Tucked away inside the Noblesville High School library, a room full of students make scribbles on a white, dry-erase board. Fired up from a live video-interview with Seth Godin, these teens start bringing their ideas to life as they collaborate in groups, answering the tough question, "why?" In this first episode of a two part series, CEO and Founder of StartEdUp, Don Wettrick demonstrates how innovation in the classroom creates disruption in the business world. He also hosts The StartEdUp Podcast.
Welcome to another episode of the ROI Podcast presented by the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, where we help organizations make better business decisions, I’m your host, Matt Martella, joined by, as always, Associate Dean of Academic Programs, Phil Powell. If you’re tuning in for the first time, first off, thank you for joining us. It’s an honor to spend this time with you each week. Normally we discuss practical business and leadership tips with the help of our faculty members or industry experts. However, this week, we have a special treat for you. We’re doing a two-part series, featuring CEO and Co-Founder of StartEdUp, Don Wettrick. His not-for-profit received recognition from progressive leaders, such as Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss, and Gary Vaynerchuk, just to name a few. He hosts a leadership podcast called The Started Up Podcast, which receives thousands of downloads per episode and they’re no stranger to Forbes Magazine either. Forbes has featured Wettrick numerous times for his progressive style of teaching. Don Wettrick is also a teacher at Noblesville High School where he’s disrupting traditional educational learning by letting students decide what THEY want to learn, then empowering them to do so.
Don Wettrick: This is a class at Noblesville High School, called Innovation and Open Sourced Learning. It's called that because the first six... seven weeks it's an innovation course. Like we literally try to teach you how to think for yourself, how to re-frame problems, how to create seekers and peekers, not moaners and groaners, I'll get into that in a little bit. And the rest of the year then, is open sourced learning in a sense that some of the things that you specifically want to learn that I'm not good at, you should build a network and find those people. So, if you said I really want to get into coding Python, I can't do that. But I can sure as heck help you find people that do know that. And so therefore they open source their learning… I don't like it when people moan, "well it's not what you know, it's who you know," okay, let's know people.
The big draw for students comes from the open learning environment. Tucked away inside the Noblesville High School library, a few dozen students collaborate in pods, not desks, working together to find solutions to ideas THEY generated. However, getting to the point of passion for these students takes intentional conversations, early on.
Don Wettrick: If you tell a student, "hey, go learn something." What? That is, and I'm going to call a timeout, because that's the hard part about this class, is that when I first started it, I set them free a little bit too soon. Because a lot of times kids go, "oh, finally a class where I can do what I want to do." What do you want to do? Oh, I don't know. And they're so used to being told sit down, shut your mouth and work on this. That's natural. So the freedom thing has to be released a little bit slower. Answering the fundamental question of why you're in school. And for years it was compliance. You know, I was just talking earlier before you came in. I didn't go... and I fully admit, when I graduated in 19-90-something, I didn't' go to learn. I went to go get a degree. Because in 1995, if you had a degree, you're good. That's dead! If you don't have skills, you're not employable. And that's mortifying to me because I think there are a lot of students that still have, because their parents, that worked for them... "Oh just go and major in anything, it won't matter." Yes it does matter! And if they don't come out with skills, it's hurting. So I think what's been resonating and I think two-thirds of the people on my show are entrepreneurs. They're rule breakers, they're let's try this my way. That is asking, "then why are we here? Why are we in this school?" Well it's to prepare our kids for the future.. okay, what is it about, what's futuristic about some of the things we do? And by the way, I think traditional education still has a place. You cannot be innovative if you do not know how to read. You cannot be innovative if you do not know how to communicate. You cannot be innovative if you do not understand or appreciate history or how it's going to repeat itself. So I still love education, but there has to be a time and a space where you are allowed to pursue some of your own autonomous interests and work for something that matters, to you. It has to have purpose. Because that whole B-S about, "why are we doing this?" "Because it's on the S-A-T." Oh God. That just doesn't matter in our modern world. We're never going to be smarter than a machine. If it can be automated, it will in the next five years. So what's truly important and what's truly being demanded is that people that are innovative, that have creative solutions. Because a machine can't do that. And I think that's starting to resonate with people. And I hate to be fear based, I really do. I'm a positive guy. But I think some of these things that are coming up, this train that is coming called machine learning A-I, whatever, that's starting to get people to go, "maybe there's something different here." So the curriculum is basically, we start the unlearning process? We start to look at... well first of all we build the culture. And that culture build includes some blogs, includes some things by Seth Godin, it includes a TedTalk here and there. We also go into the purpose. And we also start taking a look at where things are headed. Because I want them to see why they're here. Some of the kids signed up because their parents said they had read about it, or some of the kids heard from the other kids that it's a fun class, but I want to know fundamentally why you're here. So that why, we address first, Simon Sinek... hashtag Simon. So once we establish that why, then all of a sudden we start going into the nuts and bolts of how you break down problems. Collect and connect, which is not mine that was Tina Seelig at Stanford. We start going to little sprinkles of "D" school stuff, right? And then also, we start taking time like I just said, we just started on our social media profiles. How do you reach out to people? How do you collaborate with people? We were just talking earlier, we reached out to Ninja - you may not know who that is, but he's a famous streamer on Twitch and on YouTube and Twitter. And so we were talking about the power of social media. He got back with us in two minutes. A guy that's got millions of followers, and he starts sending us video messages. That's powerful. Because we're kind of demonstrating to the kids, please no middle fingers, no duck-face selfies, no "F" this, "F" that, you are professional. Treat yourself like a professional online. And if you do, people are like, "what the heck? This kids like 17-years old and building a business." And then we start teaching them, this is new this year, and I'm really excited about it, but we also teach them actual skills, especially in analytics. We're going to help them grow. And we're also going to keep the data on it and just show, no charge, because we have found that kids that can... they don't know what to work on quite yet, but boy are they experts at telling everyone else what to do. And then once they do, all of a sudden they're like, "you know what I should work on after this?" Same thing - we do that also with non-profits. We'll work with really small, we're talking a staff of three, kind of non-profit. Help them brand, help them gain awareness, help them raise funds. Then after I force them to work with a non-profit and a small business, now they're itching to go. And I should say with a clarification, this isn't an entrepreneur class, but it is. Again, it's innovation and open sourced learning. If something is truly innovative, and needed, I mean technically I could make a salt shaker into a punching bag and it doesn't mean its a good product. But if it's innovative and if it's needed you might as well take it to market, and then I promote entrepreneurialism.
The traditional model of education has a student complete a task, receive a grade, then based on your grade average, get your diploma. But Wettrick says, it’s far more than your grade in his class – it’s completing what you said you would do.
Don Wettrick: One of the hardest things to do in the world, is the things that you said you want to do. Right? I told myself I was going to lose 20 pounds this year, it did not happen. Why? Because I didn't have an accountability partner. So that reflection process is the way we grade, in the sense that, the things that you said you're going to do, I'm there to have you backwards design it. We fell out of calendar. We have a list of things we want to accomplish. If you didn't accomplish those, in your reflection, tell me why. Don't give me this flowery essay laden, great answer, like tell me what you struggled with. Because that's how we're going to get through this. And so, therefore, every two weeks they either give me a podcast, a YouTube post or a blog. We live in the greatest time to document everything, it's free on YouTube. So I'm like, even if you just don't show it to anybody, I will grade you. Because a lot of times, when you start talking out loud, you start making connections. So you start telling me what you need to move forward. Secondly, if I've gotten to them, they do understand branding. People love that hero's journey. So if all a sudden you see a kid on YouTube or has their own podcast and they're like, "okay, here's what I'm moving towards. I really need to know more about this kind of coding language or I need to know more about this engineering thing." Then they'll start building an audience and adults will reach out and they'll go, "here's where you're going wrong." And they start offering help. They start building a network at 17/18! That is why I reflect and that is how I grade. And so it's kind of crazy, I know. And I've actually gone through several different variations I grade, but that's the one I've stuck with the longest. In that, they kind of start making their own connections and they tell me how they're going to move forward. I mean there are some students that still comply, just to comply. And by the way, this class is not for everybody. It's just not. I've noticed that. There are some people that like... case and point, there was a really, really nice student who, towards the first semester, it looks like she was going to start crying. I'm like, "what's wrong?" She's like, "this is the only 'B' I have." And I go, "okay?" And she was like, "Well, I'm just..." and there was this long pause, and I go, "Do you want an 'A'?" And she didn't know what to say. And I walked over to my computer, I logged in and I go, "It's done. You have an 'A'." - "Well now I feel guilty." I said, "okay, are you in this class to satisfy me? Or are you in this class to pursue things in your life?" And in that answer, she knew she was in this class to get a good GPA. She's not meant for this class. Nice girl, oh my gosh nice girl. But she was still under that old model, and that's fine. Then I have some kids, I had one of my most brilliant students, he had a "D". And I'm like, "could you please turn in your reflections?" - "Oh.. I'm too busy." Why? He was basically freelancing for two tech firms. He was making money. "Wettrick, I don't have time for your silly... I mean it's good for the other kids, but I'm busy." What do I say? Like at the end of the semester, I had to look at myself in the mirror and go, "this is my best student, and he's getting a 'D'." And I apologized to him and I'm like, "I gave you a 'C' because I felt guilty about it." He's like, "don't worry about it man, I don't care what my GPA is." Like he barely graduated anyway. That "C" ended up being his best grade. And so, learning? He was learning constantly. That other girl, she really hadn't taken away much from the class other than, she was doing all of her reflections and they were always very measured, she did it as a blog, and the grammar was perfect, and that's cool and all, but actual wanting to do better and do things outside of the school? She's doesn't want to do.
And it’s the students that push past simply getting an “A” who gain the most value. In fact, those are the students who make a tangible difference in the world.
Don Wettrick: We've had some companies launched from the class. We've had, probably our biggest story of last year, we had two students who connected with a contact we know in Ghana, and they raised money to start a school in Ghana. Not hand over to the Red Cross, but they went out and left. And spent two months in Ghana. Like, that's crazy. And then also got to work with people like Scott Harrison. We've also had our e-sports team that has turned into their own business. They now consult for other schools that want to start e-sport leagues, so they charge now per-hour for other schools wanting to start an e-sports team. Matter of fact, they're working with some people at Atlantic Records, like they're big time now. I'll be asking them for money soon. And then, this is shameless, this is terrible of me, but even like my daughter having this mindset. I'll never forget this, this pivotal moment. We're in the car driving. I speak, here and there. And so one time we had one of those driveables in Illinois, and Ava and I are in the car. And some God awful celebrity gossip minute came on the radio, like what Kim said to Kanye or something stupid. And all of a sudden, before I could turn the channel, Ava goes, "This! This is the problem with my generation and Millennials. This right here." I'm like, "What do you mean?" And she's like, "Dad, more Gen-Z people take life instructions from what, you know, what Ariana Grande said last night and they don't even know who Tim Ferriss is. They don't know who Simon Sinek is." I'm like, "you're right." And she's like, "I swear to God, Gen-Z needs better mentors. That's what they need." And then she pauses and she has that light in her eyes, she's like, "Mentors.. mentors with a 'Z'.. mentors, I should start my own podcast called Mentorz. And then I would have an excuse to interview all these great leaders that mentors should know. It would be my excuse to talk to Tim Ferriss." I'm like, "That's a really good idea." And then her being my daughter, she's like, "And I don't need your help." I'm like, "Why not?" And she's like, "I'm not going to ride off your guests, I'm going to find my own." Her podcast is amazing! So that's shameless because I'm a dad and just promoted my daughter's... but even that moment, on full display was her new way of thinking. Sh was not like that a couple of months ago.
So then, how does Wettrick define success for his students?
Don Wettrick: That's the hard part. Sometimes you don't see success for another six months, eight months, a year. I dare say, a lot of times, our kids, our students come back and go, "Oh my gosh, I get it now." That's fine! Some of the measurables are very difficult and I hate the term soft skills because it sound less than. But some of the soft skill, some of the network build - when our students are building this great hub of collaborators, you may not see their product, their LLC for another year or two. But what you do see is them being able to think for themselves. To get out of the group think mentality. That is something we truly love and that we can also be opportunity seekers. That's what I was talking about earlier. That mindset of seekers and peekers not moaners and groaners. I think the biggest waste of human potential right now is that people are online looking for something that our president said that offended them. Or looking for something that Nancy Pelosi said that offended them - both sides. People will spend God knows how many hours looking to be bothered. Meanwhile, our seekers and peekers have this mindset difference of, "I'm going to go out and I'm going to seek opportunities." And when they start to congregate with each other, seekers start... like doers congregate with doers. And then once they're a community they can peek around the corner. They can see what's next. We've had some students pick out trends like 2-years in advance. Like, case and point, two and a half years ago, two of our students said we should get into E-sports game, it's going to be huge. And dag-gon if they weren't right. So the seekers and peekers mentality you do see fairly quickly once you break them out of that matrix, but the hard thing, again, is that sometimes the financial success might not come for another two, three, five years later.
That’s all the time we have this week. Come back next week as we continue with part two in this two-part podcast with Don Wettrick, CEO of StartedUp and teacher of the Innovation and Open Sourced Learning at Noblesville High School. If you enjoyed this podcast and want to hear more, hit that subscribe button on your favorite podcast app. While you’re there, leave a review. We would greatly appreciate your feedback to bring you the best content we know how. This has been another episode of the ROI Podcast presented by the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, where we help organizations make better business decisions. I’m your host Matt Martella. See you next week.