I've been laying out, lately, how having every kid start a business in our new kind of school could cultivate intellectual superpowers, deep teamwork, ecstatic joy, and real science. But today I'd to suggest something bigger:

Having kids repeatedly work together to kick off social entrepreneurships could cultivate a generation of kids who actively seek to mend the world.

What we're talking about doing, in all of this, is training kids to pay attention to problems. We're inculcating a habit of regularly watching the world (inside the classroom, outside the classroom) in order to spot inefficiencies, injustices, and suffering.

When you begin to look at the world this way, you see problems everywhere. People treat clerks like robot kiosks. People litter in parks. Spaces are ugly. Grade schoolers are addicted to video games; middle schoolers are addicted to texting.

(Note that just seeing problems is a fantastic way to become depressed! Those who would descend into such misery need to have a dependable lifeline — yet another reason our new kind of schools will be investing so much in interweaving a well-being curriculum with every other piece of our school day.)

We'll be training students to go beyond noticing problems — we'll be training them to understand them. Our kids will be used to asking the crucial question: "What's causing this?"

Rarely will the answer to that be simple! This is where students will use their learning in economics, in sociology, in anthropology, in game theory, in history, and more. And they'll draw upon their understanding of psychology and their experience in empathetic first-person storytelling to peer at the problem from a multitude of viewpoints.

So often we fall into the lazy assumption that bad things are caused by people who are attempting to be bad — but that's oh-so-rarely the case. To fix problems, we need to understand what drives people, and how those drives combine into emergent, complex patterns.

And they'll go beyond just understanding problems — they'll be accustomed to asking: "Where might I intervene?" Using some out-of-the-box thinking strategies, they'll imagine all sorts of potential fixes, and using Lean methodology, they'll start experimenting with them, and measuring the results.

Here's one of the tragedies of modern schooling:

Teens have incredible power. Schooling wastes that power.

But we can change that. High school can become a flight simulator for spotting and alleviating the problems that beset us.

And after getting this training — after acquiring these habits — students can graduate to tackling the big world problems.

Can our new kind of schools cultivate kids who actually can improve the human condition? I'm led to think so.

How 'EVERY STUDENT STARTS A BUSINESS' can teach... science?


I asked Steven Pinker once: "What should I say to my students, when they ask me what they should do with their lives?" "Measurement," he replied.

The full story:

I had volunteered to pick up Rebecca Goldstein (famed novelist–philosopher) and Steven Pinker (famed psychologist, linguist, and all-around public intellectual) at the airport last summer when they were flying in to speak at a conference.

As a brief aside, I trust that the giggly-girlish expression on my face below indicates the depth of my fanboyness towards both thinkers:

Goldstein, Pinker, Airport

I had pondered for weeks what Big Important Question I should ask the two of them, while I had 'em in my minivan. (Which, for the record, was cleaned more thoroughly than when we had purchased it.)

I was quite suprised to hear Dr. Pinker's answer.

"Measurement?" I responded, dumbly.

He explained that organizations are doing wonderful things in the world — curtailing malaria, lessening domestic violence — but we can't be sure which organizations, and where, and how. 

And when we lack careful measurements, we're left with braggadocio. Who can spin anecdotes into the best story? Who has the most compelling TED talk?

Our civilization can do better — we can mend the world (see my earlier post "Can a new kind of school change the world?") — but doing so will require looking very carefully at what we're doing now. 

And that means measurement.

I've been proposing, these last few days, that one of the pieces of signature curriculum in our new-kind-of schools could be that every student, in high school, helps start a business — a "social business" that aims not only to make money, but also to improve human or environmental well-being.

I've suggested that having students embark on this could help cultivate intellectual superpowers (especially in complex thinking)the hard work of being part of a real team, and ecstatic joy (only a little bit of an overstatement).

Now, I'd like to suggest that having students start their own businesses could teach students how to measure — and how to think scientifically.

The secret here is the Lean Startup methodology.

The Lean Startup methodology comes from the book The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries.

Here's what I'm taking from the book:

The world is full of opportunties to help people — and by helping people, make a profit. There are, let's postulate, a trillion of them. But to take advantage of these, you have to pull it off just right. There are a googleplex of near misses.

How can an entrepreneur tell the difference between a successful business strategy and a near miss? She can't, at first. No one is smart enough to know this ahead of time.

This revolutionizes the way we come at entrepreneurship. In the past, we've championed successful entrepreneurs as people who had a brilliant vision, and then toiled to make it real. (Think about the stories we tell about Steve Jobs.)

What's needed, however, isn't cocksuredness, but a method of self-correction.

