In this episode, Doris Korda speaks with Janez Gorenc, an English teacher at Gimnazija Novo Mesto in Slovenia. Janez shares his journey to teach entrepreneurship in order to change education for his students so that they develop practical, essential skills and knowledge.
Do School Better: A Podcast for People Who Want to Transform Education
Doris: Hi, Janez.
Janez: Hi, Doris.
Doris: How are you? It’s great to talk to you.
Janez: Oh, I’m very fine thanks. I’ve been spending the week in Oswego, upstate New York, with a couple of students.
Doris: Nice, Janez. If you could start by talking about yourself, what you do. And why you think entrepreneurship education, why you’ve been so passionate about this kind of education in Slovenia and with your students?
Janez: So, as you said I come from Slovenia. I’ve taught English for 21 years at the Novo Mesto Gymnasium. The Novo Mesto is my town. And about seven years ago or eight years ago, I came up with the idea that… because my school is sort of like a general education school, I came up with the idea that we needed to implement entrepreneurship into education because, students, I thought or I believed, were not getting enough practical knowledge, practical skills. So, I started implementing certain programs that I thought were entrepreneurship programs into my English classes. It was, of course, all about business plans and selling soap and or lemonade stands.
Then, later on, I joined a program which was international and it was a multi-schools. So I learned about different methodologies. I learned about doing it the startup way, doing it the lean startup way. Later on, when I started connecting with the ecosystem, you know, the startup ecosystem, I learned also design thinking, the Google-Sprint. Basically, what I started doing was connecting to people outside of education, reading blogs about stuff that is outside of education. And yet, I found how much education there is in there. Because basically, startup as Steve Blank says, of course, you’re learning about your scalable and repeatable business model. So you have to learn, you have to go out, get out of the building, test your hypothesis. And I said, “Wait a minute, but this is education. It’s just education in the real world.”
So I started implementing it in my afterschool to some entrepreneurship as such is afterschool activities now. I started implementing this in my afterschool activities. I saw that it was headed for a dead end because I cannot lecture Lean Startup, I cannot lecture “Get out of the building.”
And then I heard about this Doris Korda from Hawken, and I thought, “Okay, what is this all about?” And I read about you in the Steve Blank blog. Here’s someone who finally is doing entrepreneurship the right way and not the “lemonade stand” way. And I read about, you know, how you do it with authentic challenges.
So, of course, I got very, very enthusiastic. We connected over LinkedIn. You invited me over to, you know, “Do you want to come to the workshop?” I said, “Yeah, maybe some other time. I can do it on my own.” And I tried with the challenges and of course, it didn’t work.
But slowly, slowly, slowly, I was trying out new things. And then, finally, when I did come to Cleveland which was last year. Even though I’d read about it, for me, it was an epiphany, in a way. When I heard what your curriculum is all about. And it’s interdisciplinary. And it is, you know, teamwork all through the semester. And it isn’t, you know, your regular testing but it is basically…I don’t even remember how you give them grades, sorry. But…
Doris: That’s okay, that’s great. I’m glad you don’t remember that. It’s so not important.
Janez: No, it’s not, because it’s the process that’s important. And I saw some of your students what they became. I also picked up on the de-schooling process, which is so important. And it has, you know, “If you don’t do that it will always backfire.” And I heard other teachers also, from other American schools, private schools, some public schools. I met Australian teachers and they were all coming up against the same…let’s call them challenges. And I thought, “Okay, schools are very, very similar to one another everywhere.” And I sort of felt, “Okay, so in Slovenia, we’re not that bad. Actually, we’re pretty good in this.” And when I came back, I was determined to start things completely differently.
I said, “Okay, I’m going to implement great changes. I’m going to do a revolution, both in my English class as well as my entrepreneurship class. And in my English class, I reset my classroom. In some classes, from where I stand, they were doing wonderful jobs. I gave them a challenge…like for instance, they were taking a mountain trip and I gave them a challenge of “Okay, you’re going to the mountains. So, what are you going to take in your backpacks? What food are you going to pack? What clothes are you going to pack?” This is all vocabulary in English. “What’s the weather going to be? So how are you going to prepare? What’s the terrain going to be like?” And they had to look. They had to look at the weather forecast, they had to look at the terrain, you know, on Google Earth or and I don’t know Wikipedia and present reports. “This is what we’re going to wear, this is what we’re going to take with us because so and so and so.” I didn’t write anything on the board, first hand. Of course, they did all the research and then they made the presentations. Then I wrote a lot on the board.
