Reinventing Education To Teach Creativity And Entrepreneurship

We don’t need to memorize things any more, but we still need teachers to guide our students toward learning the best ways to problem solve. The question is: How do you measure that?

As you read this, students all over the country are sitting for state standardized exams. Schools spend up to 40% of the year on test prep, so that, shall we say, no child is left behind. Schools’ futures and funding depend on the number of students who fall into performance bands like "Advanced," "Proficient," and "Approaching Basic" based on bubble sheets and number two pencils.

This piece is part of a Collaborative Fund-curated series on creativity and values written by thought leaders in the for-profit, for-good business space.

But this is not the rant you think it is.

Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning: As a former high school teacher, I’m not opposed to standardized testing. Common assessments are a critical way of maintaining high expectations for all kids. Great teachers want benchmarks to measure progress and ensure that they are closing the gap between students in their classroom and the kids across town. What you measure should matter. The problem is, most American classrooms are measuring the wrong thing.

Schools used to be gatekeepers of knowledge, and memorization was key to success. Thus, we measured students’ abilities to regurgitate facts and formulas. Not anymore. As Seth Godin writes, "If there’s information that can be recorded, widespread digital access now means that just about anyone can look it up. We don’t need a human being standing next to us to lecture us on how to find the square root of a number."

Given this argument, many entrepreneurs see a disruptive opportunity to "democratize" education, meaning that everyone now has a platform from which to teach, and anyone can learn anything anywhere anytime. Ventures like Udacity, ShowMe, LearnZillion, and Skillshare increase the efficiency of the learning market by lowering barriers to knowledge acquisition.

Yet there is an inherent bias in the promise of these new platforms that favors extraordinarily self-directed learners.

But by itself, this "any thing/place/time" learning won’t lead to the revolution we seek. We also have the responsibility of unlocking the potential of every student because the world needs more leaders, problem-finders, and rule-breakers. Teachers are perfectly positioned to take on this challenge.

The primary purpose of teaching can now shift away from "stand and deliver" and becomes this: to be relentless about making sure every student graduates ready to tinker, create, and take initiative.

Sarah Beth Greenberg, a visionary elementary school principal in New Orleans, describes this as the balance between the art and science within teaching. The art is in the relationships you build with kids, and the science is purposeful assessment that generates real evidence of student growth.

Which brings me back to my original point. Accountability is a good thing, but only when you are measuring what matters.

Dan Meyer is right when he describes today’s curriculum as "paint-by-numbers classwork, robbing kids of a skill more important than solving problems: formulating them." Imagine a world where the math textbook was replaced with open-ended, thought-provoking opportunities to question the world around us. In these classrooms, students would learn how to think, how to find problems, not just plug in numbers to solve them. What if quizzes measured kids’ ability to question, not answer?

Our schools should be producing kids who tinker, make, experiment, collaborate, question, and embrace failure as an opportunity to learn. Our schools must be staffed with passionate teachers who are not just prepared to foster creativity, perseverance, and empathy, but are responsible for ensuring kids develop these skills.

Most importantly, in these schools, old-fashioned gradebooks and multiple-choice tests aren’t good enough. Teachers need better tools to track several dimensions of student progress. Kids are more than just test scores. The narrative is important, and teaching demands a new type of CRM (classroom relationship management) to capture anecdotal notes and evidence of student growth. Teachers must become disciplined and analytical about identifying students’ strengths and skill gaps, continuously turning classroom data into a plan of action.

Schools like this exist in the dozens, but we need them in the hundreds of thousands:

  • Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia uses a project-based learning model, where the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are emphasized in all classes.
  • Big Picture Learning schools across the country are built on the foundational principle that there is no canon of information that all students must know, an idea that flies in the face of the current Common Core standards movement.
  • High schoolers who want to design software that changes lives can do so at the Academy for Software Engineering in New York City when it opens this August.
  • And the school to which I’ll send my own kids hasn’t opened yet either. Bricolage Academy is a proposed new public elementary school in New Orleans. While the name conjures up images of the streets in the historic French Quarter, the name is borrowed from the French verb, bricoler, to tinker. Incubated in 4.0 Schools’ innovation lab, Bricolage’s founding principal recognizes that technology and increasing diversity will continue to influence our society in unpredictable ways and thus, a school must continually adapt so that students are prepared for the world they will enter as adults.

But we’re shortchanging kids if we aren’t relentless about measuring outcomes in these new models. Teachers are the linchpins here. They’re much more than just motivational coaches, they must become results-oriented diagnosticians of student learning.

