Entrepreneurship is often associated with people who assume the risk of starting a business venture for financial gain. However, entrepreneurs exist in many forms: They may be writers, carpenters, computer programmers, school principals or fundraisers, to name just a few examples.

What they have in common is an “entrepreneurial mindset” that enables them to see opportunities for improvement, take initiative and collaborate with others to turn their ideas into action. Everyone is born with some propensity for entrepreneurship, which at its core is about solving problems creatively, according to Yong Zhao, a professor at the University of Oregon’s College of Education. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.”

Unfortunately, the current education system doesn’t support the development of an entrepreneurial mindset, Zhao says, because of its reliance on standards, tests and a prescribed curriculum, which are all fundamentally incompatible with entrepreneurial thinking. Studies have shown an inverse relationship between countries’ academic test scores and entrepreneurship levels, and between years of schooling and entrepreneurship levels.

“Students are treated like employees of a big company, who don’t bear the risk if the company fails,” he says. “They are paid with grades and are not treated as being responsible for their learning.”

Instead of building on existing education reform plans, such as Common Core, Zhao supports an altogether different education paradigm to prepare children to thrive in our rapidly changing world, which will put a premium on entrepreneurship in all fields of endeavor.

A mashup of democratic and project-based learning would enhance the characteristics that lie at the heart of the entrepreneurial mindset. Zhao envisions schools that combine three essential elements: a freedom-based, non-coercive environment (as can be found at England’s democratic Summerhill School); enhanced project-based learning opportunities (such as those offered at New Technology High in Napa, California); and interaction with the larger world (as practiced by a program that allows students at the Cherwell School in Oxford, England, to collaborate with students at the Gcato School in Eastern Cape, South Africa).

A democratic school such as Summerhill shifts the responsibility to the learner and honors the natural variety that exists among individuals. As long as the students follow the general rules of behavior (which they themselves have developed on an equal footing with the staff), they are free to spend their time as they choose, taking only the classes that interest them. Nurturing what interests and excites each child benefits both society and the individual, Zhao says — the world needs all kinds of talents and skills, and this method effectively harnesses each child’s intrinsic motivation to learn what makes sense for him or her.

This extends to whatever is needed to achieve their goals: “When a child has a reason to learn, the basics will be sought after, rather than imposed,” Zhao wrote in his previous book, “World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students.” “If they are true basics, they are hard to avoid.”

This also allows children to build on their strengths, which is what successful entrepreneurs do, he says, instead of wasting their efforts to try and become like everyone else. “We should give all children confidence, and an alternative space to find something to be good at,” he says. “We overemphasize the deficits of children, and that’s not a good starting point. … If we let people flourish in their own ways, hopefully everyone will find something they want to do.”

But freedom in learning is not sufficient, Zhao says. The underlying environment must be characterized by flexibility, diversity (with access to a variety of adults and learning opportunities both inside and outside the school), and agency (so that students are “citizens of a democratic society who help to shape the society,” Zhao writes, instead of “subjects of a kingdom built by adults”). And then on top of that, “for learning how to be a disciplined, creative entrepreneur, you need a product, and you need practice,” he says.

So to the foundation of a democratic school, he would add the offerings of a New Technology High School, which takes project-based learning to another level. Most project-based learning environments use projects to teach prescribed content and skills, and the teacher retains most (if not all) of the control. Much more valuable is what Zhao calls the “entrepreneurial model” of project-based learning, which places the emphasis on the product rather than the project— students create products or services that meet authentic needs, and build knowledge and skills in the process. The teachers facilitate the process, but the students decide what products to make.

The third and final layer involves establishing a global consciousness, which can be done in numerous ways. It can include learning foreign languages, collaborating with students on the other side of the world (for example, the Cherwell School and Gcato School students jointly established a chicken business), or teaching foreign students about things in your area and vice versa.

The Path From Here to There

These changes will require giving up entrenched beliefs and the sense of comfort offered by a system that emphasizes order, control and immediate tangible results in the form of test scores, Zhao says. But the high unemployment rate among recent college graduates is causing people to rethink their assumptions and question whether the current model of education is serving children’s best interests.