But somehow, this didn’t work for them. I still haven’t figured out why. Basically, what it did was in like four or five months it…I’m going to use some wordplay here… it wildly backfired. And then I had to revert to traditional teaching, which I hate, which I really hate. But at that point there was no other way, I just had to write everything on the board and they copied it in their notebooks and then reproduced it on the test, and then it was okay. I was appalled by this, by my own failure. But sometimes, it just doesn’t work. In other classes, it works wonderfully.
Doris: This is so interesting, why do you think that it backfired? What do you think happened?
Janez: What I think happened…this is my perspective, so it’s assumptions, right? But my assumptions, and based on some research, at the end of the school year, we have our Matura tests, which is like SATs in America or A Levels in Britain. And they get points. The kids get points on these Matura tests. And these points then are open doors to different colleges. And some colleges, like medical, for instance, is very, very hard to get in, and you need lots of points. And you also need lots of points on your regular grades, which we give. Like in English, in two semesters, every student gets at least six grades. Which means four written tests and two oral tests in English alone. And they’re under a lot of pressure. And I think, I believe that the main reason why they come to our school or any school is to get good or as many points as possible, as easily as possible, to get into their desired college. And knowledge or skills that they get is secondary, in most cases. This is what I believe. And I know that kids are getting stressed out about this Matura earlier and earlier. And they literally believe that if they fail in June, if they don’t get enough points, they’re going to become, I don’t know, rubbish collectors. But if they do well then, you know, Golden Highway to Heaven is open for them. And nothing else can go wrong.
Doris: So what you’re saying…. this is so interesting. So, they’re learning English by doing research, creating a presentation and a solution. to this. What would you take with you? What do you need? But it doesn’t…and probably, I base this on my own 21 years of teaching. They actually would end up learning English more deeply and better, and would probably perform better on those standard English tests. But they don’t know that, and they’re getting worried because you’re not feeding them the vocab words in the usual way and they’re thinking, “Oh, my gosh, I’m not getting prepared for the test.” Is that…?
Doris: Yeah, so you just kind of summed up the state of education globally, and what we’re all fighting against.
You know, when I was teaching math, and as you know I taught math for 14 years and developed these different methods. As a math teacher, I experienced what you’re talking about in a huge way. That was the de-schooling that I had to do as a math teacher. And the other math teachers teaching the same courses that I was teaching, we were all supposed to cover…I’m making this up but let’s say chapters 1 through 12 in a textbook, and in the first several weeks, sometimes months of the class, the other teachers teaching the same class could point to their progression. “Oh, I’m on section 2.1, then tomorrow is 2.2, then tomorrow is 2.3.” And in the beginning of the class, I wanted to make sure students had the deep foundational knowledge of the concepts and really deep understanding. So I wasn’t following along in the textbook. And the other teachers would look at where I was and they were worried about me and my students. But then, in the second part, after we got through that, the students in my classes not only completed all those chapters worth of content much more quickly than in the other classes, but they ended up with much higher test scores. And the reason wasn’t that the difference in the students or the difference in teachers, it was the different in the methodology.
But in the beginning, you know, the parents and students looking at my class versus the other classes, if they had done that comparison, may also have been worried. Does that sound similar to what you’re talking about?
Janez: It does sound similar when you said they were worried about you, that is exactly what is sometimes happening to me. I’m not saying any teachers are worried about me, but some students, I get the feeling, are worried because they cannot compare the way I teach with how other teachers teach, and they don’t know whether they’re doing anything at all. This is how I feel, that they are feeling. And I tried to…I don’t know, calm them down. Individual conversations. You know, “Why do you worry so much.” And try to present the rationale about why I teach the way I teach, and because this is the only way I believe teaching or learning can be done. I mean, that is the best way learning can be done.
But still, sometimes, I struggled with this myself. So, “Am I doing the right thing?” You know, “Am I… sorry, screwing everything up for them?” I just don’t know. I feel I’m doing the right thing, but I just don’t know.
Doris: Well it’s hard when you’re alone, right?
