Three Thoughts after ISBE 2019

The theme of ISBE 2019, hosted by Newcastle and Northumbria Universities, was ‘Space’, and the idea was to share and discuss findings and lessons from research to influence the worlds of academia, policy, practice. Sounds pretty standard conference agenda stuff. But what ISBE 2019 did was more powerful, and much needed. From the diverse and provocative opening panel, brilliantly facilitated by new ISBE President Kiran Trehan, to the challenging and more socially aware conversations in and around the enterprise education track, the tone of the conference felt more relevant and engaged than I had previously experienced. Here’s three things I’m still thinking about…

  1. Setting the tone…

This is the fifth ISBE I’ve attended, and I must admit that sometimes I’ve experienced it as an alternate universe, somewhat disconnected from the reality I’m experiencing. My enduring memory from last year’s panel was a conversation about failure, and that phrase ‘fail fast, fail often’ was deployed to characterise how entrepreneurs should approach business life and death. I’ve run a business since 2013, and there have been times of financial jeopardy, not least when big organisations such as universities and Local Enterprise Partnerships have taken so long with contracting and payment that I’ve had sleepness nights thinking: is next month going to be the month that I go bump? As a divorcee, mortgage payer and mother of two dependents, the bravado of failing fast and often just doesn’t chime. I prefer Allan Gibbs view that there is huge tenacity and inventiveness in survival, especially when people face practical, social and material constraints beyond their control. Whilst I was braced to repeat the experience – of not feeling represented during the panel discussion – it started to become clear that this panel was not going to be more of the same. First, the panel was diverse, not just in social make-up, but in philosophy. Yes, there were go-getting entrepreneurs and pragmatic policy makers/politicians, but there were also critical scholars, articulating the kinds of frustrations that better reflect the world I feel I observe. There was Kiran Trehan’s challenging opening; demanding reflection and critique from the panel and the audience. And then it started: talk of inequality, class and intersectionality. Monder Ram asked the audience: why don’t we provide courses on entrepreneurship and inequality, where’s the professorship in entrepreneurship and inequality?’. Then Susan Marlow told the audience: ‘if we keep doing this dance around inequality, we’re giving a massive excuse pass to those who facilitate unequal structures.’ By this point I was exchanging astonished looks with colleagues and tweeting that #ISBE2019 ‘has had a personality transplant.’

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Kiran Trehan asked delegates to consider: is what we are doing supporting the status quo, or challenging the status-quo? Personal responses to that kind of question will be somewhat related to whether or not the status quo is working out well for you or not. For many, many people, the status quo is iniquitous and precarious. Risk and uncertainty has been passed on to individuals through the gig economy. The widely promoted idea that everyone is an entrepreneuring-homoeconomicus and the pervasive philosophy of competition and market ideals has weakened values of collective responsibility, cooperation and kindness. It strikes me as odd why the entire research community isn’t more interested in these kinds of issues. Seeing such issues as something for the critical track limits the thoughtfulness needed to illuminate the role of research in reproducing such ideas, and the effects which can transpire from them. But opening the conference with this panel, talking about these things, created space for such issues to be drawn into track discussions. As someone said in the enterprise education track ‘I’ve never heard the word class uttered at ISBE before, and now I’ve heard it from the opening panel and in this room.’ Certainly, in the enterprise education track, this opening set the tone for more critical discussions, more challenge and more reflection than I have witnessed before. Long may it continue.

2. Aspirations vs Expectations…

Emboldened by the critical opening to the conference, there were more in-track conversations about the role that individual and social context might play in how enterprise and entrepreneurship education impacts different people in different circumstances. A conversation around student ‘aspirations’ to start a business got me thinking about a side project I’m working on with Jakob Werdelin for HeppSY, about developing confidence and resilience in a Widening Participation context. In WP, the ‘aspiration raising’ discourse has been effectively challenged as unhelpful for the very students one might most hope to support. Harrison and Waller (2018), argue that asking students about their aspirations (in the WP case, to go to university, but we could translate their insights to the example of starting a business), is unhelpful because across the board, student aspiration is generally high. They de-bunk the ‘poverty of aspiration’ discourse as not reflective of what young people would like for themselves. They argue that young people, across social classes, do aspire to do well, so continuing to speak of low aspirations does not reflect the real issue at play. They say it would be more helpful for the student (and useful for researchers), to ask about ‘expectations’. This change in focus might illuminate the sorts of social and material obstacles that are actually at play in the different rates at which students progress to university. After all, what you’d like, and what you expect are two different things. I’d like to win the lottery, but don’t expect to. A student might like to go to university, but financial constraints, family and caring obligations, or the felt pressure of needing to start earning a living means they don’t expect to go. Equally, a student might very much like to start a business, but may not expect to because of any number of practical and material reasons. In the project I’m working on, we are building in touch points where activities intentionally try to understand such obstacles, so that educators are aware, and can act on, the kinds of constraints that stop WP students fulfilling their aspirations.  In one activity we ask students to consider a time or situation where they wanted something to do or be something, but it didn’t happen, and then identify the practical obstacles that got in their way. Such an exploration has the potential to surface the material constraints which hold students back, rather than focussing attention on aspiration. There is still a way to go before issues of practical and material disadvantage are explored in the sort of depth that is happening in a field such as WP, where the focus is on bringing the greatest benefit to those who most need it.  But there is much to be learned from such a field, and other critical scholarship, if the goal of challenging the status quo is to be pursued. In the enterprise education track we could do more to ask ourselves, how does a students’ social background play in to how much they survive, thrive or sink in the activities we provide? And what assumptions do we make, as enterprise educators, when we’re planning and teaching enterprise education? Which brings me to my final thought.

3. Generative Critical Conversation…

The work myself and my co-author Jen Huntsley presented was around our paper ‘Creating Space to Question’, and in particular, we shared a method we developed through our research process, which we are calling Generative Critical Conversation. In the immediate context of our study (where we worked together to co-develop and co-teach a more critical introduction to enterprise education for trainees on a primary education/QTS course at the University of Huddersfield), we used these conversations to develop a deeper understanding of what comes into play when educators get together and plan what they do. In teacher development, there is an idea of co-generative dialogue, where teachers gather to talk about what has happened in a lesson or intervention. The approach is productive, it’s intended to improve teaching strategies, subject specific pedagogy, as well as teaching and learning more generally. An important element is the sharing of lived experiences and creating a forum where successes and failures are raised and analysed. Another teacher educator, Jean McNiff, demands that asking critical questions should be central to teachers development, so her questions – What are we doing? Why are we doing it? What difference are we trying to make? – supplemented our method. Our study involved recording a generative, critical conversation, then listening to the conversational artefact separately, and then recording another joint conversation to critically interrogate and try and understand our assumptions and preoccupations.

