The Ace of Agency: Cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit in education

  • 2021
  • Leadership
  • Middle School
  • Primary
J Christine Greenberg, Primary and Middle School Principal


As in mathematics, a glorious solution begins with a problem.

Not long after finishing a chat with a particular group of children from whom there had been a greater number of incidences, I received this email from a student in my inbox: “Hello Ms. Greenberg, How are you? Are you available tomorrow at recess time for me to come up to your office to discuss some things related to today's discussion?” I responded, “Yes of course.” 
Next day, while tucking into lunch, I listened in earnest to two students as they explained, feeling that everyone wanted to celebrate Christmas, and not Diwali. It all started with a Diwali poster being taken down unwittingly by someone putting up a Christmas poster when Diwali was in fact, not yet over and other similar thoughtless happenings that good people fall prey to when they’re on autopilot. Our school should do more to celebrate the minority perspective, more than just the Festival of Lights or the G2 international festival, they said. 

If two students felt this way in our already incredibly international community in a cosmopolitan city like Hong Kong, then we certainly weren ‘t doing enough. Absolutely, we should do more, I agreed wholeheartedly and engaged them in earnest on how we should solve this. Should we talk to the people involved and give them feedback? I asked. “No,” one student said graciously, “It’s not that they mean to be mean by being less enthusiastic, it’s just I don’t think they know.” 

Just wow. I greatly admire this quality in people, and especially in children. It takes a tremendous amount of maturity and emotional intelligence to capitalise on the nature of the problem rather than dwell on how the problem makes one feel, moving swiftly pass from blame-seeking to working on solutions. We brainstormed how to address the issue and decided that we would organise a lunch club which worked with the Student Council and our SISP program to create a buzz about various cultures and perspectives. 

Our “little” lunch club has met a few times, and what started out with only three people, has now grown in membership to eight and counting with new students joining each Tuesday. In such a short time, the barely month-old International People’s Culture Club (IPCC) has its own website which now houses a growing mini-series of videos to teach others about games from different cultures that can be tried at recess, a Jeopardy game which will debut on Pajama day and an interactive world map. As well in the works, a podcast spotlighting an international playlist introducing songs from different countries, an exploratory email to SISP to create a larger scale international fair that supports the G2 world unit in the Spring and an international cookbook complete with its own student-made icons for allergens, plant-based and gluten-free. 

All of this, student-led and created, the exercise an absolute masterclass in agency. If there’s one thing that makes me feel we are truly succeeding in our mission, it is not just high test scores (which are strong!), or a beautiful campus (which is award-winning), it’s this elusive dynamic often lacking in “institutionalised” traditionally coercive, and hierarchical conventions like school. A place where students master reading, writing and arithmetic? Easy (in fact there’s probably an app for that). A place where children as young as ten years old battling the groans of pre-pubescent angst feel confident and empowered to see a problem and advocate for a solution? Well, that’s the ultimate educational grail. 

During a time when people are feeling their resilience pushed to the limits and mental health issues amongst children and adolescents are on the rise, I am especially appreciative of the cultural foundation we’ve built so that in spite of these strange, trying times, students feel confident and empowered to readily come forward with their own ideas and projects. Julie, one of our students, surveyed the student body on their feedback about school and then she met with me and the student council to debrief and determine what adjustments we could make. As a result of her survey and follow-up interview, we are looking into formalising student recess clubs in January, improving move-up day at the end of the year and exploring whether a vending machine that can allow students to do “toy trades” is feasible. Last week, the student masterminds behind Ace Bakes (which now partners with the IPCC) met with me to tell me about their new cookie baking venture and asked for advice and permission to market it to our THS community. The first batch arrived yesterday in little individually wrapped (thoughtfully done in paper, not plastic) packages and were placed in the pantry for faculty to purchase and sample. But better than the taste and texture of the cookies was the palpable buzz of four primary students rushing about the 5th floor with a sense of purpose and excitement to learn, do and make for themselves.

The power of the entrepreneurial spirit lies in the enduring  effects of self-efficacy - from the glint of the Eureka! moment to the satisfied realisation of  “I did this! I made this happen!” with all the self-taught skills mastered along the way: How to build a website, a video for a quick commercial, write a letter to inform or engage, create an online form to collect orders, compute to increase batch size and determine profit, navigate life skills of getting along with other people in your business - when to assert, when to acquiesce, of behaving professionally- showing up to work and making use of your time wisely. We keep hearing about how important it is for schools to provide a good academic foundation, but only recently have we heard how important it is to provide a capacity for self-employment and an appreciation for enterprise. Yes, we are certainly settling into the discomfort of unpredictable times, but the silver lining of unpredictability lies in harnessing creativity to find all the possibilities.  Fifty years ago, it would have been so difficult for a ten-year-old to own a company. Maybe she had a lemonade stand on the corner, but that was about as far as she got. Today, the internet’s reach and free and easy to use software and apps have a leveling effect on entrepreneurship. Except for the legality of ownership, age is no longer a barrier because never has it been easier for anyone to dream, design, refine, develop, and market to a greater audience. It may not always work but wow, what a lesson that is to learn at eight rather than 48! We are energised by the prospect of giving our students more opportunities to explore problems on their own - whether it’s forming a club to solve an issue or creating a business because they want to make a better cookie. It’s less about profit at this age and more about having that sweet taste of victory for a venture one cares deeply about, and worked hard for. We want our students to feel comfortable challenging themselves and empowered to effect change. They learn a lot about themselves, each other and the world, and sometimes there’s even a healthy sprinkling of fun along the way…how possibly could we define success as anything less?
We’ve been inspired by our students to provide entrepreneurial experiences and will be launching a dog biscuit company created by students of various grade levels at The Harbour School. We will need a small core steering group of students (Grades 4+) and parents who are interested to help and whose role will be to engage the rest of the student body in decisions from product development, branding and marketing. Meetings will begin in January and we hope to launch the product in May of 2022. If you are interested in joining, please send an email to Subject: Dog biscuit company by January 5, 2022 and we will reach out to you.

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