Can We Teach Entrepreneurship and Innovation?

Can We Teach Entrepreneurship and Innovation?

Of course we can, but mainstream public education isn’t trying very hard.

I was born during the British Raj. During its reign, the only outlet for a native was to do well in school, which led to a “good” government job. Color between the lines, regurgitate the facts and do not question. Everything else led to poverty. The purpose of education had evolved from developing the lofty “higher” potential to a practical h-i-r-e potential. Even that was for a selected few.

American education was a refreshing change. Its universal education was the envy of the world and a foundation of its phenomenal success.

Alas—now universal education is everywhere. With this global levelling, the scope of preparing for a “good” job is dramatically different. Those industrial jobs in assembly, mining, etc. are increasingly automated, or outsourced and not likely to return. Right here in our backyard, I meet executives who have numerous jobs that are going unfilled, while there are people who cannot find a job.

Today, brain work is needed more than brawn work. Even heavy manual work requires specific expertise. The skills that are needed within a person’s lifetime will continue to ebb and flow. These concepts are not new; they are well understood. Yet there is a disconnect between preparing for that “good” job in the new economy and the factory-style education of our schools. Schooling from the very foundational level has to evolve to reflect this changing landscape.

What I find so ironic is that rote learning and teaching for the test, the hallmarks of my early education, are increasingly adopted in America, while the broad-based liberal education for creative thought that I envied in U.S. education is making inroads in the developing world.

This is not the first time a wholesale change has to be made in the U.S. schooling model to adjust to changing times. In the 1960s, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare John Gardner raised a storm in education circles. He posited that Americans believe in two fundamental but contradictory principles: 1. All men are created equal 2. May the best man win. The ensuing debate resolved the contradiction by providing equal opportunity to all children and then letting each find their own slot in society. It drove a sea change in elevating many students, including those who were being left behind because of the previous “elitist” bias of education. In turn, this change greatly raised the stature and expanded economy of the nation.

Today, we need to embrace several truths about the emerging economy and education:

  1. It is easier to create a satisfying job than to find one. But it requires the ability to constantly learn new things, relate them to your evolving needs and interests, and make things happen. This is the entrepreneurial trait. Even if we choose to work for a larger organization, entrepreneurial skills will continue to be highly prized.
  2. Entrepreneurship can be developed. From my own teaching experience with hundreds of college students, as well as academic research, there is enough evidence that, irrespective of intrinsic entrepreneurial instincts, education and training can enhance it. It need not be a separate curricula, but can be imbedded in existing courses in economics, business, history, science, psychology, sociology and vocational education. Besides implanting a culture of innovation, it will also perk up the regular curriculum.
  3. Entrepreneurship is not a pure academic discipline. It is a messy process, and learning happens through a blended model combining classroom education, online learning, internship and student-centric projects. Every student should have a personalized learning plan that tracks aspects of progress. Teachers can act as learning coaches.

Not surprisingly, a nascent movement has started for educating kids in the precepts of entrepreneurship. While entrepreneurship isn’t kid stuff, what underpins it can be learned by kids.

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While such programs are rare, one such charter school is in our backyard—Venture Academy in Minneapolis, where I serve on the board. From sixth grade onward it trains students to generate and implement new ideas, see patterns, take risks safely, call shots, solve problems and invent things. The aim is to train entrepreneurial leaders, whether the students see themselves building a business or not.

Venture serves a diverse student population, mostly of color, who had adverse experiences at other schools. This is a fertile field for building entrepreneurs. Proof of Venture’s success in creating entrepreneurs was manifest when four Venture students beat 10 adult teams to win the first prize in the 2016 Twin Cities Startup Weekend Education contest.

This innovative model has attracted national recognition. Venture is one of 20 schools nationwide to win an award by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and one of nine Bush Foundation individualized learning models. Since my focus is on developing the Minnesota ecosystem for entrepreneurship, it was impossible to turn down its offer of a board position.

To stand out in a competitive global economy and extend Minnesota’s economic vitality, we need entrepreneurial training that begins in our schools, and we need to make it a priority.

Dr. Rajiv Tandon is an entrepreneur, educator and mentor. He facilitates peer groups for CEOs in Minnesota and runs the Rocket Network and 100 Launches for propelling ideas into ventures (