Teaching Kids to Think Outside the Box

Teaching Kids to Think Outside the BoxEvery Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s is on risk-taking in how we approach education, so our kids have all the tools they need in a changing world economy.

We are so blessed to live in Canada. We don’t worry about whether we’re going to have supper; we just worry about what we’re going to make for supper. We have food in abundance, clothing in abundance, and shelter. Others may have more, but compared to most of the world, we’re at the top.

Personally, I’d like to stay there. But for Canada to remain a vibrant economy, we need dynamism. We need people with new ideas who are willing to run with them. We need people who will think outside the box for new solutions to problems. And we need people who will take risks. Is our school system conducive to raising the next generation to meet these demands?

Our schools are run by people who like school—if they didn’t, why would they go into teaching? They went to university where they trained for a job where they knew exactly what they would be doing. There were few surprises. And chances are they can continue like that for decades. Idea people and risk people wither in bureaucracies, so they rarely work there. Our students, then, are rarely exposed to the kinds of people who make our economy thrive.

That doesn’t mean that our economy doesn’t also need other types of people—hard workers who will do their jobs well; loyal workers who will go that extra mile. But what we need to stay competitive is people who will come up with these new ideas and start new businesses. So what are our schools doing to encourage kids towards entrepreneurism—even if that means foregoing university? Schools tend to push kids towards more school, not towards opening a store, or buying a franchise, or even, heaven forbid, working in the oil sector.

In high school kids can take courses on entrepreneurism, which is a good start. Yet these courses are rarely taught by people who are actually entrepreneurs. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t taught well; only that our kids are missing something. Unless they take a co-op placement, a student can go their entire fourteen years of education, from full-time Junior Kindergarten to grade 12, without ever encountering anyone who built a business.

After all, catching the entrepreneurial spirit is so much more than just the content of the courses; it’s the type of adults who our kids interact with. Those working in the education system have job security, and pensions, and vacations. They have limited room for advancement, but they accept that because the pay is good. They’re not looking to get rich; they want to make a difference, while enjoying security.

In contrast, what does an entrepreneur do? An entrepreneur may take one idea and fixate on it, and do nothing but that for a whole year. They may forego vacations. They may even forego pay for a few years to get the dream started. The biggest skills they’ll have to learn are perseverance, networking, and marketing.

The business world is filled with people who rejected school’s regimentalism: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett. Yet for each Steve Jobs, how many kids who would have made dynamic, out of the box entrepreneurs did we turn off altogether? How many kids’ passion and drive did we destroy by trying to make them conform?

Teaching and entrepreneurialism are two entirely different skill sets and mindsets. It’s not about slotting in another course or two; it’s about changing the whole school culture. If we want our economy to be dynamic, we’re going to have to make our schools more dynamic, and that may involve taking risks and doing things that have never been done before. I know that sounds drastic, but that’s how most good ideas start.

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  1. This is so good! I have been a public school educator for 11 years, with a little break when I had my first child. This year, I made the giant decision to step away from my job and homeschool my three children. I am so excited to be entering into this, and on recommendation of a mentor, am reading John Gatto’s Dumbing us Down. Changing my world. I am starting to see how I have been mis-directed in so many ways by my training in the public education system. Thanks for posting your perspective!

  2. Thank you, Sheila for this column (and permission to post these links)!

    I am a homeschool mom who is also a Chartered Accountant. I am writing an e-course for teens on launching a part-time business in Canada and am looking for a few more beta testers from the East Coast. If you have teens, pre-teens, or young adults and would like to apply to be part of the beta test, here is the link:

    If you’d like to be notified when the course goes live, you can enter your e-mail address here:

    And if you’d like to find out more about me, my blog is http://www.sensiblemoneysolutions.com (or you can click through on comment luv below).

    So passionate about this topic – thank you!

    Leanne Seel, CPA, CA
    Leanne recently posted…The case for spousal RRSP’sMy Profile

  3. Such an interesting question to think about. I taught in a low-income area, where many of my students were struggling to have enough to eat or raise their siblings. School just can’t be a priority with those kinds of stressors at home. Many of them were bright, creative, and enthusiastic…and it always broke my heart to know, deep down, how few of them would be deemed “successful” by the school setting. I worked in a great district that tried to make opportunities for kids like that, but the system is broken at so many levels that even good districts can only offer so much within the confines of the state/national regulations.

    It’s a complicated problem that doesn’t have a simple solution.
    Megan G. recently posted…baby steps!My Profile

  4. I usually agree with what you say but this one rubbed me the wrong way a bit. I can’t pin why, exactly, perhaps I felt you were over generalizing a bit about educators. Thanks for sharing,

    • yeah I feel the same. Former art teacher, and definitely someone who always prided myself on teaching kids to think outside the box.

    • As a teacher, I got that ‘uh oh, where’s she going’ apprehension when I started reading. Unfortunately by the time I got done, it was a sigh of resignation, as I know too many teachers who just go, do their job, and don’t concern themselves with how it can be done different/better. I’m thankful and hopeful that there are a few like the above commenters who are not content inside the box!

      • Thanks, Judy! I’m actually not trying to say, though, that teachers don’t do their job well. I’m just trying to say that I don’t think we can teach kids to be entrepreneurs unless they SEE entrepreneurs. It’s like with boys in elementary school: there’s a lot of research out there that says one of the reasons boys have been tuning out in large numbers is that it’s a completely female environment now. They don’t see anyone who is like them. (There are other reasons, but that’s one factor). If all teachers are female, then what do boys feel?

        There’s really nothing a female teacher can do about that. They can learn how to better teach boys, but ultimately, they’re still female.

        And that’s what I mean. It doesn’t matter how well teachers teach the course; unless kids actually see and interact with real business owners, we’re not really preparing them or teaching them well.

        Does that make sense?

        • Yes, it absolutely makes sense! I was dismayed a number of years ago, as I finished my teaching degree, that in one class the teacher wanted to discuss issues in the elementary school. Someone brought up the issue of the lack of male teachers and the professor quickly shut that person down saying males have dominated history, we’re not giving them any time in this class. I looked around and immediately felt sorry for the handful of males in the auditorium! Also, we had a male teacher in our local elementary classroom last year. He had a predominantly male class, and the boys just thrived! It was wonderful! Unfortunately, that teacher was moved and another female teacher brought in.

          Anyway, all that to say, yes, I agree with you! Children need to see examples of successful people who they can emulate, whether they are male teachers or enterpreneurs!

          And…unfortunately, only most teachers do their jobs well, not all.

  5. I am a product of both the public and private school system (in the US), and I never once have taken an entrepreneurship class! Funny since now I am considering opening a small business but have little to no direction. I hope to perhaps homeschool my children and think this would be such a great extra thing to add based on their age–so important for anyone to know!

  6. Thanks for sharing. I totally connect with what you are saying.

    I definitely think there is a lack of teaching kids how to be shelf starters and go-getters. My husband and I were taught to get an education, a good job and work up the ladder. We were not taught to follow you heart, desires and make money doing it. We played it safe and are experiences the growing pains of breaking out of that box.

    My daughter’s school has an after school program that teaches entrepreneurship, as soon as she was old enough – 4th grade-we signed her up. It was on negotiable. In March she will participate in a marketplace where she will sell “her product” that we have researched, done a business plan for, and created. I love that she can be apart of this.
    Kimberly Amici recently posted…Memory Verse – February 18thMy Profile

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