There are many great reasons to set up an entrepreneurship program or class in your school or district. And while it’s an exciting, rewarding, and beneficial thing to do as a high school educator, it’s helpful to be aware of what it really takes to go from the traditional way of teaching to a truly entrepreneurial classroom environment. There are multiple changes you will need to make as an educator to overcome the the current status quo of the education system.
Entrepreneurial Classes Must Value Experimentation, Not Right Answers
First, let’s define the kind of environment I’m talking about. It’s the kind of place where students sit with problems and tackle them in innovative ways, through creativity and experimentation. In an entrepreneurial classroom, young people can hone their vision and ingenuity, identify their strengths, take calculated risks, make mistakes and learn from them, and collaborate with each other to create something they might not be able to do alone.
This is a very different culture than the typical classroom, where the educator is the instructor with all the right answers. There is a structured syllabus full of memorization of facts and applying given frameworks to known problems.
This tends not to be how the real world works - heads of organizations do not have all the answers but instead set a vision and find the right people able to be resourceful and solve problems to execute against that vision. This is how the classroom should work as well, where the educator is a facilitator of ideas and problem solving, helping encourage students to reach towards an ambitious vision. There is not a clear answer for how to get there, so students need to learn to troubleshoot different options and experiment to optimize for success.
Education Must Prioritize Skills and Mindset, Instead of Just Knowledge
Possibly the biggest problem, though, is the inherent clash between the traditional educational mindset and the entrepreneurial mindset, and the repercussions on both students and educators.
The traditional educational mindset is rigid, demanding that all students show some basic level of competency in a wide range of subjects. It’s hyper-focused on bringing students to the same level across certain (some would say arbitrary) standards, regardless of whether those are valuable things to focus on or not.
Most schools — and therefore most classroom environments — are set up to reward coloring inside the lines, doing things in the prescribed way. There are right answers and right ways to get to those answers. Yet the problems themselves don’t get much exploration or afterthought. Students don’t always have the opportunity to sit with conundrums and try different methods of addressing them.
The entrepreneurial mindset, on the other hand, is all about digging into problems to first thoroughly understand them, then coming up with innovative ways to solve them. It’s not about seeking the right answer at every turn; it’s about exploration, agility, creating one’s own future, constantly learning and improving. It’s about having bigger reasons behind endeavors your endeavors than passing a class or doing well on a test. And it’s about balancing short-term success with long-term goals, which can be hard for high school students as it is.
Unlike the academic landscape, entrepreneurship doesn’t often unfold or wrap neatly. There is a lot of failure and it looks very different than it does in an academic context. Some of the following specific aspects of traditional education may trip up students when they try to approach entrepreneurship coursework:
Grades and (near) instant gratification: Students are conditioned to seek approval and reinforcement primarily in the form of grades and test scores. But, succeeding as an entrepreneur is not as straightforward as “getting an A”. Oftentimes, at the start of a business, some things will be working and others won’t, and it’s up to the founders to figure out which to focus on and assess just how well or how badly something is progressing.
So teaching students entrepreneurship using projects that get graded can create false expectations, but of course administrators may require teachers to present letter grades as assessments. Parents may expect it, school boards may demand it. And if you are able to get away from giving grades on entrepreneurial coursework, that might throw students (especially the ones who’ve always excelled academically and who are primarily motivated by grades) off and make them unsure how to proceed. They may not take the work as seriously because the rewards are not as plain as if they were being graded.
Teacher-student dynamic: The hierarchy inherent in traditional education — where educators are viewed as authorities and students are seen as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge — is also antithetical to how real-world entrepreneurship works.
While it is true that business owners have mentors, boards of directors, investors, and customers, all of whom give feedback on a continuing basis as to whether something is or isn’t working, none of those wholly dictate successful outcomes. It’s still up to the entrepreneurs to know which advice, from which sources, to take at which times and how to apply it.
Student resistance: Students who’ve spent their entire learning careers operating under that traditional education mindset may be understandably skittish about, confused by, and even resistant to the new ways in which an entrepreneurial mindset asks them to engage with work they do during school hours.
If students were not taught subject matter through exploration, they may not be prepared to do it when they jump into an entrepreneurial classroom. They may feel lost without a set of hard-and-fast rules, step-by-step instructions, or a formula to follow. They might fall prey to inertia borne of too many options. All of that may cause them to check out or shut down and not get as much out of the experience as they could.
Standardization: As I mentioned above, much of today’s education revolves around bringing students to specific standards across a handful of subject areas. It’s about teaching everyone the same skills, in mostly the same ways (textbooks, required reading, mass-written math problems). It asks everyone to know the same things to relatively the same degree, without much attempt to foster specialization or mastery in any single area. This dampens independent, out-of-the-box thinking, which entrepreneurs need to rely on.
While there are some key components to entrepreneurship, the spirit and journey are anything but standardized. There’s no multiple choice, or rather the number of options is endless and there could be 3 answers that are all equally good. Entrepreneurs need to be able to pick a path and set forth, then know when to change course or make small changes when things aren’t working. Yet this is the opposite of how things are presented in school settings.
Projects Should Allow Students Real-world Experience and Accountability
You and most of your fellow educators may not be expert entrepreneurs and may not have a lot experience either observing or doing much business building. Nor should you have to, considering everything else on your plates.
But it does mean that teaching entrepreneurship may seem deceptively straightforward. You might be tempted to gather up some well-received and easily accessible lesson plans (they abound online), put them them together into a loosely held unit that hits the major points (business plans, marketing strategy, customer acquisition, etc.) and set out to teach entrepreneurship.
One of the risks then, is having entrepreneurship feel paint-by-numbers, giving students a fractured and only theoretical experience of it. They don’t get the full, messy, hands-on insights because they’re not going about it organically or being informed by real-life startup founders’ experiences.
It’s important avoid the trap of teaching entrepreneurship without any input from actual business leaders, or without having read a fair amount about entrepreneurship yourself. And because of some of the roadblocks I mentioned above (time, energy, mindset), that can be a tricky thing to accomplish.
By this point it may seem like setting up an entrepreneurial classroom is more trouble than it’s worth and doomed to fail. It’s neither. Cultivating an entrepreneurial, self-directed, problem-tackling, destiny-creating mindset in your students is the best way to prepare them for the economic needs and challenges they’ll face when they graduate.
Recognize that Cultural Change Takes Time
Time — of which both students and teachers are constantly in short supply — may be the most obvious hindrance to building a truly entrepreneurial classroom. Considering the number of local and national standardized tests that students must take, and the number of weeks many teachers are forced to spend “teaching to the test”, there may not be much time (or energy) left for entrepreneurship. Aside from standardized tests, many schools and departments have some other required curricula that students must learn, which may or may not fit within an entrepreneurial framework.
Entrepreneurship is a process, one that can take months or years to understand and work within. And it’s something that requires full-on time commitment, attention, and work on a consistent basis. In other words, allocating 30-45 minutes once or twice a week to an entrepreneurial project doesn’t give students the opportunity to become fully immersed or to build momentum. So, whatever component of entrepreneurship is being worked on becomes just another lesson, just another piece of homework, just another unit of study they go back to between preparing for tests or learning the regular curriculum.
Without the ability to gain momentum and see results (hit milestones, observe growth), students won’t grasp the full scope of what entrepreneurship is. They won’t be able to thrive within the entrepreneurial mindset because they’ll be spending most of their time in the regular educational mindset.
An upcoming post will share some tips for setting up an entrepreneurship class or program at your school, which should help you with implementing many of these changes.