Zhao has observed some elements of the changes for which he’s advocating appearing in more innovative public schools, primarily in suburban areas with smaller school districts and more local control. And in many ways, he says, he’s advocating for the United States to return to its roots.

“America thrived on democracy and trying to celebrate diversity, and allowing individuals to flourish. … It can look very messy,” he says, but the payoff is worth it.

Can Schools Cultivate a Student’s Ability to Think Differently? 7 January,2015Luba Vangelova

  • TeacherGal

    In Feb 2015 we are releasing a new curriculum for teaching students in 8-12 concepts of entrepreneurism, global commerce, and innovation: The 21st Century Student’s Guide to Commerce & Innovation has 17 classroom-ready lesson plans and many practice activities. If your school is interested in piloting or would like more information about this program, please contact us through

  • Matt

    So Dr. Zhao’s ideal school is a combination of two exclusive private English boarding schools, and one exclusive public high school located in one of the wealthiest places in America, which pre-screens its students to make sure that they are worthy of attending? Mr. Zhao: In order for me to even begin to take you seriously please explain two things:

    1: How will you scale this ideal school across the country without the private tuition fees that Summerhill or Cherwell, or the massive financial support that comes from being a school in one of the wealthiest communities in the country?

    2: What changes will you make to the pedagogy of these schools in order for it to function in schools that don’t get to pick and choose their students from among the wealthiest families on Earth?

    I fundamentally agree with Dr. Zhao’s opinion that the current focus on tests and standardized curriculum is hurting American education, but without reasonable answers to these questions I’ll have to conclude that he is out of touch with the realities of education in this country. Just another pie-in-the-sky academic who enjoys philosophizing about education without actually doing anything to make it better.

    • Bruce Smith

      1. Sudbury schools like Alpine Valley School (, where I’ve worked since 1998, typically operate on a level of per-pupil expenditures below that of the local school district. So I can’t speak for others’ ideal schools, but I know that when schools are run democratically, there’s every incentive to be efficient and responsive to the local school community. If you’re interested in examples of democratic schools in urban settings, check out the Philly Free School and the Albany Free School.

      2. The only change required to pedagogy is basically to get rid of it. When learning is customized by and according to the needs, interests, and abilities of each student, it is far more intense and effective. This is no pie-in-the-sky principle: Sudbury schools have been in existence for nearly fifty years, and ample materials can be found online regarding the happiness and success of graduates. is a good starting point for exploring these.

      • Matt

        I don’t doubt that the Democratic School model is awesome for those who get a chance to participate in it, in fact it sounds like a place I would have thrived in as a student, and had I the financial means I would love to send my child to a school like this. All the schools you cite share the same basic features that I called out in the schools cited in the original article:

        1. They charge tuition-Your school $7k/year; Philly, 12k/year; Albany undisclosed. The only actual public school so far mentioned in this discussion just happens to be located in one of the wealthiest communities in the country.

        2. All of these schools are highly selective, with application processes that ensure that the school can make sure that each student who attends is already a good fit for the program.

        3. Because of #1 and #2, all of these schools get to control for two things that can make educating students very hard: Poverty and social dysfunction.

        While I admire the ethos of the Democratic School movement (a movement of which I was not aware of until I read this article), the students at these schools are not succeeding because they attend a Democratic School, they are succeeding because they generally come from relative wealth, and have the support structures in place outside of school to support their academic and emotional growth.

        Please show me an example of this working at a school located in a community of poverty that is required to take in every student that shows up at their door. That’s all I’m really asking.

        BTW, I am surprised that you, as an educator, don’t realize that the reason your school is able to educate students at a lower per-student price than public schools is because you do not spend apx 30% of your budget on SPED and ELL services. Maybe I’m not surprised, it’s an oversight that many Charter School advocates also make.