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Related to Kiran Trehan’s challenge to ISBE participants to be more reflective, there is a persistent concern in enterprise education that educators lack criticality and unquestioningly adopt taken for granted practices (Fayolle, 2013; Fayolle & Loi, 2018). This is the broader context for mine and Jen’s study and our work relates to it on two levels. Whilst we intentionally tried to develop an intervention for primary trainees which facilitated them to question taken-for-granted practices in enterprise education, our process of working together also created space for us to question our work and ourselves. Both Jen and I agreed that the conversational artefact was crucial in this process – being able to go back and listen surfaced where we were misunderstanding each other, or pursuing our own pre-occupations, or getting carried away on a wave of enthusiastic creativity. The space between conversations, where we listened to ourselves and each other, and asked critical questions about what we heard, enabled a deeper appreciation of our assumptions and how they might relate to our biographies and social and societal location. Creating space to question doesn’t mean turning into an unproductive troll, unable or unwilling to take forward enterprise education. The ‘generative’ part of Generative Critical Conversations, keep things productive, with a focus on improving and refining practice; the critical part encourages us to ask questions about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and explore where good intentions might lead to unintended consequences. We suggest that such a method helps address Jean McNiff’s ultimate critique, that too often people’s practice is theorised for them, and instead we should be encouraging educators to learn about and theorise their own practices for themselves. Perhaps this is why we felt we managed to develop a critical introduction to enterprise education which did not render trainees as unwilling sceptics (Rönkkö & Lepistö, 2015), but pursued a ‘revitalizing’ agenda (Berglund & Verduyn, 2018). In our paper we describe how McNiff argues that The Academy is not a faceless institution, but colleagues, real human beings, with the capacity to think and exercise transformative power, with agency to develop practices which contribute to a peaceful, productive, socially just world. This year, more than any other, ISBE felt like a place where that could happen. Here’s hoping that spirit continues to develop in Cardiff in 2020.

Three thoughts after IEEC 2019…

It’s been a couple of weeks since the record breaking IEEC 2019. It tipped 400+ delegates on the busiest day – a testament to how this event is an epicentre for enterprise educators looking for ideas, support and feedback. My favourite experience was Amelia Reeves’ workshop, which included a humorous recount of the NCL Apprentice marketing through the ages, and serious discussion about how to reach students who aren’t drawn to typical entre-tainment activities. There was lots more to casserole after the conference, here’s three things I’ve been thinking about since…

  1. Can anyone do anything?

Every conference kicks off with some keynotes, and IEEC 2019’s Day 1 line up included the new Patron of EEUK, Lord Karan Bilimoria, CBE DL and Professor Geoff Scott from Western Sydney Australia University. Lord Bilimoria, an accomplished and polished speaker, shared his thoughts on entrepreneurship and universities, and the ‘phenomenal power’ that can be generated when these two things come together. The ultimate message (I perceived), was about developing students’ mindsets, and the role of the university in doing that. So, within his talk, he wove in details of his own life and the story of starting and growing Cobra beer.  He name checked Wellington – fortune favours the brave – and recalled the qualities of his business mentor, a man who nearly lost everything, but was now a property owner, renting to students and able to help entrepreneurs, including him, in their pursuit of business success. One word summed such people up – ‘Guts’. Luck is where ‘determination meets opportunity’ and the question was: ‘how are we going to get our students to have that mindset and see those opportunities?’ Lord Bilimoria’s talk acknowledged the role that luck and his background had played in his success; a father in the military, friends from boarding school he could call on, his education at Cambridge, having an invested and well connected mentor as he started up in business. Whilst mindset is undoubtedly important, these other factors cannot be underestimated. It reminded me of a recent paper, where the authors, Galloway, Kapasi and Wimalasena (2019), described why ‘my dad is not Richard Branson.’ In the context of Lord Bilimoria’s speech, his message, that ‘anyone can get anywhere and do anything’ would be seen as prioritising human agency (our power to take action), over structural issues (unseen mechanisms, power relations and social forces which shape action). Galloway et al argue that, in business and enterprise literature, the tendency is to overlook ‘the entangled nature of the individual and society as co-related and co-dependent’ and to try and explain ‘venturing actions simply from the intentions of an individual without reference to their context’. This statement makes me reflect on the increasing talk from colleagues in HE about student poverty, observing more students applying for hardship funds, and students having to reject entrepreneurial opportunities (such as Enterprise Placement Year), because changes in student finance mean that they cannot support themselves to take the leap and spend a year in self-employment. This speaks to the importance of understanding human action as embedded in a social context, and practically influenced by material circumstances. If we don’t acknowledge this, then do we risk writing off students as lacking entrepreneurial spirit, when, if they were in different material circumstances, they might be empowered to take different action? And what action can we take to enable students from different circumstances to access the same opportunities? Returning to a current, practical example, as a sector, we are seeing financially challenged students pulling out of Enterprise Placement Year provision because they are not able to get full loans. Now imagine if there was an option, on the student finance application process, to select ‘Enterprise Placement Year’. Not only would this option raise awareness that there was such as element of provision, but it would also meet the needs of those students who require a full loan to be able to access that opportunity. Part of Professor Geoff Scott’s brilliant keynote about universities having fitness of purpose and a morally robust direction, included advice about how to influence policy (always offer a solution). So when I posed the problem of the Enterprise Placement Year funding to policy advisers Diana Beech and Ben Johnson, in their fireside chat, I also offered that relatively simple solution (option to select ‘Enterprise Placement Year’ when applying for student finance).

Student Finance TweetI’d hope this issue of finance for students who want to access Enterprise placement opportunities is something that EEUK, and its patron could explore, so that students from all backgrounds are better able to access to that particular opportunity.

2. Research Philosophy 101…

Talking of context, that brings me to the workshop that Phil Clegg and I ran about Realist Evaluation, including a nerve wracking whistle stop tour of research philosophies and the impact they have on evaluation approaches. It’s a complicated area, and one that would be easy to get wrong in a 5 minute slot, so it was a relief to get through our Research Philosophy 101 with our positivism, constructivism and realism introductions with the audience still with us.

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Whilst ‘philosophy’ might seem somewhat abstract for a practitioner conference, I’d argue that various philosophies, especially when it comes to evaluation and evaluation design are ‘in us’, whether we know it or not. The inclination towards measurement, perceiving ‘scientific’ research approaches such as Randomised Control Trials as the ‘gold standard, and the idea that objective researchers report neutrally on ‘facts’ are assumptions that are grounded in and around positivistic philosophy. Whilst we introduced Realist Evaluation (with its grounding in a realist philosophy), an ultimate point we were trying to communicate was the usefulness of understanding the assumptions which underpin different approaches to evaluation. In education, we have increasingly been told to behave more like the health profession – where ‘evidenced based medicine’ helps clinicians make decisions about ‘what works’. But, as I wrote recently for the TES, Realist Evaluation is an approach being championed in health and clinical research, where evaluators are  frustrated with the incomplete knowledge that is generated by traditional methods such as RCTs. This movement has been aided by a research project called RAMESES, which has ‘training materials’ galore and explains complex (yes, philosophical), issues in wonderfully accessible two and three page introductions and Frequently Asked Questions. Both Phil and I are using Realist Evaluation to look at enterprise education programmes at university level, such as Enterprise Placement Year, and also in our PhD Study. He is looking at support programmes for social enterprises, and I’m looking at the theory and practice of Competitive Enterprise Education. Realist Evaluation is an adaptable, flexible approach, but best of all, its underpinning philosophy makes more sense to me in the context of the sorts of complex, social programmes we run in enterprise education. In particular, I like how it recognises that what we can see (experiences, such as taking part in an enterprise activity and outcomes, such as changes one might observe after the activity), are the results of things we can’t see (the reactions and reasoning of individuals). As an evaluator it makes you more focused on why someone did (or didn’t) do something, not (just) whether they did it. This line of thought requires much more attention to be paid towards the role that context plays, at an individual, interpersonal and wider/social level. Its focus on individual reasoning as a process of change, makes you think about what’s going on that you can’t see (in people’s minds), but which is actually causing something to happen.