In a world where the sheer volume and accessibility of information is growing exponentially, perhaps what’s most remarkable is that to create, tinker, and take initiative in this new world doesn’t always require high-tech gadgets. Take nine-year-old Caine Monroy and his cardboard arcade for example. Monroy has shown the world that all you need is a little ingenuity and a cardboard box.

Imagine a world in which all teachers were relentless about fostering that same creativity in all of their students.

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  • Ed

    I would love to hear from those who are using the new techniques of assessment for the type of learning that Jennifer offers above. A 'how to..?' of these domains e.g. how to assess for things like inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection  would be great., when we move away from teach-to-test.
    All the best

  • Frustrated parent

    I agree with what you are trying to promote, but it will never happen? Why? Because very few people in education know that our education system came from 18th Century Prussia. The same system Hitler used to brainwash a nation of kids. Borught here by the industrial titans of the early 19th century to train people to be workers. Not to be successful, not to be entrepreneurs, and certainly not to think! It's designed to maintain the status quo and hidden behind the smoke screen of "success." Why do you think that most of the famous super successes were drop outs? Gates, Jobs, etc. The list goes on. Not my opinion documented facts. Look it up right here... go ahead... Google it! And I can say this confidently after reaching the top 1 percent of earners, having made over 127,000.00 in one day, and getting to hang around with other self made entrepreneurs who mostly, like me, dropped out of something. We collectively know that what it takes to be a "success" and what is taught in the public school system are complete opposites! Education and intelligence are 2 very different things. You won't be successful with only an education... unless you consider competing for 40,000/yr job success! And they are becoming more and more scarce!

  • BigD

     Frustrated Parent.  I'm only 24 years old, never been to college, started a business when I was 16. People told me I couldn't start a successful business, without going to college.  I told them, "I'm too dumb to realize that, let me try it."  Since I was 16 years old, I've been offering my services to both people and businesses around Miami, not once, being asked for a credential.  I'm by no means rich, but I've built a fairly expansive network throughout Miami, and am organizing to start an affiliate program, using compensation to affiliates who refer clients to me.  I need a business degree, to run a business?  Please.  I also develop my own marketing, both fliers and posters.  As you can imagine, the people that told me when I was 16, how I would fail, now avoid me.   I thought you'd be one of the people who would enjoy my story.  I hope you check this soon and see my comment, as I enjoy receiving praise, upon telling my story.  People tell me I'm a bit stuck up.  I tell em, I feel I have the right to be.  Well, if you wanna respond, please do, I'll check this page every so often.

  • ChrisE

    This is an interesting article...thank you for your insight.  When you refer to memorization, I am wondering what kinds of things you see students memorizing?  My oldest son added traditional school for quite a while and was never asked to memorize anything.  Maybe you mean the idea of cramming some facts in on Mon. for a test on Fri.?  I do see that, but that is not memorizing (those ideas are lost by the following week).  In your experience, what were the students actually memorizing (I mean, truly committing to memory)?

  • Derek Thomas Lirio

     There's no memorizing.  As a product of the public school system, I can say, from experience, that it's all about a few, irrelevant facts, having little to do with the subject they claim to be teaching.  The education industry in this country is broken.  In my opinion, most university degrees, are completely useless, and irrelevant to reality.

  • Innovationrogue

    If we want to assess creativity reliably and with any modicum of standardization in the future, I feel as if we need to start an honest conversation about what creativity actually is, the building blocks that truly make up creative mindsets, so that we can teach to those building blocks instead of simply saying "this will make you creative. go. be fruitful." 

    As a progressive high school educator myself who loves project based learning and sense making, I am tickled pink by many of the neato schools out there ostensibly pursing "creativity." I do worry, though, that many of these schools latch onto something cool like invention or theater without a complete understanding of creativity's underlying causes and by extension a scientific grasp on what their objectives are. That's why I'm not surprised by what you had to say about art education not increasing creativity: while we assume that "art" is inherently creative, learning crafts like drawing and painting are not necessarily encouraging divergent thinking any more than a science or math class is doing; they may still be teaching people to stick within a classical tradition, for instance, or to not take risks in fear of being lampooned in a critique session. I would love come up with a set of standards, like openness to risk taking, empathy, combinational thinking, etc, and have a serious conversation about how those standards could be turned into objectives and become the focus for a solidly designed pedagogy of creativity. That's one of the reasons why I recently started my blog, Innovation Rogue, because I want to build an assessable framework for creativity education over time. I'd love to keep the conversation going.

    - Rei Jackler 

  • Lmoo99

    And yet...we continue to minimize or even do away with Art, Music, etc. where creativity, innovation, etc. are learned. Anyone else see the problem here??

