taboo, almost sacrilegious to mix together business and education. So before we begin, let’s address the elephant in the room. Bringing startup principles into professional learning has nothing to do with starting a business or making money. It has everything to do with supporting teachers so they actually get the opportunity to implement the many great ideas they have to improve teaching and learning for their students. 

The reason I’m now a former teacher is because I became a bit demoralized by how we as teachers were treated. It was frustrating to see gaps in the education system and have clear ideas on what you could do for your students, if only you were given the opportunity.

Even more frustrating was to sit through seemingly endless training sessions that felt like we were always adding more to our plates instead of using that time to solve the problems that already existed. 

Then the lightbulb clicked for me – wouldn’t it make sense if we used professional learning time to solve problems? What if we got away from ‘seat time’ and were given credit for working on our ideas to improve teaching and learning for our students?

That’s where the startup world provided inspiration. The startup world sounds more abstract than it really is. The reality is that it’s just groups of people who come together because they’ve identified a problem (in their work, in their personal lives, in their community, in the world) and they want to do something about it. These groups don’t necessarily bring in ‘experts’, they don’t pay for speakers; they just take the time to sit together, collaborate, and support each other as they develop their ideas.

In a world that’s changing fast, we need to be able to adapt teaching and learning faster than the system allows. From our experience as trainers, we know teachers are thirsty to do more, to improve teaching and learning, and to improve education in general.

If we could just use professional learning to collaborate, to address pain points in the classroom, and to try out the many great ideas teachers have we’d end up with personalized solutions that could  truly address the needs of all the students we teach.

So what does this actually look like? 

One tool that made the startup world explode was a document called the Business Model Canvas. This interactive one pager provided enough structure to any working group/workshop, because going through it forced people to ask themselves the questions they needed to think through to see if their idea had value and to test it out. You could simply print it out and that was enough to get you going. 

Using the Business Model in Professional Learning

We attempted to do the same thing by creating an Educator Canvas. This one page document provides all the questions you might need to think through to go from idea to implementation. There’s no ‘right’ way to do it. It’s simply created to give a bit of structure as you work solo or with a team to go from problem to possibility. Start with the most pressing pain point holding you back in the classroom, leave with a solution you can try out tomorrow. 

professional learning

For instance, a technology director for a district in Iowa was told she needed to ensure teachers were successfully implementing tech when their district switched to remote learning.

Instead of telling teachers what they had to do, she showcased some best practices that then posed the challenge to teachers “How will you implement a first class remote learning experience for your students?”. Using the Educator Canvas, teachers were able to personalize tech integration and pedagogy in a way that was authentic to them and that best met the needs of their students. 

Bringing startup principles in professional learning is more of a mindset than a specific process. It’s the difference between using professional learning time to tell teachers what to do versus using that time to work with teachers to support their ideas. Any workshop or program that puts teachers in the driver seat and empowers them to collaborate and make professional learning better is startup style.

We created the Educator Canvas to help you on your journey, but there’s no one-size-fits-all formula towards problem solving and innovation. The main ingredients seem to be trust, encouragement, and time for collaboration. By allowing teachers to think through their ideas, their purpose, and their goals, they will realize their vision for learning, and in turn, bring about the best possible outcomes for our students. 

Edu Canvas Examples

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Michelle Blanchet
Michelle is a former social studies educator working to improve how we treat, train, and value our teachers. Michelle is the founder of the Educators' Lab, which supports teacher-driven solutions to educational challenges. Michelle is also the co-author of the book, The Startup Teacher Playbook.

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