3. The power of IEEC/EEUK

My background is working on enterprise education in primary and secondary education, and this year, the schools’ community said farewell and thank you to a long time champion and coordinator of enterprise education, as he went off to start a new life in hospice fundraising. Gary Durbin worked on enterprise education at a national level for a number of years (too many to say, it makes me feel old). He took over the Enterprise Village website after enterprise education in schools took a tumble down the political agenda and funding cuts threatened its maintenance and sustainability.

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Previously, there was a conference for school level enterprise educators too, run by the SSAT, and after that got pulled, Gary also organised an annual event/conference, the last couple supported/hosted by London South Bank University. Gary’s event was a chance for educators in the schools and FE sector to meet, share, unpick what they do, be inspired, question and all the other things that go on when people who deeply interested in a particular subject get together. IEEC is such a forum, and, provides enormous value to participants. I’m two thirds of the way through a PhD at Sheffield Hallam University, investigating Competitive Enterprise Education at school level, and there was much brain food in the workshop programme at IEEC. Charlotte Windebank got delegates thinking about the ‘features of the perfect competition’ and then introduced First Networks enterprise competition for HE students across the North East. Amelia Reeves explored the development of the NCL’s Apprentice Challenge, and work she had done to understand students perceptions of the marketing of this opportunity, and changes to language over time. Participants shared the ‘good and the bad’ of how enterprise support services and activities are marketed and a theme emerged around how do you reach students who may be put off by typical enterprise messages. One delegate described a recent success where they ran a ‘Pitch like a DJ’ session, attended by 70+ students, many who were new to enterprise, and attracted by the DJ and the music, rather than the enterprise, though, through the process, they got both. Finally, Bekki Moodie and Kadeza Begum from UEL, ran an energetic Friday morning session, introducing ideas and methods to incorporate mini-hacks into the curriculum.

Both within and after the workshops, there was much chatting with colleagues, and thinking through reactions and ideas. It underscored to me how very lucky HE colleagues are to have a practitioner led membership organisation (EEUK), working for them. Whether it is offering important professional development and recognition such as the EEUK Fellowship, or having the amazing  Alison Price and EEUK directors working on policy issues, or connecting and challenging practitioners through the brilliant IEEC, EEUK serves and represents its members. You can read more about them here, and if you haven’t been to the conference before, IEEC 2020 is being hosted by Aston University from the 9th – 11th of September – save the date!

Three Thoughts after IEEC 2018

I loved the sentiment of Margherita Bacigalupo’s tweet about the Christmas-like excitement that the IEEC conference generates. Unlike Christmas though, there were no dodgy gifts, no awkward family gatherings and definitely no falling asleep in a chair after dinner. Thank you Leeds Becket for hosting, and the team behind IEEC for three brilliant days – here’s three things that I’m still thinking about after #IEEC2018…

  1. Impact measurement; a trip down memory lane….

In entrepreneurship and enterprise education, impact measurement and evaluation is the debate that keeps on giving. So it was with great interest delegates attended Gabi Kaffka and Norris Krueger’s workshop on their new project about the ‘Evaluation of Entrepreneurship Education Programmes in Higher Education Institutions and Centres.’ EEEPHEIC (pronounced ‘epic’), will ‘categorise existing entrepreneurship education programmes as well as their results (impacts)’. You can get involved by completing surveys about your own entrepreneurship education programmes/approaches. At the workshop our table had a discussion about the diversity of entrepreneurship programmes and the difficulty this poses for evaluation. I shared the Realist Evaluation approach, which tries to move the evaluative question along from ‘what works?’ and towards ‘what works, for whom, in what circumstances and why?’ It prioritises recognising the multi-layered complexities of social programmes as a crucial element of its approach. The conversations reminded me of Allan Gibb’s witty and insightful keynote at IEEC 2013. He bounced  off this BIS study which looked at the impact of entrepreneurship education in further and higher education and he highlighted how the evaluation exercise is fraught with difficulties. He likened entrepreneurship education programmes to a supermarket shampoo aisle, where products might be positioned on the same shelf but promise different results: this one will fix split ends, this one will make hair shiny, this one will protect colour.

Allan shampoo

His point was that each bottle has different ingredients, and promises different and incomparable results, as such, one size fits all evaluation is problematic. This issue is one which Realist evaluators recognise, and as a result, they advise that a crucial early step in the evaluation exercise is to surface ‘programme theory’, that is, to make explicit what this particular programme is meant to be doing for participants, and then to test, refute or refine the theory. Or, as Allan asked back in 2013, what are the specific ingredients, processes and hoped for outcomes of this particular product? At the Epic workshop, our table identified that a ‘process’ to undertake such a task (rather than a measurement tool) could be useful. There was also recognition of the importance of context, as Realist Evaluation guru Ray Pawson (2013) says: “All evaluators now understand that what works in Wigan on a wet Wednesday will not necessarily work in Thurso on a thunderous Thursday.” This contextual complexity was something Phil Clegg and I attempted to (vegetable) model when we described how using Realist Evaluation had helped us think about how to innovate and evaluate an Enterprise Placement Year programme at The University of Huddersfield.

Clegg and me

Our goal was to underscore Pawson’s point, that the contextual conditions which influence outcome patterns are infinite. We highlighted four layers – individual, inter-personal, institutional and infra-structural (Pawson, 2006), which interact and contribute to the complexity of the evaluation enterprise. And yes, we aimed to model this with onions, barbecue skewers and sliced courgette. Well, it was a Friday morning slot…

2. Social context

My brain gets snagged on social context; it’s the lens through which I recognise I often look at things. At the Wednesday night welcome reception there was a reminder about how tangible its effects can be when we heard from the founders of the Bloomin Buds Theatre Company, two social entrepreneurs who are ‘challenging the stigma of the class divide through community based theatre’ with support from the University of Leeds’ Spark programme. Their story, of feeling like ’fish out of water’ at university, and then deciding to bring theatre opportunities to students from lower and working class backgrounds stayed with me through the conference. It provided a kind of ‘What would the Bloomin Buds say?’ soundtrack to my internal conversations. The fantastic debate style workshop which asked us to argue if we should ‘Give up on Enterprise’ and focus resources on getting more students to Top 100 companies made me think ‘Which students end up at those companies?’ The thought provoking keynote about China’s rapid expansion of enterprise provision, including the 622,000 teams which took part in enterprise competitions made me ask ‘Who wins? Whose rules? Who gets to judge? Whose playing field?’ Todd Davey’s insights into the future of universities got me wondering what it would be like to ask forty of the students googling ‘university is…killing me’ to find out what they thought, what language they would use, what priorities they would have. Interest in these sorts of questions prompted my application to the social track this year, introducing the Horizon 2020 project I’m working on called Nemesis, which aims to facilitate the co-creation of social innovation projects by multi-stakeholder groups including teachers, students, social innovation practitioners, parents and community members. Nemesis is about developing alternative, social approaches to enterprising and entrepreneurial learning, indeed, in the wake of global financial meltdown, rising inequality, the gig economy and precarious working, the narrative of ‘business as usual’ feels increasingly problematic to maintain. Social innovation is seen as an alternative paradigm, but, just as with mainstream enterprise discourse, the focus can sometimes be on a heroic entrepreneur, or their clever product or service. This obscures an important element which distinguishes social innovation and enterprise – that they are defined by the way they are owned, governed and managed in democratic and participatory ways. One element of Nemesis is looking at how participatory methods help people to co-create and work together, and the workshop I ran took people through a method called OPERA (IEEC delegates at work, in the picture below), which helps all members of a group participate in a decision making or visioning process.

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Every OPERA session starts with a question and schools working on the project have been using it to answer their own questions. It’s a method which, it strikes me now, would be a great way to surface possible answers to a question prompted by Martin Lackeus’ session ‘What is the egg in the hollandaise sauce?’

3. A sea turtle mistaking a plastic bag for a jelly fish

I started a PhD at Sheffield Hallam University last year and have enjoyed, as part of the research degree process, learning about the philosophies of business and management and trying to remember the difference between ontology, epistemology, axiology, and the many different theoretical perspectives which underpin research approaches. It’s the kind of mind boggling learning that feels designed to bring on an existential crisis, in a good way. It’s left me with a more critical appreciation of how philosophies operate subliminally, how we enact teaching and research in sometimes automatic ways, reproducing handed down practices and approaches without questioning their basis. The perennial conversation about measuring and/or evaluating the impact of entrepreneurship education programmes is perhaps, a good example of this. Is a research approach underpinned by a scientific philosophy – to measure and quantify phenomena, potentially through experiments where we aim to observe pre-test and post-test differences on ‘subjects’ and position ourselves as neutral and objective observers. Or is it underpinned by a constructivist philosophy, where we are engaged in a search for meaning, and use qualitative research design to prioritise individual perspectives whilst recognising that researchers are also engaged in a process of interpretation. It might seem a little abstract, but considering the deeper pre-suppositions which underlie practice, research, teaching and learning can shed light on inconsistencies and contradictions, or the illuminate how they might be better aligned. Keynote Martin Lackeus’ thesis on Value Creation as an educational philosophy, is an example of trying to make such an alignment, where theory, practice, experiential learning through value creation and assessment through LoopMe have been carefully thought through.

It is interesting to reflect on the dissonance which may be felt between practice which aims to be student-centred, co-created, relational, social and ethical…. And then when it comes to researching such programmes, our conversations seem to return to an inescapable true north, the orienting point of scientific measurement. Elements of scientific research philosophy have become ingrained in education, for example the Education Endowment Fund utilising only Randomised Control Trails to test educational interventions for lower socio-economic pupils, the framing of experimental methods as the ‘gold standard’ in entrepreneurship education (Rideout and Gray, 2013), and the goal to reduce deeply complex and multi layered social interventions and programmes to an effect size. Perhaps this is not surprising, as Jing Zhang said in her keynote, policy makers often want visible and instant results and the demand is that these results be measurable; but I was reminded of Heidi Neck’s comment last year ‘stepping on the scales won’t tell you how to lose weight.’ Perhaps a step forward would be talking about how all approaches to researching the impact of entrepreneurship education are just that – possible approaches, perspectives, philosophies, rather than taken for granted facts of life. Have a listen to Rob Newman’s brilliant Radio 4 show Total Eclipse of Descartes. He talks about the nature of educational philosophies, starting with a dark and funny metaphor: “The most destructive philosophies I believe are the ones we don’t recognise as philosophies. They damage us most when we mistake them for being how things are, simply natural; like a sea turtle mistaking a plastic bag for a jelly fish: it’s only once they’re inside us the trouble starts.” IEEC is just the place to continue such conversations, and I look forward to next year at Oxford Brookes for IEEC 2019, put the date in your diary.

Three thoughts after IEEC 2017

IEEC marks the beginning of the academic year for many enterprise educators and this year’s conference, hosted by Glasgow Caledonian University and organised by EEUK and NCEE, was a great start. My highlight (of this, and perhaps every IEEC so far), was the session from Babson College’s Heidi Neck. From enthralling the conference with a bar trick, to opening the door on her entrepreneurial classroom, and concluding with a serious point about the need for a scholarship of teaching and learning in entrepreneurship, she was warm, wise, entertaining. She packed the conference hall (on Friday morning, the last day of a three-day conference, the night after a Glasgow Ceilidh). So, thank you Heidi for your energy and generosity, and congratulations IEEC 2017 hosts and organisers for that genius scheduling. There was much to love across the rest of the workshops, keynotes, and conversations over coffee. Here’s three thoughts that kept me occupied on the drive home

  1. The Emperor’s New Clothes

The first workshop I attended on Wednesday was a provocative session run by Young Enterprise Scotland where they challenged the audience to consider the extent to which ‘sales’ and ‘sales training’ were a part of enterprise education provision. Delegates reflected that in the start-up process, interacting with real humans (potential customers with whom you might actually talk in person or on the phone), is a difficult step for many students to make. Students might have an idea, they might even have completed a Business Model Canvas or started to make a plan, but the work of validating their ideas with potential customers is out of their comfort zone (initially, at least). I wondered to what extent this reticence may be supported by the ways in which they have previously come into contact with ‘enterprise.’ The Evaluation of Enterprise Education in England (Mclarty et al, 2010), identified that ‘enterprise challenges’ were the most frequent and favoured ways of delivering enterprise education to pupils (favoured by 90% of surveyed schools). Such activities are often characterised by groups of pupils spending a day, or half a day in the school hall, working in teams to respond to a challenge. Typically, the climax of such activities is pupils presenting their ideas and one team being judged the winner on the day. A side effect of such a format is to divorce the idea development process from the most crucial element of the reality of start-up – the customer. Steve Blank describes how ‘customer development’ is a key activity for founders – talking to potential customers in order to test, improve or change ideas. But the ‘compete and pitch’ format, structured as it is around a final ‘judgement’, might lead students who take part in such activities to believe that the idea alone, if it’s good enough, is going to be a winner. The Young Enterprise Scotland presenters asked – are we encouraging students to think more about ‘selling out’ than selling to customers? Have a look at the Kauffman Sketchbook video which describes how what they call the ‘plan and pitch’ narrative characterises less than 1% of start-up journeys in the US. The takeaway – the success of elite entrepreneurs might be an exciting and understandable format, but it is not a reflection of the reality of 99% of start-ups.