Janez: Yeah, I mean alone. Okay, so obviously, things are catching up. I’m very, very happy to say. Things are catching up. Like I said, in Slovenia, we are getting to the entrepreneurship things. The startup methodology, which you use, and we use here, have caught on really, really fast. And the teachers who are doing this…except, and even in business schools. Even though their curriculum does not use this. They still use, as far as I know, the business plan stuff. The teachers there are catching on very quickly because they can see that it doesn’t work. And many, many of them are using the startup methodology, Lean Startup Methodology. Many of them don’t even know what it’s called, but they just use it because they’ve heard about it somewhere.
The ecosystem that I mentioned also is very strong. I’m part of that ecosystem so I help whenever I can. For teachers, for instance, every fall we have startup weekends for teachers that are not meant so much to produce new companies but are meant to give teachers or allow teachers to get to know new methodologies and use them in practice while they are there. And this is great. Not 40,000 teachers, of course, have done this but several hundred have, and they’re the ones that are trying to implement new methodologies…I will say more realistic and better ones.
It is also very, very important to have absolute support and trust from the school’s leadership. I have a headmistress who supports what I do, I think, anyway 100%.
Doris: It seems like it, it sure seems like she does. I mean, it’s really exciting, yeah.
Janez: Yeah, I mean, if I may just in a story. So, these two girls that are here on the entrepreneurship competition. We won the national competition amongst 64 teams, they came out the best. They qualified for Oswego. And of course, they needed this and that papers. And then there’s another team which has been invited to our best startup accelerator in Lubiana, that’s in the capital city.
Doris: Another one of your teams?
Janez: Another one of my teams, yes. It’s more like a satellite team because they were in the club on and off. But they didn’t need to be because they are so driven. And they needed to skip the last month of school, they needed some money that they got as a donation transferred to the accelerator from the schools, they needed to buy a web domain, they needed to buy some logo stuff. And the headmistress needed to approve this. You know, I’ve heard of headmasters around in different schools complicating. You wouldn’t believe, but our headmistress, she just said, “What do you need? Yeah sure, just give me the papers.” She signed them, no questions asked. And I mean, I must…I hope she isn’t listening. But it’s such a relief to have someone on the other side who is listening to you, and she just understands what you want and no complications. “Yes sure, let’s do it.”
Doris: Janez, I don’t think it’s just a relief. I think it actually essential. I think for these things…it’s one thing to do startup weekends, pitch competitions. And those are good things. But what you’re trying to do, which is very difficult work. You’re an in-school teacher trying to change the way academics are delivered and done in school. And to have the support of the leadership of your school is essential. You can’t do it otherwise.
Janez: Yeah, yeah, definitely. These are the key players and if they’re not in on it then you can do anything. You struggle.
Doris: So tell me about what this has been for these two girls that are your students that are with you? Talk about what has this done for them. What have you seen? What has the learning been like for them?
Janez: Well, okay. So, I admire them all the more because they’re final years. While everybody else or all of their schoolmates have been preparing for Matura in the last three months, they have literally…I mean, they came to me in the end of February and they said, “Okay, you know, we have honey production at home, and we’d like to make some money. You know, we have made some lip balm, we would like to sell it. Can you help us out?” And I said, “Okay, so let’s be a bit more ambitious than this. Let’s try to you know, make a business model. And then there’s this competition, by the way, probably not interested, but let’s try to get in there. And you know, just write a business model.” And they had to do the Doris Korda authentic challenge methodology that you do or is normally done in one semester, in like two weeks. And I said, “Okay, right.” And fortunately, the boyfriend of one of them is also on the team that is in the accelerator now. So he helped them out.
But you know, when they sent me their first business model about their lip balm, what I did…and they took it against me at the time, I know, they were very angry. Then they would have killed me. But what I did was I didn’t go and correct it in the tests. “No, no, no, no, no, I’ll correct. I’ll write it instead of you.” You know, like some sometimes it’s done. But I just wrote…it was in Google Docs obviously, and I just wrote comments. I just said, “No, this doesn’t work. Write it the other way.” “Do you really think so?” You know, I asked them questions that I gave them like, “Honey. Look into the honey market. Look into the honey cosmetics market.” And I just gave them like 100 links. “Look into this.” And they only had like five days to come up with a viable business model.
I’m lucky I wasn’t there when this was going on at home because I heard several stories. And you know, Doris, I have no hair left, almost. So I mean, it was agonizing.
