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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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