2. We need to talk about enterprise education

Offering an alternative to ‘compete and pitch’ was one of the aims of the EEUK research project which I and Professor Nigel Culkin from the University of Hertfordshire completed this year. We shared the results and draft outputs from our project – The Bootleg Benchmarks – which aims to underscore the role that teachers can play in the development of enterprise, and offer alternative ways for them to conceive and practice it (through the curriculum).

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Some delegates I spoke to were aware of the national programme for careers and enterprise in secondary schools, special schools and colleges in England. It is underpinned by research by the Gatsby Foundation, which identifies eight ‘Gatsby Benchmarks’ –which schools can review and address to improve careers guidance in schools. In my work with schools, careers and enterprise coordinators have said they appreciate the practical approach of the Gatsby Benchmarks, and the focus on identifying pragmatic actions to support improvements. The Bootleg Benchmarks project aims to emulate that spirit – but at teacher level, rather than whole school.

Key policy and guidance were reviewed to clarify a picture of ‘what’s being asked of teachers?’, then related practices or actions were identified. Where there were potential gaps between the policy ambition (for example the aim for students to become more entrepreneurial), and the practice recommended (short term challenges and long-term enterprise competitions), research was undertaken to explain the potential pitfalls and alternative practices suggested. Our workshop sparked fascinating reactions, including:

  • Reflections that the compete and pitch format was provided, accepted and replicated with little or no questioning of its underpinning assumptions or identification of aims and outcomes.
  • Curiosity about why the ‘compete and pitch’ format is so prevalent.
  • Comparisons between perverse effects of competitive approaches in enterprise education and those observed in fields such as sport, where research has shown that a focus on winning is not as effective as a focus on performance and process.
  • Anecdotes about the pitfalls of competitions – winners who had an over-inflated sense of their simulated ideas, and losers who were discouraged by failure in a competitive process.

Of course, there were examples where people reported that competitions were useful and a relevant tool, for example identifying participants in business accelerators, or gaining publicity and prize money for teams and business development. The interesting question is whether a format which has a very specific purpose in the world of business (selecting a small number of entrepreneurs or a team for investment or reward), is a good model for developing the entrepreneurial skills, mindset and interest of children and young people. Perhaps this is where the role of teachers is crucial – they know their own students and are in a good position to decide for whom, and when, different interventions and pedagogies might be relevant and why. Heidi Neck’s keynote drove this point home; her conclusion: ‘The time is now’ for entrepreneurship scholarship to promote, value and reward a scholarship of entrepreneurial teaching and learning, not just research (thank you @dr_charlottew for capturing Professor Neck’s point!).

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3. Realism can set you free

Which brings me to a final thought, related to the perennial issue of assessment and impact measurement, which came up in the Track Chairs’ takeaways and across a number of workshops and conversations. I appreciated the sentiment of Heidi’s liberating response to a question about the assessment of her course. She cautioned against over-obsessing with measurement, quoting Professor Jeffery Timmons advice to her: “Stepping on the scales won’t help you lose or gain weight.’ One of the problems is that in an age of constrained resources, short term projects and competition for funding, the pressure to prove impact and justify ones’ existence can feel irresistible. The ‘What works?’ agenda, and the limited methodological tools which support it (such as Randomised Control Trials and systematic review) contribute to this, by leading policy makers, commissioners and practitioners to conclude that it is interventions that ‘work’, and therefore our goal should be about identifying and scaling the most effective of those. Our research harnessed an alternative philosophy and methodology – utilising the principles of Realist Evaluation. This approach has been developed by health and medical evaluators who are dissatisfied with the incomplete knowledge generated by RCTs and systematic reviews. The underpinning principles of Realist Evaluation (as described by Pawson and Tilley here, and Pawson here, and utilised and developed by a community of researchers here), provide an alternative way of conceiving how we explore and analyse complex, socially contingent programmes. One of the assumptions of realist evaluation is that programmes will always have different effects, for different participants, in different circumstances. Such an assumption can set policy makers, commissioners, providers and practitioners free – it enables us to extend the ‘evidence based policy conversation’ beyond ‘What works?’ and towards ‘What works, for whom, in what circumstances and why?’ A practical example of this could be observed at the end of Mick Jackson’s passionate and impressive keynote about Wild Hearts and his programme Micro Tyco. The last question he took from delegates was ‘What would your one takeaway for us be?’ and he reflected on his experience at a recent competition where two teams, one of conscripts and one of volunteers, were having different experiences (his takeaway was: the volunteers were getting more out of it). Such honesty is both refreshing, and necessary, for the field to come to a more sophisticated understanding of how to best target interventions and limited resources. Our second paper identified potentially important contextual factors and mechanisms which may contribute to different outcomes patterns; whether or not you wanted to do the activity was one of these factors. The following were identified as potentially important contributing factors to different outcome patterns in competitive enterprise learning:

  • Are you competitively inclined?
  • Did you volunteer?
  • If you lost, did someone help you co-construct a positive meaning from the experience?
  • If you won, did someone help you to stay grounded?
  • Are you well-resourced – personally in terms of your capabilities and confidence, institutionally in terms of the educators and/or mentors supporting you, socio-economically in terms of your relative position to your competitors?

Paying heed to such factors can help policy makers and programme providers refine the design, targeting, promotion of (and claims made for), competitive interventions. As well as explaining the potential pitfalls of assuming competitive approaches will always benefit pupils, the EEUK project assets help set out alternative ways for educators to conceive enterprise education. The Bootleg Benchmarks tool and accompanying guide re-frame enterprise, aiming to introduce ‘entrepreneurship as practice’ and ‘value creation’ into the consciousness and pedagogical tool kit of secondary school and college teachers who want to infuse enterprise into subject teaching. Apart from the potential risks related to compulsory ‘compete and pitch’ through the curriculum, there are rewards in developing alternative approaches: Martin Lackéus demonstrates that ‘school subject knowledge’ is supported by value creation pedagogy, offering a way to bridge unhelpful skills vs knowledge dualisms which curse enterprise education debate. I’ve been lucky enough to get a PhD scholarship to explore competition in enterprise education, so if you have any reactions or thoughts about the research, or, if you’ve got any ideas about (or want to get hold of a hard copy of) The Bootleg Benchmarks tool and guide, get in touch with me at catherine@readyunlimited.com

Thanks again IEEC. It was great to see Glasgow Caledonian pass the baton to Leeds Beckett University for the 2018 conference. The dates (Sept 5th to 7th 2018), are already in the diary.

Three thoughts after 3E

This week I experienced my first 3E, the ‘unplugged’ conference where the entrepreneurship education and research community did three days of (almost) PowerPoint-free sharing, talking and thinking. The hosts this year, Cork Institute of Technology, were warm, welcoming and facilitated great entertainment – a square dance – as well as a great conference. Big thanks to them, and to all the people who sparked the thoughts below….

An image is worth a thousand words…

Day 1 of the conference is reserved for ‘Practitioner Development Workshops’ – more practical workshops where you will pick up ideas to use in the classroom/with students. I loved Katarina Ellborg’s session on image based methods. She shared how she uses photo elicitation to explore students’ perceptions of entrepreneurship. Recreating this approach with session participants, she asked us to look at a series of photographs and pick one which represented ‘what entrepreneurship means to you’. Interesting themes could be observed in the connections people described: a photograph of a circle of hands represented collaboration; a photograph of people talking and problem solving represented the dialogic element and dependence on others; a photograph of a child climbing a fence represented the learning element. I related to someone’s interpretation of a photograph of the open road: ‘You’re not sure what’s in front of you, or what’s round the corner…it could be blue sky and sunshine…it could be a crash.’ I have used images in my work with teachers, asking them to draw what an entrepreneur is to them (or, even less threatening, what they think a colleague might perceive). Such drawings (example below from a primary school teacher), help surface existing perceptions and provide a starting point for exploring similarities and differences in values and concerns.

Money eyes_teacher drawing_

On day two, when I was presenting the research I, Ivan Diego and Nigel Culkin are developing on competitions in EE, I subjected the audience to my unskilled cartoonery to try to communicate one of the underpinning principles of realism, the paradigm for our research. The brand of realism we’re harnessing is Scientific Realism (as described by Ray Pawson and Nick Tilley), a philosophy and method which is increasingly being harnessed by researchers who want to evaluate complex, socially contingent programmes. In medicine and health care, the role model for ‘evidenced based practice’, realist review is taking hold as a method to fill in the blanks which remain when research is purely quantitative (or qualitative). As the authors of this paper on realist review suggest, the method does not provide simple answers to complex questions. It will not tell policy makers whether something ‘works’, but will provide the policy and practice community with richer, more detailed and practical information which is of use when planning, targeting and implementing programmes.

The cartoon refers back to our first paper, snappily titled, ‘Who wins when you try to convince a mouse her best friend is a cat? The value of competitions in entrepreneurship education.’ Realists would accept, or rather, presume, that if you put a cat and a mouse together, there are going to be different outcome patterns.

who wins mouse and cat

For example, in some cases, a cat and a mouse might play together, as if they are best friends, and the result might be a cute YouTube video. But sometimes….the mouse gets eaten. For realists, the focus is less on what happened, or the frequency with which it happened, the main area of interest is uncovering why it happened by identifying the Context and Mechanisms at play and how they interact to lead to different Outcome patterns (identifying CMO configurations). For example, a domesticated cat, used to other house pets and who is well fed and who hears encouraging play talk from its owner is more likely to lead to a cute YouTube video with the mouse than an undomesticated cat, unused to other animals, unsupervised and hungry. This way of thinking helps extend the ‘evidence based practice’ conversation beyond ‘what works?’ to ‘what works for whom, in what circumstances?’ For those interested in the philosophy and method, there is a research community you can join (Rameses), and a summer school in London run by Justin Jagosh from the University of Liverpool’s Centre for the Advancement of Realist Evaluation (CARES).

When good skills go bad….

Realists, presuming as they do that there are different outcome patterns for different people in different contexts, will appreciate the implications of a workshop on Dark Triad characteristics in entrepreneurship education. Schippers, Rauch & Hulsink have been researching links between dark triad characteristics and how these affect intentions to start a business. A point they made which really struck me is: we spend a lot of time in EE discussing all the positive character traits we aim to develop, and little time considering the ‘negative ones’ which may exist already, or which may predict attraction to, or be amplified by, EE activities. A crucial takeaway from their research was that entrepreneurship education appears to increase the entrepreneurial intentions of those subjects with dark triad traits. A colleague and I continued to think through the educational applications and societal implications of this over lunch. Scan some images of life skills frameworks…consider the new EU EntreComp Framework…. Many of these tools aim to support understanding of, reflection upon (and via this), the development of, entrepreneurial competencies…but the way they are presented presumes positive outcomes of EE activity, and positive framing of entrepreneurial characteristics. But talk to any practitioner about skills development and team dynamics, and they can give a bunch of real life examples of behaviours, attitudes and characteristics they have observed which are unhelpful for task completion and team mate-ship.  In the Dark Triad workshop the discussion on educational application focussed on the possibility of using contrasting items on different ends of a scale to facilitate reflection – for example, confidence might be contrasted with arrogance, assertiveness contrasted with aggression. But I loved Peter Harrington’s idea, cooked up over lunch, that rather than different ends of a scale, an extension of existing frameworks (often envisaged as circles which end at the most positive manifestation of the skill), could also work. For example a reflection tool which ends at ‘10’ (meaning ‘great’, ‘fantastic’), could extend to ‘15,’ with the last five numbers on the scale indicating ‘when good skills go bad’ – for example:

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Which got me thinking about my final, recurring reflection, during and after the conference….

Side Effects.

3E participants frame their research by first addressing ‘Questions we care about…’ For me, some of the most interesting questions to explore were related to unintended consequences of programmes and pedagogies. Yong Zhao has written about side effects in education, and the importance of studying and reporting their effects. And there were many interesting lines of enquiry thrown up during the conference. For example, a workshop about Enactus asked: Who really gains? Authors Bhrádaigh and Dunne observed benefits for students, the university and graduate recruiters, but in some cases, failure in the competition might lead to students curtailing their social action, and disengaging with intended beneficiaries and communities. Some of the issues discussed in this workshop- for example, whether such programmes reinforce stereotypical discourses about who needs help, and who is capable of helping – reminded me of critique of Teach First. It has been argued that this graduate recruitment programme supports the process of middle class reproduction and working class deficit, without acknowledging the invisible power and social capital which underpins achievement and mobility in society. I was also interested to hear about the anecdotes and perceptions of colleagues attending the workshop where I shared our competitions research. Of course, there were examples of how competitions were a fun and easy-to-implement model, they support students to achieve funding and PR and can set young entrepreneurs on a business path. But there was also an observation of the side effects of this process: those teams that lose in a competition may drop out of developing their idea; competitions focus attention on the ‘idea’ and ‘start-up’ rather than customer development and the reality of survival; the model can create ‘competition junkies’ focussed on competing rather than creating value for others.

Our paper concluded by reflecting on Fayolle’s comment (2013), that the ultimate client of entrepreneurship education is the society within which it is embedded. With regards to competitions then, entrepreneurship education policy makers, promoters and practitioners might consider whether they want to create a more competitive future, or a more collaborative future, and how the design of tasks and activities (and the side effects of such interventions) will serve these different objectives and shape individuals and society.