        • Bruce Smith

          As for Alpine Valley School and the Philly Free School, no funder, public or private, has thus far been located that would make it possible for us not to charge tuition. Neither do I anticipate any government being willing to support alternatives genuinely outside the conventional model of education.

          Your research might not have revealed this, but we do all the fundraising we can and we offer as much financial aid as we’re able. You might also be unaware that our per-pupil cost is low in part because we don’t require lots of administrators and their salaries, because staff pay is extremely modest, and because budget decisions are made at each school.

          I’m very glad to discuss what we do at Sudbury schools, and the discussion will be more productive, I believe, if various models aren’t lumped together, if no one model is expected to solve all social and educational woes, and if we avoid assumptions and generalizations as much as possible.

    • Project-based learning doesn’t come with a certain price tag–it can be done expensively, or thriftily, or anywhere in between. Many educators have found ways to cut costs, for example by relying on readily available or second-hand materials, harnessing the skills of volunteers from the community, etc.

      Incidentally, one of my forthcoming articles will focus on how some of the world’s least privileged young people (such as homeless children in New Delhi) have fared with self-directed (and project-based) learning. Stay tuned …

      • Matt

        I absolutely agree, I have seen fantastic project-based learning programs implemented in very tough schools with great results. I am a firm believer in it’s ability to do wonderful things for students who feel disconnected from traditional education. The best stuff I’ve seen has been very local, home-grown programs that are tailored by the teachers in a school to their students particular needs.

        My issue with this article was Dr. Zhao’s contention that a particular form of project-based learning–one used as far as I can tell only at very exclusive, admissions-based schools, can change capital-E Education, and that the barrier to affecting this change is “giving up entrenched beliefs and the sense of comfort offered by a system that emphasizes order, control and immediate tangible results in the form of test scores.” I would posit that a much greater barrier is that the landscape faced by most educators looks nothing like that found at Summerhill, Cherwell, New Technology High, or any of the schools mentioned by Mr. Smith below. To not acknowledge that very real and powerful fact is a slap in the face of all the educators who are trying very hard to make a difference in circumstances far more difficult than those found at swanky private schools populated by affluent students.

        BTW, is your upcoming article on the work that Sugata Mitra has done around cloud-based learning self-directed by students in classrooms in India? If so, please make sure to include a look at the results for all the children that did not participate in this project. Just like public schools have to take every student who shows up at their door, they are also required to teach students who have no desire to be there at all. Opening a school up to only those who are motivated enough to participate is a self-selecting process, just like pre-screening students before granting them admittance.

        • Bruce Smith

          Are there in fact schools that have to take all students — schools that aren’t allowed to expel anyone, schools that are equipped to handle young people with every identifiable need? What if, rather than focus on the schools, we shift our focus to the youth themselves and how they might learn best? Why not find ways to enable all families the widest possible range of educational options? Why should publicly guaranteed access to education have to mean government-run schools?

        • The form of project-based learning advocated by Dr. Zhao can be (and is) more broadly applied. But can it work effectively for all students in a single setting where everyone, across the entire spectrum of behavior, must be accommodated, and compelled to participate? Probably not … but can any learning strategy? So it might be more fruitful to re-examine the fundamental parameters and assumptions (they are not set in stone), and go from there.

          My forthcoming article is not about Sugata Mitra’s work, or anything else that hinges on technology. The featured programs (in the U.S., Thailand, India and Scotland) accepted children who were unwanted by their parents, other schools, and/or by society at large, and gave them considerable freedom and responsibility for their learning.

          By the way, another article I’m currently working on mentions schools that are quite democratic AND publicly funded. These two features can certainly co-exist.

    • erasmocepeda

      While I don’t read Dr. Zhao’s mind, I’d like to comment that several people had proposed different philosophies and pedagogical techniques or strategies that can be executed without incurring in big expenses. I’ve had some experience in that and I’ve seen the great potential those methods have. Now, it is important to emphasize there are several requirements for success and those requirements are not so easily met. Long story made short: teachers, kids, parents and culture. All of them pose resistance to the change. It is not necessary transform them completely, but certain key aspects, and that takes considerable effort. I’d say that’s why most of the public schools (and many of the private) remain anchored in obsolete practices.

  • BryanFreeborn

    There is an amazing middle school outside of Asheville, NC where this type of school is doing well and thriving.

    “Founded in 1962, Arthur Morgan School (AMS) is a progressive boarding and day school for girls and boys in grades 7, 8 & 9. AMS is located on 100 acres of farm and wilderness in the Celo Community, about an hour north of Asheville, North Carolina. Students and staff learn together by living together in a safe and supporting environment—sharing work, play, study, and decision-making. Students learn to question, evaluate, think creatively and work cooperatively while participating in a community that shares the Quaker values of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, stewardship and nonviolent conflict resolution.

    The program at AMS, reflecting Maria Montessori’s vision of a farm school for adolescents, is specifically designed to meet the needs and interests of adolescents and to foster their holistic development. Small academic classes, internships and a wide range of electives provide close attention to individual needs, hands-on learning and opportunities for creative self-expression. AMS’ program allows students to experience success in the classroom as well as on the farm, in the wilderness, in the arts, and in our internship programs.

    Through a combination of service work, study, community living and social interactions, students develop a life-long love of learning, valuable life skills, strong work ethics and respect for themselves, others and the environment. Instead of learning to compete, students learn to cooperate, care for themselves, their world, and each other. AMS is dedicated to helping students become responsible, compassionate, confident, and competent young men and women.”

  • Jens Peter de Pedro

    The fact that Dr. Zhao holds democratic schools as a model is huge! If you want to learn more about democratic schools in the USA, check out this page (that I help maintain):

  • Joey Moncarz

    There are a few serious flaws to this kind of school:
    1. The freedom given to children in a Summerhill-type school is based on how children evolved to learn, yet for most of human evolution the adults surrounding those children were engaged in largely sustainable behaviours essential to the survival of the group. Today, adults are largely engaged in behaviours that are contributing to the demise of all life on the planet. Thus, that “freedom to learn” perpetuates a diseased culture (industrial capitalism) unless the school explicitly challenges the dominant culture.
    2. Technology will never help bring about a better world. First of all (and what most people forget) is that corporations have always made technological gadgets for profit, NOT for the benefit of humanity. All the promises of technology are lies by corporations, just as corporations use the media to distort body image to feed the cosmetics, dieting and clothing industries.
    3. The production of these gadgets require the destruction of the environment (mines), pollution of land, water and air (with thousands of toxic chemicals), the destruction of communities (sweatshops and factories), and perpetual war to maintain easy access to raw materials and resources (more than 7 million dead in the Congo, more than 3.3 million dead in Iraq).
    4. Technology alienates us from each other and from nature, and reinforces behaviours and ways of thinking that are completely unsustainable (among which is a consumerist mindset). For more on this read anything by C.A. Bowers.

    I also suggest Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” and Michael Huesemann’s “Techno-Fix: Why Technology Won’t Save us or the Planet”.

    For what a healthy alternative to schools might look like, look up New Zealand’s The Kaitiaki Collective.

    Touting technology as a solution is something only possible among the privileged few in this world who are alienated from the true costs of technology. The rest of the world – and future generations – pay the price.

  • Steve Furman

    This evokes Montessori for me.

  • Interesting topic! If you wanna more info like that check

  • Art

    Zhao is incorrect. The current “program”, as he calls it DOES fully support the Entrepreneur. How? By providing her with an excellent foundation, and by providing the students with tools guaranteed to last a lifetime. I am proof.
    The problem is that the “system” of education, the public school, does NOT support the teacher. With it’s top down regiment, it tries at every step to quash her efforts. And it does.


Luba Vangelova

Luba Vangelova’s work has appeared in numerous print, online and broadcast media outlets, including The New York Times, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Salon. She is also working on a book about self-directed learning. Her web site is She also posts on Twitter and on her official Facebook page.

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