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