Next year’s 3E is at Twente University in Enschade, The Netherlands with a focus on engaged scholarship, and I already look forward to continuing the discussions there…

 

Four thoughts after IEEC 2016…

Just over a week has passed since the brilliant and thought provoking three days that was IEEC 2016. I’ve really enjoyed reading round-ups and reflections from Gups Jagpal and Dave Jarman about the event.  So, in response to NCEE’s Ceri Nursaw, who encouraged delegates to ‘communicate more’, here’s four initial thoughts prompted by the conference…

  1. ‘The Law According to Hero Entrepreneurs’

Maggie O’Carroll, the opening keynote, had some solid advice for delegates at the start of their conference: pursue diverse opinions; don’t take things at face value; don’t just talk to people like you; seek new knowledge and networks which will challenge and develop your thinking and practice. The phrase that most stuck in my mind most from her talk though, was ‘The Law According to Hero Entrepreneurs.’ That is, Maggie was describing how the field of enterprise and entrepreneurship education somewhat succumbs to being told what to do by successful business people, on the basis that they have been successful themselves. The problem is, their ideas and opinions about what is required for, or fuels, success is informed by their personal experiences and inclinations, rather than a full examination of the evidence and the structural barriers experienced by others, especially those in less fortunate social, financial, cultural and emotional circumstances. Later on, we heard from Kaz Karwowski about the incredible programmes and curriculum at RCEL. It turned out, perhaps not surprisingly, that those on the leadership development course had more successful start-ups, but: ‘Those who aren’t robust enough to make it need to go back to the classroom.’ But does ‘robustness’ accurately cover all the antecedents which oil the wheels of success in business? Benedict Dellot at the RSA has been looking at data from the national lifestyle survey and identified that affluence comes before entrepreneurship, as well as following it, see his blog on how ‘wealth is a key predictor of whether or not people can survive in self-employment’. Home owners and the highly qualified are more likely to be successful in business, pointing to the type of existing capital that is helpful to succeed. Psychologists observe that people tend to attribute their success to internal factors such as skill and persistence, rather than recognising the external factors which may have influenced outcomes, and maybe Hero Entrepreneurs are an amplified version of this. Perhaps their own experience of pursuing and achieving success, the grit and will they are able to summon and develop, leads to a type of context-blindness resulting in thinking everyone else just isn’t trying hard enough? I wondered how many of the successful RCEL graduates were also the ones who could afford to contribute to the plane ticket and stay in Silicon Valley, or the ones who had parents who could financially underwrite a period of test trading. A recognition of the pervasive nature and influences of class and inequality is well underway in mainstream education, and (from the conversations in the coffee queue, over lunch and at dinner), would be welcome in enterprise education too.

2) Student involvement

Linked to this in some way, was the significant strand of talk about students and their sometime disengagement with enterprise, their lack of understanding of how it might help them, and the way in which delivery and programmes seemed to lack resonance with their values and aspirations. At ISBE last year, Prof Laura Galloway produced fascinating research – ‘The Entrepreneurship Education Experience in HE – Does a decade make a difference?‘ The paper provides two snapshots comparing entrepreneurial competencies and ambitions from two student cohorts, one in 2005 and one in 2015. The 2015 cohort were more likely to have had enterprise education prior to HE and more likely to have access to entrepreneurial role models, but were less likely to want to run or own their own business. In 2015 they were more likely to want to work in the charity and public sector. Whilst the country as a whole just voted to leave the EU, it’s estimated that about 70% of young people voted to remain, and this recent youth parliament report gives an insight into the kind of societies they want to build and be part of: sustainable, compassionate and focussed on delivering social justice. And those aren’t just the views of a select few youth parliament types; check out the Twitter hashtag #HowToConfuseAMillenial for a regular tragi-comic update on the ways the generations are grating against each other. Perhaps the most visible elements of enterprise – the business contest, the Hero Entrepreneur – are simply out of step with these values. EEUK members’ workshops were full of brilliant insights and practice on how they were involving students: focussing on the human element – relationship building – from the very start; working with students to co-produce enterprise activities and programmes; seeing students as partners – not recipients – in the process of course design, teaching and learning. Which brings me to…

3) Concerns Change…

In the same way that enterprise education needs to align with the values of students, enterprise educators want to feel the field aligns with their own concerns. In my workshop on Enterprise Education and Initial Teacher Training I shared Fuller’s model on the Concerns of Teachers. Fuller’s work has been around for more than forty years and so, unsurprisingly, has become the subject of debate and reconceptualisation. Nevertheless, it’s a useful model to explore the importance of the personal element of ‘Becoming a Teacher.’ Fuller’s work describes the different concerns teachers have, including: concerns about self (will the students like me, can I do this?); concerns about task (what do I do?); and concerns about impact (what difference is it making?). The first two concerns are more about ‘survival’. I know when I started in enterprise education ten years ago, I didn’t have much time for critical analysis, I was too busy trying to do the job, engage the teacher, develop the training etc. I completed a Masters during this time, and if I look back on my concerns and the focus of my study, it was primarily about improving the practical elements of my work rather than critically exploring the philosophical elements. I worked on creating and evaluating training models, exploring the role of school liaison in the teacher development process, co-designing and testing an enterprise passport with teachers. Though this development has not, by any means, been a linear process, I can see that overall, I was initially more concerned with what works. Over time, this evolved into what might work for whom and in what circumstances. Increasingly, I feel I’m concerned with, as Biesta argues, what it works for, and who gets to decide that.

4) Put on your dancing shoes…

I enjoyed the entertainment and challenge of the final keynote, a two-hander from Penaluna and Gibson, which described their early experiences of enterprise education conferences when the narrowly focussed business agenda didn’t align with their experience and interests (‘Are we deranged?’ they asked themselves). They shared their ‘Walking Boots’ metaphor (if you’ve got your boots on, down in the long grass, looking up, you’ve got a different view)…and they challenged the audience to take the metaphor to inspire thinking and reflection. Over the course of the conference, there were a fair few enterprise education-related metaphors: references to elite sport; to eco-systems; to creatures… and I’d like to add another, somewhat frivolous analogy – dance. Leadership types reckon dance provides important lessons on innovation, adaptability and audience, and marketers suggest customers would be better served if they were conceived of as ‘dance partners’ a company moves with to a shared melody, and a shared purpose. The EEUK dance floor certainly rocked with shared purpose this year. It was an inspiring night in an incredible venue; Liverpool Cathedral providing the backdrop for the official launch of the Richard Beresford Memorial Bursaries, a really fitting tribute to someone described by his wife as curious, compassionate and committed to, and nourished by, the EEUK network. After awards were bestowed, Fellows made, sponsors thanked and speeches applauded, many headed over to the dance floor, encouraged by this year’s fantastic and energising live band. So, back to that metaphor; maybe good enterprise education is like a great dance in the way that it facilitates a creative act, is a vehicle for connection and enables self-expression.  Dance also has very different styles, with different sub-cultures – my usual dance (Modern Jive) is a far cry from Tango. So, in a complementary counter-point to Maggie’s starting advice, my conference was concluded with these sage thoughts: it’s OK not to dance to the same tune in enterprise education, instead ‘make your own gang’ (as Penaluna and Gibson suggested, and as @KatPen was describing to me below), and work on the things that compel you. With that in mind, I’m looking forward to ISBE next month, when the working paper I’ve co-authored with Nigel Culkin from the University of Hertfordshire and Ivan Diego from Valnalon, which questions the value of competitive pedagogy in entrepreneurship education, gets a wider audience. We’ve recently seen that there are very different ideologies available in the name of improving social mobility. Entrepreneurship education is often claimed to have positive spill-over effects in terms of social justice, but not all research supports this. I get the feeling, from this week’s conference, and the continued conversations on Twitter, that there’s much appetite for a critical exploration of enterprise/entrepreneurship education and wider issues influencing its impact. Sure, it’s happening, but it’s not centre stage. It’s time for social and economic influences to get more of the spotlight. Finally, for those to whom I was evangelising about Ceroc: here’s a class that coincides with ISBE in Paris. Let’s Dance!

kat-pen-and-me-crop

Four thoughts after Global Entrepreneurship Week (and ISBE and the National Enterprise Education Conference).