Doris: Well, because if I may say…and this is why when you try to do this as an afterschool club and you get kids excited to do it because they think they’re going to do fun pitches and then they find it’s really hard work, this is why so many drop out. Because what you did is you forced these girls to do the research, to do the homework, to validate, to have evidence-based, data-backed solutions. And they don’t want to, they want to just say, “Here’s what I think we should do. Isn’t this great?” Pat pat.
Janez: Yeah exactly, but they persisted. They persisted, they worked like you know, deadline is midnight, Monday midnight. They worked, I think, till 11:45 p.m. and then they sent it. Not expecting anything, they said, “Ah, we’re newcomers, this is a waste of time.” But then they got into the finals, they were among the top 10. And while the other teams, I think, were pretty complacent. “Ah what we did, we’ll just pitch.” They worked for the whole 10 days like crazy. Improving, improving, improving on their business model. And when they went and they pitched, they blew everybody away.
And as I said, I mean, I have to consider, while their schoolmates were studying for the Matura, preparing for the Matura, they were doing this. And I must say I was shocked when I saw some of their photos that they were selling their lip balm. You know, inside the Junior Achievement Program. You can do this. They looked so young and fresh, and rested. And if I saw them like two months later, Doris, I was shocked. I said, “Jesus, you know, what have I done? What have I done?” They looked like 10 years older. But they studied so hard for their exams. Even now, when we’re here on campus, they were preparing for the exams. When we get back…by the way, I get back home tomorrow on Sunday. On Monday morning, at 6:00 a.m. I’m in school, in my suit and tie, getting ready for the oral examinations. But so are they.
Doris: So they’re studying now for the Matura. But Janez, I have a question?
Doris: Think about these two girls at the very, very beginning when you first met them, and then now. And talk about what have they learned, what is their growth been? What do you think has come out of all this? It’s really exciting that they won and that out of 64 teams they’re brought to the U.S. for this competition. But what do you think the learning has been for these two girls?
Janez: Well, that’s the more exciting part. I mean, yeah, coming to the United States is always exciting, but in the end, as teachers, “Okay, what did they learn?” Well, I will say that they have grown immensely as people. They have learned that…just yesterday, when we were coming home from the Niagara trip, we went to the Niagara Falls. We had a good conversation on the bus. And they said, “You know what, three months ago, before I started this, everything I started was, ‘Ah I can’t do this, I can’t do this. It’s too hard, it’s too hard.’” They said, “But now, look, I mean, anything I do, it is hard but I know I can do it.” So this is maybe…they don’t share everything with me, you know, they’ve had enough of me. But they’re frank and they’re open about this. They’re very, very open in their conversation with me what they liked, what they didn’t like about my methodology. As I said, they held it against me that I didn’t write the pitch instead of them. But now, you know, they’re here now.
Doris: Now they’re proud. Now they know they can do anything.
Janez: Exactly, and also when, you know, they did interviews for admissions, there’s another team from Slovenia and they got invitations to these interviews, and the two girls just tagged along, they came along. And you know, they asked questions…this guy, I didn’t wanna ask any questions for them. I said, “Okay well, you know, if you wanna get in, you’ll ask questions. I’m not doing anything for you. I’m not going to study in the United States.” And they asked very, very relevant questions. And they got enthusiastic about it and they said, “You know what, I could actually come and work here.” Well, you know it costs money, but then, of course, you can get the grant and you can do this and that, and you have to do the SATs.” And “Yeah, no problem.”
I mean, if I compare their mindset to the mindset of your let’s say, average regular high school kid. They’re talking about what would be for some of them, insurmountable challenges, for them, it’s, “You know, we’ll do this in April. We’ll do this in February. In the meantime, we’ll try to sell some stuff and you know, earn money. And then, “Oh yeah, there’s these girls we’ve connected with from Cambodia, let’s you know, maybe try to start a collaboration with them and go there, you know, just on holiday, yada yada…” And I said, “Wow.” I didn’t know them before. I don’t teach them otherwise. I don’t teach them English and they were not in the entrepreneurship class. But I feel that they have grown and gotten aged too, I’m afraid. But they’ve grown so much. They’ve grown so much.
Doris: Well, so you here’s my question, Janez. I’ve watched you. I’ve seen you. You have been absolutely devoted tirelessly to being a pioneer in these things and as you’ve done a very good job of describing this, it’s really hard. What do you believe this can mean for Slovenia? Why are you continuing to push this so much with Slovenian educators and education?