What's needed is the scientific method.

If there are a trillion workable opportunities, the entrepreneur's job is to find one. That requires steering, and steering requires knowledge, and knowledge requires experimentation and measurement.

The Lean Startup approach is a cycle of three parts:

  1. You have an idea.
  2. You build a product.
  3. You measure the results.

And then you repeat — tinkering with the idea, and conducting an experiment to see what's really going on. You attempt to call into question the assumptions you've made, and discover what people really want.

Lean methodology (to repeat) is an application of the scientific method. 

We can train kids in some of the deep ethos of science by having them start social entrepreneurships.



In my last few posts, I've been sketching out a rather picquant idea: that our new-kind-of schools have all students launch social entrepreneurships. Doing so, I've been suggesting, would get students to engage in more complex thinking and more profound personal growth than, perhaps, almost anything else we can have them do. What I'd like to suggest now is something a bit different — that having students launch social entrepreneurships could lead to a deeper, more exhilarating experience of well-being than, perhaps, anything else our schools can provide.

I've written lately about how one of the major ideas behind our schools is that we can cultivate an environment that's conducive to human flourishingmuch more conducive than most schools.

The conclusions of positive psychology — the scholarly study of human well-being — need to infuse absolutely every piece of the curriculum, from recess to music to math to cooking.

But I think that our entrepreneurship curriculum could have a special place in flourishing. I think launching a social entrepreneurship can give students a chance to experience an ecstacy that is otherwise shut to them. 

Why do I think so?

Our positive emotions are responses designed to promote activities that helped our distant ancestors thrive.

Why do people get pleasure from sugar? The sugars in fruits were cheap calories. Why do people get so warm about friendship? A friend was an ally — someone who could come to your aid.

Well, moreso than almost any other, humans are the team species — we're up there near ants and honeybees. (This, by the way, is the conclusion of the great biologist E. O. Wilson, who thinks that it's our 'team-ness' that helped us conquer the world.) As Hobbes (the cartoon tiger, not the English philosopher) put it:

Your fingernails are a joke, you've got no fangs, you can't see at night, your pink hides are ridiculous, your reflexes are nil, and you don't even have tails!

Since our species' inception, we've needed teams to survive. Needed 'em! If you couldn't work as part of a team, you were as good as dead.

And so: some of our strongest positive emotions are biologically cued for intensive teamwork. 

There may be no other way to reach these heights of human flourishing.

Schools don't provide so much in the way of this, especially not in class. There are exceptions, and I'd be interested to explore them — high school sports teams, and debate teams, and perhaps band and chorus. But little of this happens in class.

School isn't typically seriously enough. Not enough is on the line. Projects aren't big enough to require the struggle and expertise of multiple people. Real people aren't being affected by the outcome.

The Yale economist (and Nobel laureate) Edmund Phelps writes (in Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change) that entrepreneurship and innovation are the core of human wellbeing:

Receiving income may lead to flourishing but is not itself a form of flourishing.

A person's flourishing comes from the experience of the new:
new situations, new problems, new insights, and new ideas to develop and share.

He's critiquing economies that put too much of a focus on being comfortable, but a similar charge could be leveled against classes that see student comfort as the ultimate goal. Phelps falls sees challenge, failure, and success as the deepest roots of our joy:

Flourishing is the heart of prospering — engagement, meeting challenges, self-expression, and personal growth.

By helping kids launch social entrepreneurships, we can help them experience a deeper flourishing than they may have ever felt before.

And this can change them: as Andrew Yang writes in his book Smart People Should Build Things: How to Restore Our Culture of Achievement, Build a Path for Entrepreneurs, and Create New Jobs in America:

Over time, solving problems and building an organization that does so become addictive and second nature.

We can make this sort of joy addictive, and routine.

(Thanks to for the featured image!)



Last week, I introduced a novel curriculum piece for our new kind of school — "Every student starts a business", and explored how starting a business might push our students into more complex thinking than anything else we can set for them. Today, I'd like to explore how making social entrepreneurships can help our kids learn another ridiculously important superpower: working in a real team.

Emphasis on the real — not the sort of fake teamwork so many of us have experienced in school.

It's really, really difficult to be part of a real team.

By "real team" I mean a closely-knit group of people who operate as one mind — who share a mission, information, and responsibility.

Most groups that use the word "team" don't measure up to this. Rather, as business theorist Patrick Leoncini writes in his (excellent) book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business,

The truth is, few groups of leaders actually work like a team, at least not the kind that is required to lead a healthy organization.

He compares most workplace "teams" to golf teams: members go off and do their own thing, and then total up their combined work at the end of the day.

To achieve the difficult, complex work of an entrepreneurship, what's needed is something quite different: something more akin to a basketball team, which

plays together simultaneously, in an interactive, mutually dependent, and often interchangeable way.

I did a lot of group work in middle and high school classes. But I never once did anything like this.

Working as a member of a real team is damned hard.

You have to learn to share a mission.

You have to sacrifice for others.

You have to learn to argue productively, to flush out the flaws in strategy.

You have to learn to commit to moving forward in a direction that the team decides — even when you privately remain unconvinced that it's the best direction to go.

In short, to work in a real team you have to grow as a person: you have to learn to be a good human being under extreme pressure.

If we can provide students ample opportunities to learn this — to grow like this — we'll have helped them developed superpowers that few schools do.

(See also one of our first posts: There is power in a teaching team!)

How "EVERY STUDENT STARTS A BUSINESS" can breed vocational superpowers


In my last post, I suggested that our schools practice an extreme program: EVERY STUDENT STARTS A BUSINESS. Specifically: a social entrepreneurship. How could this breed vocational superpowers?

(In my next few posts, I'll also explore how this could breed scientific superpowers, and change the way that students see the world.)

I remember, when I attended the Barrett Honors College, how we intellectual types looked down our noses at the business students whose college was right next to ours on campus. We were the smart ones, the complex thinkers: they were intellectually... limited.

Oh my: what vapid dolts we were!

Reality is infinitely complex, or practically so. To succeed in business, you have to grasp that reality — and work within it.

I've found that running a business is much, much more intellectually demanding than any paper I ever wrote.

By launching a social entrepreneurship, students can learn to appreciate this maddening complexity — and to plan wisely.

Scott Page, a professor of political science (and the instructor of Understanding Complexity, published by The Great Courses) talks about the metaphor of "landscapes" to describe the "fitness" of business strategy. He differentiates between simple landscapes, rugged landscapes, and dancing landscapes.

In a simple landscape, there's one best way of doing things — one highest peak. If you start out with a non-ideal method of doing business, and would like to improve, all you've got to do is take small steps of improvement, and then repeat! Do that enough, and you'll gradually build the best business you can! Business is simple.

When you think of a simple landscape, go ahead and imagine Mount Fuji:

Mount Fuji

In a rugged landscape, there's also one best way of doing things — one highest peak — but it might not be obvious how to get there. Making small improvements — moving uphill — will certainly get you to a local peak, but there's no guarantee that it'll get you to the highest peak.

Rugged landscapes do a better job describing how a market actually works. You can offer a good service, and keep honing it to make it better and better, but still not be providing what people really want.

In a rugged landscape, it's difficult to even identify which peak is highest! And getting from one peak to another can be treacherous — and certainly involves going down before you can even hope to go up.

When you think of a rugged landscape, imagine the Rocky Mountains:

Rocky Mountains (1)

But Professor Page argues that most of our lives (and, I'll add, most business) is best described by a dancing landscape — a landscape full of peaks and valleys that keep changing.

(For some fun animations of dancing landscapes (also called "dynamic fitness landscapes") take a look at this video on YouTube.)

Having kids start social businesses might be the most intellectually demanding thing we ever prompt them to do.



Yesterday, I mentioned that I'm starting a new business venture — readingHACKS. I've been learning a lot from it, and lately have hatched an idea that I think might become a major aspect of our new kind of schools. If you want to cheat, and just skip to the idea, jump to the end of this post. But I think you'll enjoy it more if you spend a few minutes understanding the story — my story — that this idea has been generated from.

The mission of readingHACKS is simple — teach an elite, academic reading course that will change college as we know it.

Do you know the percent of community college freshmen who graduate with their Associate's degree in the planned two years? It's only 4%. Only another 25% have complete their degree in year 3. The rest take twice as long as planned — and most never graduate. American colleges, in a very important sense, do not work.

Of course — of course! — not all of this dropping out is because of reading. It's because of time-management, and a lack of basic math skills, getting lost in course catalogs, and uninterest in learning. And probably twenty other things.

But some of why people drop out is on the difficulty of doing academic reading. And this shouldn't be surprising, because human brains aren't designed to do academic reading.

Here's a dark secret of college: very, very few students understand the reading. College instructors understand this; for the most part, their assignments and classroom questions can't depend on a deep comprehension of the required reading.

And here's what I'd like to suggest:

We can fix this. 

That's what readingHACKS is about.

I've learned about all this by working with students over the years — kids of all sorts, and some very, very, very smart students who tried their best and still couldn't process academic reading — but I've learned the most about reading skills through my own suffering.

