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Enterprise learning advances achievement

Combining PD, project-based learning and real world experience propels student success
  • A snake is the centerpiece of a lesson at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston. It’s a program of Expeditionary Learning, a non-profit that partners with district public schools and charters providing innovative curriculum and teacher-created resources.
  • Students at the World of Inquiry School #58 in Rochester, New York, work on a science experiment as teacher Chris Widmaier oversees the project. The education program of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation provides grants to fund this kind of deeper learning in schools nationwide. The program aims to increase economic opportunity and civic engagement in a changing world.
  • At the Richland School District in South Carolina, elementary students build and use engineer skills for different projects.
  • Envision Academy students at Oakland USD show off their art projects. This is another program made possible with a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

When four South Carolina districts joined forces in 2013 to compete for a federal Race to the Top grant, their shared educational vision was clear: Teaching students to be creative innovators and independent learners will improve school performance.

The challenge was finding a model to encompass all the sweeping changes they wanted to implement.

What the districts’ leaders eventually settled on was the term “enterprise learning,” which refers to both a popular public education program overseas, and a model for professional development in corporate America. The South Carolina schools—working collectively as the Carolina Consortium for Enterprise Learning (CCEL)—are now trying to blend the two programs together with the help of $24.9 million in federal funding.

Both kinds of enterprise learning seek to develop a more skilled workforce by emphasizing self-directed learning, creative thinking and problem solving, says CCEL Project Director Gail Widner.

Those high-level thinking skills are increasingly important for students, says educator and author Tony Wagner, whose 2012 book Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World served as another source of inspiration for CCEL’s program. “There is no competitive advantage to knowing more than the person next to you, because the person next to you can Google it,” Wagner says. “The world no longer cares what you know, it cares what you can do with what you know—and that is a radically different concept.”

The districts in CCEL—Clarendon School District Two, Orangeburg Consolidated School District Five, Richland School District Two and Williamsburg County School District—may be the first to implement a K12 enterprise learning program in the U.S.

But their work aligns closely with a growing number of districts teaching entrepreneurial thinking and real-world problem-solving through programs like MicroSociety—which offers students the real world by organizing school into a society complete with businesses, town meetings and a student-run court—and networks like Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning and non-profit Expeditionary Learning.

An enterprising start

In Australia and the United Kingdom, enterprise learning gained popularity in the 1990s. It typically centers on project-based learning with a community-service or business focus.

The purpose is not only to prepare students for college and careers, but to encourage them to be “enterprising” in every area of their lives. Enterprise skills include the ability to identify and assess risks, manage resources, collaborate, negotiate, and track personal goals, according to the New South Wales Department of Education in Australia.

In the U.S., enterprise learning is a framework for corporate training that dates to the 2000s and blends formal and informal learning opportunities, often with the help of a comprehensive online technology system for accessing web courses and tracking an individual’s training history.  

CCEL’s enterprise learning program centers on motivational character development, access to 24/7 digital learning opportunities, and problem- and project-based learning (PBL) that addresses real-world challenges.

How does it differ from PBL?

“If you talk about project-based learning, often you are talking about student work,” Widner says. “For us, enterprise learning is also about teachers and parents and the community. It is the learning process, regardless of content, regardless of where you are in your professional life.”

CCEL used Race to the Top grant funding to hire an enterprise learning coach for every school in the program and 10 digital resource coaches for the four districts. Enterprise learning coaches are creative and experienced teachers who work on professional development and program rollout at the school sites.

The funds also will pay for 1-to-1 laptop programs in all the schools and technological improvements that will allow for more digital learning, including individualized learning plans and classroom apps for students, and a professional development program for teachers.

This year—the first in a seven-year implementation plan—the push across CCEL’s 18 schools will begin developing new teaching techniques in class, and will encourage enterprise thinking among students through various character education programs.

Eventually, students in CCEL schools will have the chance to cross-enroll in classes at any school in the consortium. CCEL has also teamed with the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness to find local businesses to work on projects with students.

And CCEL plans to use digital resources to match mentors with students in isolated rural areas. Students, for example, might use technology, such as handheld devices, to connect with a scientist in the Arctic as part of a project on global warming or work with an area business to fix sensor problems at local stores’ self-checkout registers.

Students at L.W. Conder Elementary, one of the schools in CCEL, had their first taste of enterprise learning with a nutrition project this fall, says Principal Shawn Suber. The low-income school is in an area designated by the federal government as a “food desert” because of limited access to produce and supermarkets.

Students studied hydroponics, learned to grow wheatgrass in home containers, and developed recipes that use the wheatgrass. “I think one of the big deals in enterprise learning is the focus on collaborating with students,” says CCEL enterprise learning coach Felicia Sellers. “How do we work together to come up with a better solution or a better answer to a problem?”

Different programs, same goal

While few districts nationwide are familiar with the term “enterprise learning,” many use PBL and other classroom techniques to achieve goals similar to those of CCEL.

“The overlap for us between enterprise learning and what we do is that we try to connect the learning of kids to the real world right away,” says Ron Berger, chief academic officer of Expeditionary Learning, a 20-year-old program with a network of 165 elementary, middle and high schools.

Expeditionary Learning students work on “case studies,” similar to what students in business or law school produce, Berger says.

For example, seventh graders in a history class in Portland Public Schools in Maine studied newspaper articles and other historical documents, learned reporting techniques from the city’s journalists, and then interviewed nearly two dozen local civil rights activists for a book of oral histories on the Civil Rights Movement across the state in the 1960s.

And kindergarteners in Washington, D.C., explored nearby parks and teamed with a local arborist to create a children’s field guide to local trees.

Students at Cunningham Elementary School in Austin ISD are learning entrepreneurial skills this year by operating school businesses through a recently-launched MicroSociety program. An elected student “mayor” and “city council representatives” from each grade help oversee a parks and recreation department and class businesses that include a garden “farm” where students grow vegetables.

And kindergarteners operate a postal service, creating their own stationary and stamps to sell, and use tricycles to deliver letters within the school once a week, Cunningham Principal Amy Lloyd says.

The program has been so popular that Austin ISD is partnering with local nonprofit Bazaarvoice Foundation, which aims to assist young people in becoming future business and community leaders. The partnership will launch entrepreneurial programs at the middle school and high school that Cunningham students will eventually attend.

Freshmen and sophomores in the program will take business electives, and then will partner with a local business mentor in junior year to develop a business plan, Lloyd says. The goal is for students to launch their own business as a senior capstone project.

“One of the interesting things about enterprise learning is it helps kids get a sense of purpose,” says Rob Riordan, co-founder of High Tech High, a California charter organization that attributes its high college enrollment rate to PBL and a high school internship program. “They are engaging with the world and finding things they like to do and don’t. It’s about identity formation.”

Jessica Terrell is a a freelancer based in California.