Janez: Okay, so usually, I’m not a sports fan, okay? I don’t have my favorite football team. I don’t have my favorite basketball team or any kind of team. I do some jogging and that’s it. But when asked about favorite teams I say, “Well, you know, my favorite team has 2 million players. And I wanna see them win. And I’ll do anything I can to help. And that’s Slovenia.” I am very, you know, proud of my country. And it’s very difficult to define “proud.” I think, you know, when you’re proud of your country then you see everything that’s wrong with it, and you are…I don’t watch the news, by the way, I feel sick when I watch the news.
Doris: Yes, me too.
Janez: But still, you know, personally, I’ve turned from a guy who…20 years ago when I see myself. A guy who complained about things, a guy who doesn’t do anything because it cannot be done, into a person who now…and I’m quite proud of this. Every person…even maybe I don’t get that well along with them, you know, some teachers some…but I try to find what’s best in them. And I try to find, “Okay, what can we do together?” And you have a school full of teachers who will not do project work, who will not do authentic challenges. Okay, a whole school of teachers that’s a bit over generalizing. How many can, for instance. And I will go and I will find them. And I will try to work with them or they will try to work with me. Not very easy, I must say. I’m not an easy person to work with. But no, difficult to admit but I do have…
Doris: Hey, I was with you. I don’t see that. I think you’re delightful to work with. I loved working with you. But keep going.
Janez: Yeah, and my vision…right now, for instance, entrepreneurship in schools has been done mostly by dedicated and devoted teachers, like myself. That’s why I said the start of methodology has been implemented so widely otherwise, it would not have been. And the government institutions that supported this were mostly coming from different sectors, other sectors than the education sector. Now, the education sector has…okay, I’ll use a term “woken up a little bit” in this respect or there are some determined people there, and they’re determined to catch up because they also see. And they’re in the ministry, top positions. But they see that this type of education isn’t going anywhere. Of course, we also…
Doris: Meaning the current type of education isn’t going anywhere.
Janez: Current type of education. And just like me, seven years ago, “Okay, we need good entrepreneurs, so let’s do entrepreneurship in school.” Yeah, I still think we need great entrepreneurs and I’m doing everything in this field. But as you also say very often, entrepreneurship teaching can be used as a vessel for anything, any kind of teaching, right? Because in the end, if you’re learning something, well, why not learn how to do something for other people and make it usable for them? So that is the essence of entrepreneurship. And I see, like the Ministry of Education has a plan or I don’t know whether it’s a plan or a dream. But to implement entrepreneurship into all schools primary, secondary, and university within six years. Now, this is a challenge…I don’t see how it how it will be done. I’m trying to…okay, this is a bit ambitious, but I’m trying to get into the team that is going to do this because I feel, of course, I have the competencies.
And I feel that this is the right way forward done properly because I believe that if you do this, maybe you start by saying, “Okay, we need great entrepreneurship and we need the subject of entrepreneurship.” But as you look into the ecosystem and how it’s done and the interdisciplinary stuff you come to realize…and that’s why I’m so happy that we’re having a workshop in the fall…
Doris: Yes, I’m excited to come to it. I really am. So excited.
Janez: So, well, you know, I’ll try to bring as many key people there responsible because I feel that, you know, in order to get from, “Okay, we need entrepreneurship” to “We can do it this way.” You have to walk a certain path. I did, and many people will have to also, in order to be able to see that you cannot teach about entrepreneurship you have to do this and do it in the Wildfire way. Meaning authentic challenges, interdisciplinary. And I’m really excited about this.
Doris: Well, Janez, I am too and I’m very excited about your team. And you’re a phenomenal team leader, I have to say. Thank you so much for talking to me today.
Janez: Thank you, also Doris, for having me on this podcast. It was a great privilege and great honor for me. And I must say I look forward to collaborating with you, and Wildfire in any way possible in the future…
Doris: Well, we’ll put on a great workshop in October.
Janez: Yeah, definitely. And using your methodology in school or anything I might be doing. Because in the end, just like some people say, “entrepreneurship is everywhere, entrepreneurs are everywhere.” Well, education is also.
Doris: That’s right. Thank you, Janez.
Janez: Thank you, very much Doris.