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!