How do we prepare youth for success in an ever-changing world? I believe that we need to engage young people in creating their own futures by starting in our schools.

MaRS has partnered with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) to embed entrepreneurial thinking and youth entrepreneurship in the kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum. The current school system is built upon an industrial mass-production model that often disengages students and teachers, and it is this problem that we are trying to solve. Our hope is that experiential self-directed learning will re-engage students and teachers and move our schools toward mass customization for a 21st-century knowledge-based economy.

Entrepreneurial thinking guides students and teachers to build ideas and collaborations that improve their own lives, schools and communities. It also inspires them to discover entrepreneurship as a career opportunity and to tackle societal challenges such as climate change and social inequity.

MaRS used the following three design principles in developing our program. First, through a shared discovery and co-creation process involving both teachers and students, MaRS created a shared vision and strategy for the education system involving a bottom-up innovation approach. Second, we determined that we wanted an experiential program for educators that involved concurrent student-led projects in the classroom. Third, we developed an approach that would be scalable in and across school boards through the use of teacher professional development days and with the help of entrepreneurs who support schools.

So what happened and what did we learn? We co-designed the approach during the summer of 2014 by hosting eight teachers in the MaRS-TDSB 2014 Teachers in Residence Summer Institute. Feedback from those eight teachers guided the development of the MaRS Entrepreneurial Thinking Toolkit for K-12 Educators and a five-day series of professional development workshops, and it also helped to determine the role of entrepreneurs in schools. Then, from October 2014 to March 2015, we launched the MaRS-TDSB Entrepreneurial Thinking prototype, working with leaders within the TDSB and 13 schools.

The educators’ feedback about our entrepreneurial tools, and about the collaboration among teachers, MaRS facilitators and entrepreneurs, was overwhelmingly positive. The most significant discovery was that the teachers found entrepreneurial thinking (or e-thinking) to be effective for and broadly applicable to the classroom, as well as to all fields of today’s workforce and to social change.

Here are some of the key insights that were shared.

  • “E-thinking produces engaged, enterprising and eager students who are creating their own knowledge through real-world problem-solving.” —Teacher
  • “We have learned more about real life in a year than we have in our whole school life.” —Student
  • “The jobs we have today may not exist tomorrow. Twenty percent of youth are unemployed. E-thinking and learning will take our students into the 21st-century job market.” —Teacher

The MaRS-TDSB Entrepreneurial Thinking partnership is continuing this fall with 25 schools involving 120 teachers and 4,000 students. MaRS is also exploring opportunities to work with other school boards, organizations and regional innovation centres. We offer entrepreneurial thinking experiences for both students and educators.

What happened?

The MaRS-TDSB partnership was formed to explore the common competencies and processes of entrepreneurship and 21st-century learning. Innovation and entrepreneurship are part of Ontario’s plan for economic and social prosperity, and are also fundamental to the province’s Youth Jobs Strategy. Twenty-first-century learning requires new pedagogies and partnerships accelerated by digital technologies, as described in the reports “Shifting Minds: A 21st Century Vision of Public Education for Canada” and “A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning.”

Through the partnership, we created a vision to embed entrepreneurial thinking and learning in all subjects for students ranging from Grades 7 to 12. We designed a strategy building on our respective capabilities, including social innovation and system change, entrepreneurship education and technology ventures from MaRS, and leadership, pedagogy and experiential learning from the TDSB.

The strategy included:

  • professional development modules and entrepreneurial tools;
  • concurrent delivery to both educators and students;
  • entrepreneurs working in schools;
  • prototyping to learn and then scaling to a large number of schools, teachers and students through successive iterations, lead teachers and digital tools.

To co-design the approach, eight teachers joined MaRS leads in the 2014 Teachers in Residence Summer Institute. Together we participated in the MaRS Future Leaders Boot Camp, an entrepreneurship boot camp for teens, and learned from entrepreneurs. The teachers developed their own classroom applications for the approach and provided input that enabled the MaRS leads to design experiential professional development modules for educators with concurrent student-led projects in the classroom.

In October 2014, we launched the first MaRS-TDSB Entrepreneurial Thinking prototype. The prototype involved:

  • three MaRS leads;
  • 60 teachers and 13 principals from 13 schools;
  • 14 superintendents;
  • the TDSB’s associate director of education for student achievement;
  • central curriculum leaders;
  • 13 MaRS entrepreneurs; and
  • about 2,000 students.

While all grades and subjects were represented in the prototype, most of the teachers involved had students ranging from Grade 7 to Grade 12, and the most common subjects covered were math, science and English. Two of the common student barriers that were identified were low income and newcomer status.

The experiential learning process challenged teachers to tackle a school problem. MaRS built the Entrepreneurial Thinking Toolkit for K-12 Educators to guide professional development workshop activities such as: building teams through branding; understanding problems as opportunities; interviewing customers; pivoting; creating prototypes; developing an idea or business model canvas; and pitching. MaRS connected schools with entrepreneurs who demonstrated how the entrepreneurial mindset engages youth to learn and reach their potential.

The participating entrepreneurs included:

Throughout the process, the teachers’ development of entrepreneurial projects for their classrooms and schools were further shaped by collaboration among the teachers and their MaRS facilitators, as well as by feedback from students. In March 2015, 150 teachers and students presented their work and experiences at the MaRS-TDSB E-Think Demo Day, demonstrating the following themes.

Rebranding schools, staff and student engagement

George S. Henry Academy undertook several projects, hosting a highly successful community winter festival, developing an organic skincare product line called Henry Farms and developing a mentorship program matching every Grade 9 student with a more senior school leader.