It’s that time of year again. Another Global Entrepreneurship Week has passed, and enterprise educators are reflecting on the 1589 activities that took place across the country (and the world). The GEW brand celebrates entrepreneurship through a week of ‘unleashing ideas’, ‘start up battles’ and changing the world.  Some will already be planning their programme for next year and some may be scratching their heads and asking: ‘What was that all about?’ Whatever your position, it’s undeniable that such sharp focus on entrepreneurship throws up all kinds of questions, possibilities and challenges. As well as GEW, the last three weeks included a National Enterprise Education Conference run by Enterprise Village and the 38th annual conference for the Institute of Small Business and Entrepreneurship in Glasgow. Though the conferences stood 400 miles apart and accommodated educators from different phases and diverging terminology, common ground could be heard during the intense conversation of delegates from the two events. It’s a fitting tribute to both to try and round up some takeaways whilst a spotlight shines on enterprise and entrepreneurship in the wake of Global Entrepreneurship Week.

  1. Who wants to be an entrepreneur? Part 1…

Ivor Tiefenbrun started his keynote to an audience of academics at ISBE, an entrepreneurship conference, with the declaration: ‘I don’t like the word entrepreneur.’ This is despite the fact that Ivor is the founder and chairman of Linn Products, a business he started in 1972 and which is recognised as an industry benchmark in terms of high quality audio. His journey at Linn began when (dissatisfied with his stereo, and, with an unfinished mechanical engineering course behind him), he set about creating a top quality record player. What made Linn unique was the control over every aspect of production, and an obsessive attention to quality. So it was curious that someone with such a track record in product and company building rejected, or at least felt unease about, the label of entrepreneur. When I ask teachers what they think of when they hear the word ‘entrepreneur’ the initial response, 9.99 times out of ten, is: ‘Alan Sugar’. This sort of stereotype might be a reason why someone as entrepreneurial as Ivor rejects the label. Ivor’s take on company management (a pretty flat structure, working in ‘family size’ teams, putting people first) seems at odds with the on-tap egos, arguments and ‘you’re fired!’ shenanigans of the TV show. Maybe, ten series of The Apprentice later, the label ‘entrepreneur’ needs a detox.

2) Who wants to be an entrepreneur? Part 2…

Interestingly, and perhaps linked in some way, in the Enterprise Education track at ISBE, Professor Laura Galloway shared longitudinal research where she and colleagues revisited students who had been surveyed ten years previously. Given that a criticism of entrepreneurship education research is the dearth of empirical and longitudinal research, the idea was simple but effective: use the same survey given to a cohort of students in 2005 to survey a cohort in 2015 and compare the results. Result: two snapshots of entrepreneurial perceptions and ambitions, a decade apart. Interestingly, though students reported a perceived increase in their entrepreneurial skills, their entrepreneurial ambitions went down. They wanted to be employed in the public sector and charities more than they wanted to run a business. The study was a quantitative snapshot and, as Prof Galloway pointed out, participant’s experiences may have been shaped by graduating in a recession and being burdened with massive student debt as much as any courses which they might have experienced. But she also acknowledged that over the last ten years, the profile of entrepreneurs has never been so high. Responses to survey questions around ‘enterprise culture’ reflected that growth. Participants were more likely to say they had a family member, friend or partner running a business, and were significantly more likely to have experienced enterprise education before university. Prof Galloway concluded that the findings have important implications for research (What’s the real driver of entrepreneurship? What’s the value of entrepreneurship in other employment contexts), and teaching (What are we trying to achieve? What are the implications for pedagogy?).

3) The winner takes it all, the loser standing small?

Which brings me to a third thought, which may be a bit off message in the afterglow of GEW. It’s hard to start challenging widely held views about established enterprise education models, but I’d argue that we don’t know nearly enough about the effects that different approaches have on how young people think and do.  The last three weeks will have seen students of all ages undertake a blizzard of business competitions and challenges. It’s the ubiquitous enterprise education model – relatively easy to understand and deliver, plenty of off-the-shelf resources for educators, and participants apparently having to use and develop their enterprise skills through the process. But do we really know what the effect is? Imagine learning anything else through a model where you do a day-long challenge (or maybe longer if you’re lucky) and at the end of it 90-95% of the room or teams end up as (implicitly) losers. How do we know that what young people aren’t actually learning is that there’s no point in thinking about running a business because they won’t be successful at it? There’s a big difference between reporting you’ve used your team work skills, or thought of a business idea, or had fun, and then what meaning you take from the whole experience. There is an argument that it’s good to weed out over-optimism and put off those who wouldn’t have the skills to lead and grow a business. Perhaps that would be a tolerable view if business competitions were designed and delivered only to identify and support these unicorns of business. But they’re not. Business competitions and challenges are delivered in all phases of education now, from primary upwards, and this is likely to grow with recent moves to develop ‘Enterprise for All.’ Many young people, unicorns or otherwise, will have to make work for themselves at some point if they want to have a job, or if they want to have some job satisfaction. Learning that business ‘isn’t for them’ by repeatedly losing in enterprise challenges might have the same effect that competitive sport can have on pupils who don’t excel – they don’t want to, or think they should, take part.

4) Conscripts, mercenaries or volunteers…

It was great to see, after a few years of dwindling interest in enterprise education nationally, a good and enthusiastic turnout to the Enterprise Village conference at BIS in London. Amongst the sense of buoyancy and hopefulness, there was a theme in side discussions with teachers who described the struggle they can have ‘selling’ enterprise education to senior leadership and colleagues back at school. There were some teachers, tasked as ‘Enterprise Champions’, feeling as if they were at the base camp of Everest. Yes it feels exciting, but not a little lonely and dangerous. Having to ‘get colleagues on board’ always comes up in ‘embedding enterprise’ discussions, dependent as it is on wide buy in that crosses subjects and topics. Such an endeavour requires commitment and loyalty, and is achieved over time. In my experience, the best advocates in the early days are volunteers, the early adopters who help develop and test practice and have techniques and good news to share. Nothing will scupper the development of enterprise culture like forcing people into a role and then not giving them the resources to undertake it. Ivor Tiefenbrun had a nugget in this department – when everything is going great it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a conscript, mercenary or volunteer….but if things get difficult, you’ll know the difference. Interestingly, he attributed the success of Linn not to technology and innovation, but to people. ‘Anyone can spot a problem or an opportunity,’ he said. ‘I wanted my company to look after suppliers, customers and its people.’ He called the way people worked together the only source of sustainable competitive advantage: ‘We had great people who want to work together to build something more than they could alone, or by working with other people.’ No hard sell there, just the incredible pull of an important, shared endeavour. Sounds like a good strategy…