  • Patricia Cogley

    Strongly agree with Ms. Medbery’s conviction that
    we need to get students ready to create and take initiative. I’m a program
    manager for Adobe Youth Voices and core to our mission is investing in
    innovative and compelling ways to improve education. We believe kids need to
    see the connections between what they are learning in school and their future
    success and develop the technical, cre­ative, and problem-solving skills they
    need to succeed in today’s economy.  


  • MauiJerry

    The work of and various FabLabs are fostering creativity and hands on learning, tinkering and general making.  Entrepreneurship is an additional skill that works in too.  Unfortunately, these things fall outside standards based schooling ... until we change the standards.

  • PMAzinga1

    I sat in a faculty  meeting at the University of Hawaii- Manoa a week ago and asked a question related to this exact topic. They couldn't make the connection between the importance of teaching creatively, challenging students to think out side of the box innovatively and how these skills would benefit them in the development of new industries.It was as if entreprenuership was a curse word to them. I suddenly realized that teaching excellence was not there center.

  • michaelstrong

    All good, but sadly she doesn't realize the deep tension between government funding, on the one hand, and banal, mechanical metrics of accountability, on the other. If the funding was exclusively controlled locally it could have been possible to have accountability mechanisms that made room for creativity, but as accountability mechanisms have gone statewide, and then national, in a large, heterogenous nation such as the U.S., "accountability" has largely exorcised creativity.  Wonderful exhortations such as the rhetoric provided here may inspire a few agents of creativity within the system, but the system will continue to grind inexorably forward, rewarding only those teachers and administrators who adhere to government-mandated metrics of accountability.  
    As someone who created and led a charter school in rural NM that focused 100% on developing thinking skills, and was at one point ranked the 36th best public high school in the U.S. on Newsweek's Challenge Index, I'm afraid that thanks to NCLB even charter schools are too regulated to allow for great scaleable, sustainable educational innovation along the lines suggested here.  I'm also concerned that vouchers will bring in similar choking regulations to private schools.  Minimally regulated tuition tax credits are the best hope I see on the horizon, combined with a dramatic change in how we think about education.

    For more see my blog, "The Purpose of Education is Happiness and Well-Being for All," start here,


  • Ampaiesisabel

    I´m speechless ... good thoghts, straight to the point. Does Education have to change in USA? The answer is It has to change all over the worl, especially if goverments tens making cuts: Public Education is  suffering the contradiction in the age of 21st century. We all are suffering too many people talking about  new paradigms in Education, very few people doing something all over the world.
    Teacher training needs to change urgently. 
    Thank you for sharing so sensitive words.

  • Robert Clegg

    Exactly Michael, I call this the "inspirational story" trap. It's the same thing in the weight loss field - Here's an inspirational story. Now everyone can do it! You have to ask yourself why everyone doesn't do it.

    This is compounded 100 fold in a bureaucratic system. Scaling depends on leadership and followership. You can't scale these things. Ask any venture capitalist to invest in an idea that requires changing culture and ... forget it; they laugh you out the door.

    CNN and NBC make great inspirational segments from one-off success stories. But it's not scalable.

  • Amy @ themessymiddle

    A few weeks ago I stumbled into a creative acitivity that has challenged this vetran to find some new "tricks" (trying to tie into the old dog/new tricks, not that we rely on tricks for good teaching). I wrote about it at http://www.the-teachers-lounge... 

  • Paul B.

     Completely agree with most points in this article, but students do need to have the discipline to memorize and learn certain things, whether they be basic math or literacy skills.  Then, open them up to possibilities, passion, and inquiry.  I'm trying to allow students to pursue interests in a creative digital media environment.  I'm enjoying the challenge.  Check out this post:

  • Navi Radjou

    Nice article. Bricolage Academy sounds very promising -- especially given that "bricolage" in French means "tinkering". Maybe in the US we have focused so much on training our kids to become great "thinkers" that we didn't take time to develop their kinesthetic intelligence that will make them better "tinkerers". Interestingly, in India, the word "bricolage" (DIY in American English) translates into "Jugaad" -- a Hindi word which means "an improvised fix using limited resources." Jugaad is a flexible and frugal way to innovate faster, better, and cheaper. Jugaad is employed successfully by millions of grassroots entrepreneurs in emerging markets like India, China, Africa, and Brazil. In my recent book Jugaad Innovation, I describe how US companies can benefit from adopting the "jugaad" principles of frugality and flexibility by unleashing the ingenuity of all the employees. Similarly, US schools can truly ignite the genius within American kids by incorporating the jugaad philosophy into their curriculum! 

    Navi Radjou
    Coauthor, Jugaad Inovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth