Briga Hynes & Sarah Drakopoulou Dodd
Despite the increasing supply of entrepreneurship education programmes, questions still remain unanswered, including several which relate entrepreneurial education to entrepreneurial learning. How can we teach students to learn like entrepreneurs? How does entrepreneurship education impact subsequent entrepreneurial know how? How can we develop innovative programmes that enable students to assimilate process and use information in an entrepreneurially relevant context? How can we help them to embrace the multifaceted and ever changing roles adopted in business formation and development?
We argue that the practice of entrepreneurial learning is integral to understanding entrepreneurial activity and business development. This learning is socially embedded and provides the entrepreneur with human and social knowledge resources. With an understanding of the dynamics and nuances of entrepreneurial learning, there is scope to more fully figure out how to develop entrepreneurial competencies in students. This is vital if we are to prepare them not only for the tasks involved in establishing and growing a business, but also in developing the mind-set to learn in an entrepreneurial manner.
Entrepreneurs learn through doing, in developing and sharing stories of their ventures, and through social interactions within their ambiguous and dynamic environment. Thus, a key challenge resides around how we can operationalize such learning - which connects the ‘knowing’ to the ‘doing’ - to create the ideal setting for the delivery and assessment of practice based action learning in the realistic context of the entrepreneurial world.
A central part of entrepreneurial learning is about constructing the ambiguous, uncertain and individualised reality of the entrepreneur. It is imperative that students too can come to perceive and construct that reality, so as to give meaning to the rest of their learning, which is typically acquired in the classroom. There is value in detaching students from their campus-based environment, and introducing them to the unpredictable and enigmatic habitat of the entrepreneur. This is not just about bringing real world into classroom, though that has also been shown to be crucial, but rather about bringing the classroom into the real world of the entrepreneur.
In addressing this challenge we have been reflecting on McLean’s (1973) statement that "the proper place to study elephants is the jungle, not the zoo" as an appropriate starting point. All too often, however, as educators we fail to consider what is the most appropriate “jungle” – which in this case is the entrepreneurial context. So, for instance, programmes such as student consulting teams assigned to solve business problems for an entrepreneur; internship programmes with small firms; or student work experience with entrepreneurs provide a more enhanced and realistic experience of what entrepreneurship is about.
We know story-telling is an important practice in making sense of the entrepreneurial adventure, and in sharing it with others. We have been making use of narrative inquiry to evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of “jungle-based” enterprise education. Students have been asked to “re-story” their experiences as entrepreneurial learners, on a module where they acted as management consultants to a small firm. What analysis of their re-storied narratives has clearly demonstrated to us is that the inclusion of entrepreneurial learning opportunities frames what and how they learn. It is difficult to decouple learning process and content from context, where the context mirrors the equivocal, multi-faceted and multi-directional nature of the challenges encountered by the entrepreneur. The students learn greatly by doing – or by “living in the trenches” with the entrepreneur as is evidenced in the sample of comments shown below:
‘I feel it is the first time that I learnt something that I can use in the real world’
‘The experience was very intimidating at first but as I got working with the entrepreneur I became a lot more confident in myself and my team’
‘The Entrepreneur I worked with fascinated with me with their creativity, motivation and drive and this inspired the team to work harder’
‘It made me realise this is reality and this “was it”- what I would be doing on a day to day basis – great way or preparing for the life of an entrepreneur’
‘I found the lack of structure and certainty difficult and challenging at the beginning but looking back I completely see the reason why it’s part of being an entrepreneur’
Furthermore, the evidence suggests a preference for continuous entrepreneurial learning processes, consisting of multiple practice learning tasks, rooted in related social learning mechanisms, including peer and reflective learning. These were felt to resonate with entrepreneurial learning in real life. Moreover, let’s remember that not all learning experiences of the entrepreneur are positive, and dealing with business failures or problems were viewed as an important source of learning for the students, and ones that could not could not be recaptured in a classroom scenario. In such a learning context students also share the personal challenges, and live up-close the experience of these business mistakes, feeling the personal rejection and the lows that are part of the life of every entrepreneur.
So in summary we suggest embedded (‘jungle-based’) entrepreneurial learning is grounded upon the provision of appropriate contexts that provide or simulate the experiences of which the entrepreneur will likely come across, so that entrepreneurial learning behaviours can also be facilitated. We note that re-storying these experiences enhances and deepens awareness of the nature of such “messy” learning, providing space for reflection and the making of meaning out of social practice.
However this is not without its challenges for educators and educational institutions and requires a change in how we view the acquisition of learning (knowledge and skills) as an on-going social accomplishment that is intrinsically tied to the context of the lived experience of entrepreneurship practitioners. Further we need to understand more about how students engage in meaningful learning when they have been abstracted from their classroom environment to the world of the entrepreneur. To address the above our approach to researching entrepreneurial learning must seriously consider those that capture the story and experiences of the students’ study - and indeed the entrepreneur - and indicates the need for more narrative research where the student is the central story teller of their experiences.
Briga Hynes, University of Limerick & Sarah Drakopoulou Dodd, ALBA Graduate Business School