21st Century Skill Development Through Social Entrepreneurship

During the 2016-2017 academic year, a small team of elementary educators at NIST International School explored how the confluence of design thinking, service learning and social entrepreneurship could be combined into a powerful learning experience for students. This piloted initiative was offered as a year long inquiry into How We Organize Ourselves under the central idea: People create systems to address issues and support needs.

The social entrepreneurship learning experience was created to expose students to the 21st century skills experts predict students will need in a dynamic future. Although one could choose whatever set of 21st century skills that exist, in this case we will use Tony Wagner’s 7 Survival Skills of the 21st Century. What follows are some examples of how students engaged in social entrepreneurship demonstrated those skills through this learning experience:

Curiosity and Imagination:

  • Students identified problems that existed in their world and innovated solutions to those problems.
  • Students were challenged to ideate something new, or innovate off something that already existed.
  • Students followed their passions and set out to learn and develop the skills they needed to achieve their goals.

Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving:

  • When designing their prototype, students were challenged to negotiate a balance between sustainable material use, environmental impact and the costs of material investment.
  • Collaborative and communicative skills were evidenced throughout, as groups needed to think through problems that arose in planning, prototyping, budgeting, making, marketing and selling.
  • Mathematical thinking and problem-solving were embedded when students had to think about taking on debt, product price points, income generation and profit allocation.

Agility and Adaptability:

  • Students evidenced adaptability through a constant process of failing and changing their thinking to create a more successful business model.
  • Through budgetary limitations, skill deficiencies, time-management pragmatics, access to materials and safety, students were forced to employ growth mindsets and let go of initial ideas.
  • The learning process encouraged students to identify problems their team currently faced, recognize the mindset necessary to overcome that challenge and upskill themselves to the point of meeting their needs.

Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence:

  • Students connected with experts in social entrepreneurialism on a local level, such as Tanya Accone and Ms. Tosca, who both provided inspiration and practical skills in how to put a plan into action.
  • Student business teams offered many leadership opportunities to emerge on a variety of levels–influencing those within their team and inspiring other teams through a cross-pollination of ideas.
  • In some cases, student teams connected with material providers in languages they did not speak, therefore working with translators who could assist them in ascertaining their resources.

Effective Oral and Written Communication:

  • Students practiced their oral communication skills by pitching their ideas to teachers in front of an audience of their peers–gathering feedback about what their vision had considered and what was missing.
  • Students collaboratively wrote professional business plans and introductory emails to potential investors–writing that ended up evolving into another mini-unit on writing.
  • Within teams, students had to respectfully negotiate roles and responsibilities in order to ensure that individual and team goals were achieved through compromise and inclusion.

Initiative and Entrepreneurship:

  • Students became more self-directed and initiative while inside this learning experience, with several teams viewing it more as a form of structured play. Some business teams have even initiated play-dates outside of school to get together and “work.”
  • An overall emphasis on quality and craftsmanship was valued, with students transferring craft and aesthetics to other areas of their learning.
  • Students learned that in a business, time and work equate to money. The real-life approximations they experienced caused students to think about number as a malleable concept (time, cost, work, effort).

Accessing and Analyzing Information:

  • Students had to research what products already exist, what skills they could teach themselves and to what degree there was a market for their product ideas.
  • The collaborative process required a constant cycle of divergent thinking in the ideation phases, and convergent thinking to synthesize a collective vision.  
  • Technology and mathematical thinking played a large role in tracking and managing budgets, repaying investors and price-pointing their products to ensure they were meeting their monetary goals for social support.

In addition to the 21st century skills mentioned above, student learning was also rooted in the PYP approaches to learning (transdisciplinary skills). Based on data collected after the experience, students indicated the top skills they developed most were:

Thinking Skills: synthesis, application, comprehension and acquisition of knowledge

Social Skills: accepting responsibility, group-decision making, cooperating and respecting others

Self-Management Skills: organization, fine-motor skills, time-management and safety

Research Skills: observing, planning, organizing data and recording data

Communication Skills: listening, speaking, viewing and presenting

They also indicated the PYP attitudes they developed the most were: commitment, cooperation, creativity, confidence and empathy.

When students were asked to rate on a scale of 1-10 how they felt about their social entrepreneurship experience, all but one rated it a ten out of ten. And when students were asked how they would assess their learning during this experience on a scale of 1-10, the class average was 9.0.

Not only was this learning experience highly enjoyable for students, but they also were exposed to valuable 21st century skills, attitudes and dispositions they can further develop moving forward. 

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