H.A. Halbert Junior Public School developed a strong EcoSchool program, as well as classroom projects and professional development around technology.

Cedarbrae Collegiate Institute developed a new robotics program and several cross-curricular projects, including a project where physics students created new sports and pitched them to business students playing the role of television executives, who evaluated the sports for their network.

Environmental sustainability

John Polanyi Collegiate Institute’s goal was to become a Gold EcoSchool. Students developed a marketing plan, conducted energy audits, tested the impact of plants on air quality and initiated a farmers’ market.

Central Toronto Academy spearheaded a movement to ban disposable products and to implement the use of reusable water bottles and refilling stations.

John A. Leslie Public School investigated its uses of water and its impact on bodies of water, and is creating products/campaigns that promote environmental awareness and stewardship.

Community outreach and social justice

Queen Victoria Public School explored ways to improve the Parkdale community, develop social advocacy and empower students to make change.

Students at Duke of Connaught Public School explored how to use social media tools to make social change in their lives, community and world.

Sir Earnest MacMillan Senior Public School looked at ways to improve the lives of people with multiple sclerosis and to exemplify being “responsible members of global citizenship.”

Wellness and resilience

Northern Secondary School students created a campaign to build resilience against mental health problems, addressed ways to include the issue of stigma in political platforms and came up with ideas for healthier foods using biotechnology.

Humber Summit Middle School engaged its students to be mindful about healthier eating by partnering with community members and parents.

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)

Most schools built STEM into their projects. For example, Runnymede Junior and Senior Public School focused on their new STELL@R program and Grade 9 students applied their math skills, building scale models of houses and designing bridges for the Humber River.

Joseph Howe Senior Public School conducted customer discovery through neighbourhood ecosystem walks and student surveys, and used rapid prototyping for bridge design, tower building, mechanical systems and ecosystem creation.

What did we learn?

Collaborative learning creates magic! We modelled the entrepreneurial mindset from the start. We understood our respective interests and capabilities, and then built a shared vision and strategy. The implementation was formative, involving MaRS leads Ryan Burwell, Joe Wilson and I, as well as teachers, students and a TDSB coordinating group and executive team.

The diversity of the participants and the challenge to work on any school problem created many possibilities and ambiguities. It often felt as though we were not ready, but we moved forward trusting our team and process. Workshops moved away from presentations and toward experimentation and collaboration through hands-on activities and idea marketplaces. Put simply, together we formed, normed and performed.

Champions with authority and grassroots relationships facilitate buy-in! The partnership, vision and strategy of the project were co-designed by Gen Ling Chang, the TDSB’s associate director of education for student achievement; Christopher Usih, the TDSB’s executive superintendent of student success; Joe Wilson and me. The project also involved the director of the MaRS Solutions Lab, MaRS’ vice-presidents of entrepreneurship education and partnerships, and the TDSB’s coordinating vice-principal of student success, Kien Luu. They all believed in my idea to embed entrepreneurial thinking and youth entrepreneurship across the curriculum in order to engage teachers and students in directing their own learning and to improve their lives, school, community and the world.

Superintendents and school principals joined in the initiative early and several joined the TDSB executive team and coordinating group. MaRS leads collaborated with TDSB leaders and worked closely with teachers and students in the Summer Institute, fall workshops and school visits in order to understand their needs, and to co-design, co-create and continuously improve the entrepreneurial learning experience.

Learning and adoption requires understanding and takes time. Innovative educators quickly grasped and started applying the entrepreneurial tools in their classrooms—however, they found it challenging to tackle a new or school-wide problem. Others worked collaboratively to identify and tackle a common problem, co-creating activities across classrooms, school and community. All of the educators enjoyed the entrepreneurial learning experience and found the tools we created useful. Some suggested having more school and classroom examples, increasing collaboration across schools and offering more guidance for working with entrepreneurs. Many were also interested in learning more and in becoming leads for training other teachers, appreciating the effectiveness, broad applicability and potential impact of entrepreneurial learning.

  • “Changing what we do requires changing the way we think. Think more, change a lot!” —Teacher
  • “Discovering the relationship between basic research design, innovation and invention, and commercialization is what entrepreneurial thinking and learning will teach our children. It will provide them with the tools that are essential for bringing their wonderful ideas to life.” —Teacher
  • “It’s the way to go, especially with the fifth pathway of self-employment.” —Teacher

What’s next?

MaRS and the TDSB are excited to continue improving the entrepreneurial thinking initiative during the coming academic year. The foundation for this improvement was laid over the summer. Between July 20 – 31, 2015, MaRS provided intensive training to 13 TDSB teachers in its annual Summer Institute. During this time, these teachers collaborated with MaRS leads and entrepreneurs to design entrepreneurial activities and approaches they can bring back to their schools in the fall. Selected from a diverse collection of schools, grade levels, and subject areas, these teachers will provide crucial on-the-ground support for a fall program that will provide professional development to teachers from 25 TDSB schools.

The success of the TDSB collaboration has prompted MaRS to pursue opportunities to scale the entrepreneurial thinking initiative beyond the GTA by building partnerships with other school boards, regional innovation centres, and other organizations interested in innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship in schools. To ensure the sustainability of this initiative, MaRS is exploring different business models, including more fee-for-service sessions, corporate sponsorship, and educational grants. MaRS is also in the process of training educator leads to deliver content, and is investigating the potential to deliver training through online tools.