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What Can Schools Learn From Startups?

There's a growing consensus that our education system needs a fresh blueprint.

It's not just about refining the curriculum and pedagogy; we must also rethink the very framework of how schools operate. More often than not, both public and private schools are entrenched in systems that resist change and maintain standardization. But what happens when schools take a leaf from the startup handbook?

Over the past three years at School of Humanity, we've been operating at the intersection of education and entrepreneurship. Our dual role as both a school and a startup has empowered us to overhaul traditional school operating models.

Here are some of the guiding principles that we have learned that any other school can take on as they transform their practices.


The Lean Startup: Using feedback Loops to Improve the Learning Journey

The Lean Startup methodology, introduced by Eric Ries, is a systematic, scientific approach for creating and managing successful startups (or any venture) in conditions of uncertainty.

The primary goal is to eliminate the waste that comes from building products or services that no one wants. Central to this approach is the concept of the "minimum viable product" (MVP), a basic version of a product or solution that is designed to gather user feedback swiftly to then inform pivots or improvements. This feedback forms the basis of the Build-Measure-Learn loop.

Build-Measure-Learn loop

In the context of a school, educators and school leaders can utilize the Build-Measure-Learn loop to identify the pain points of learners, rapidly prototype innovative solutions, implement, capture feedback, and re-iterate. Instead of assuming what teaching methods or content will resonate, we can use data from the learning experience to validate hypotheses about effective teaching and learning over time in an agile way.

Beyond a “Minimum Viable Product” (MVP), consider the concept of a “Minimum Lovable Product” (MLP). When designing a minimum viable solution for your school, it's not just about creating something that 'works' or meets basic requirements; it's about crafting an educational experience or tool that resonates deeply with learners.

Embracing Failure: Cultivating a Culture of Experimentation and Innovation

In the startup world, failure is often seen as a stepping stone to success, an opportunity to learn, and iterate. This “fail fast” approach is a natural byproduct of adopting agile development and the lean cycle.

Schools can adopt this mindset by emphasizing the value of making mistakes within the teaching and learning journey. Educators and leaders can be encouraged to pilot innovative pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment models. Furthermore, rather than penalizing learners for wrong answers, educators could incentivize attempts, reflections, and course corrections. Learning journeys can be organized around analyzing 'failed' projects to extract lessons and insights.

By embracing the “fail fast” philosophy, schools can create environments where all stakeholders view challenges as growth opportunities, fostering a community who are not afraid to explore, innovate, and adapt.

Consider developing an experimentation tracker, where educators, staff, and leadership can identify hypotheses for innovation and experimentation, and then apply the lean cycle to test and iterate, and capture “lessons learned”.

Data-Driven Decision-Making: Dashboards to Optimise Learning Outcomes

In the best-selling book, Exponential Organizations, Salim Ismail, Michael S. Malone, and Yuri van Geest explore why some organizations are able to achieve and manage astounding growth in today's rapidly changing world. The book identifies the defining characteristics and structures of organizations that grow at exponential rates while creating incredible value for their customers or users.

One of those key characteristics of exponential organizations is the use of dashboards and interfaces. In the context of a school, these dashboards could offer a holistic view of both individual and collective learners’ progress, identifying trends, strengths, and areas of concern.

For both exponential organizations and schools, dashboards, and interfaces are essential in navigating the data-rich environments in which they operate. They centralize and visualize data, enabling informed decision-making. It’s important to note that these quantitative dashboards should be supplemented with qualitative insights from educators and leadership

In schools, dashboards facilitate tracking of learner progress and resource allocation, while in exponential organizations, they aid in scaling and adaptation. Both settings benefit from streamlined operations and enhanced user experiences.

user experience

No-code tools such as Airtable allow anyone to consolidate databases and create visual dashboards to capture their key takeaways. Every school leader and educator should have access to data dashboards on the learning experience and outcomes to make data-driven decisions.

Community Engagement: Learning Experiences Beyond the Classroom

Startups often engage with their communities, be it for feedback, support, or collaboration. Schools can similarly benefit from stronger ties with their local and global communities, which can offer resources, mentorship, and real-world experiences for learners.

For instance, at the School of Humanity, every term cumulates with micro-internships with pioneering organizations, and learners receive mentorship from industry experts throughout the term. Learners also learn from masterclass speakers throughout the term. This not only allows learners to apply their knowledge in practical settings but also nurtures essential soft skills like communication, teamwork, and problem-solving. Learners also have the opportunity to evidence their learning and receive credit from experiences “outside of school” whether it be community service, external courses, or conferences.

We encourage schools to create time in the schedule for guest speakers, mentorship, and/or project-based learning to emphasize the development of practical skills. Whether it’s one hour a week, or one hour a month, a small step in this direction can lead to meaningful improvements in the learning journey and outcomes.

Schools as Catalysts of Innovation

When school leaders, educators, and staff adopt an entrepreneurial mindset, this has a knock-on effect on the mindset of learners. The entrepreneurial mindset isn't just about starting businesses; it encompasses resilience, adaptability, problem-solving, and innovation. By modeling these skills, educators provide learners with a lived example of how to approach challenges creatively and see failures as learning experiences.

Fostering this entrepreneurial spirit can equip both learners and educators with the confidence to pursue their ideas and passions, turning schools into a place of catalysts for human progress.

Written by Raya Bidshahri, CEO and Founder of School of Humanity