I'm an inveterate reader. My parents limited me to three books when we visited my grandparents. My parents had to ban books from the dinner table. (Well, okay: they should have!) I got a perfect 800 on my SAT Verbal.

And so I thought college reading would be — well, maybe not easy, but doable

Oh, how wrong I was.

Even my first quarter, there was too much of it. And I would get lost in the books. And sometimes I just couldn't make sense of the sentences.

For one Religious Studies class, I had to read Clifford Geertz's famous essay, "Religion as a Cultural System." Can I suggest that the essay is brilliant, and everybody should read it? Can I also suggest that Geertz was a pretentious, self-indulgent writer, and that almost no one can read him?

Here's a sentence — not the hardest:

In working toward such an expansion of the conceptual envelope in which our studies take place, one can, of course, move in a great many directions; and perhaps the most important initial problem is to avoid setting out, like Stephen Leacock's mounted policeman, in all of them at once.

I remember trying to read the essay at night, sitting on a park bench — and hurling the essay across the street!

I made it through college, mind you — two bachelor's degrees, from the Barrett Honors College, summa cum laude. But boy, was the reading hard. Here's what the experience taught me:

Almost everyone struggles with academic reading. And almost everyone thinks they're struggling alone. They think the problem is that they're too dumb, or that they're not trying hard enough, when in reality, they've never been taught how to tackle academic reading.

Again: we can fix this.

We can teach college students to read faster, to read more clearly, to focus intensively, to pay attention to what matters. We can train them to simplify convoluted sentences, to read in order to innovate, to stop procrastination, and to remember everything they learn, forever.

This is the mission of readingHACKS.

So, if you've read this far, my hope is that you've gotten a sense of why I'm teaching this, and why I think this might be a viable business model. $250 for four intense, two-hour lessons, and a lot of coaching. By the end, you're a much more powerful reader.

Well, I've been teaching this material for ten years now, in various venues. (Once, I taught it as an accredited class at UW-Seattle's Comparative History of Ideas department.)

And here's what I've slowly concluded:


When you start building a business, there is a small army of things that will go wrong, only a handful of which you can foresee.

I launched it at UW-Seattle last fall, and it flubbed. Got all of two students. (I had made a massive mistake in scheduling it — I held it once a week through the quarter, in the evenings. This was before I realized that students' most valuable resource isn't their money, but their time. I thought the class was monetarily cheap: but it was temporally exorbitant.)

Then I re-launced it at UW-Seattle last winter, halfway through the quarter. I fixed the scheduling problem — made it just 4 Saturday afternoons. Got all of zero students. (This was before I realized that by halfway through the term, students are crazy-overpacked with activities — a number of students were very interested, but needed it to start at the beginning of the quarter.)

Misktakes, mistakes!

Now I'm launching the course — with only four Saturday lessons, and at the beginning of the term — at a different campus in the University of Washington network: UW-Bothell.

It's a smaller campus. It's a closer, and cheaper campus.

And things still go wrong!

The campus facilities office confuses paperwork, and the room is occupied when I come in for the free speed-reading promo. The people I've hired to hand out flyers get on the wrong bus, and arrive an hour late. FedEx Office messes up my flyer order — three times! 

Entrepreneurship is nothing like school.

And that's good — we can use that.

I'd like to propose one (new) piece of curriculum for our new kind of school — one that can help connect kids with the real world of strategy and action, with the domains of finance, social theory, science, history, art, and almost everything else. Here it is, in its five-word glory:

Every student starts a business.

real business, mind you — not one of those "let's invest play-money in the stock market" sorta activities you may have conducted in middle school.

A real business, with real start-up capital, aiming to provide real goods or services to real people to make real money.

But let's modify that a little: a real social entrepreneurship.

Definitions of social entrepreneurship vary, but the core is stated nicely by Wikipedia:

Social entrepreneurship is the attempt to draw upon business techniques to find solutions to social problems.

Conventional entrepreneurs, the article continues, care mainly about profit. Social entrepreneurs care equally about profit and making a positive impact in society.

The goal of social entrepreneurs is to create something that helps people, and is self-sustaining. (And this is how social entrepreneurship differs from a non-profit — it doesn't require influxes of outside money.)

I've done some more thinking about the potential benefits and difficulties of requiring all students to engage in real social entrepreneurships, but I'll hold those back for today.

Here's what I'd love: your frank, immediate reactions to this idea — especially the negative ones! I think we can make this idea work if we take the negative reactions seriously. Please send 'em (and all obvious questions) over to me to at