Entrepreneurship is often associated with people who assume the risk of starting a business venture for financial gain. However, entrepreneurs exist in many forms: They may be writers, carpenters, computer programmers, school principals or fundraisers, to name just a few examples.
What they have in common is an “entrepreneurial mindset” that enables them to see opportunities for improvement, take initiative and collaborate with others to turn their ideas into action. Everyone is born with some propensity for entrepreneurship, which at its core is about solving problems creatively, according to Yong Zhao, a professor at the University of Oregon’s College of Education. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.”
Unfortunately, the current education system doesn’t support the development of an entrepreneurial mindset, Zhao says, because of its reliance on standards, tests and a prescribed curriculum, which are all fundamentally incompatible with entrepreneurial thinking. Studies have shown an inverse relationship between countries’ academic test scores and entrepreneurship levels, and between years of schooling and entrepreneurship levels.
“Students are treated like employees of a big company, who don’t bear the risk if the company fails,” he says. “They are paid with grades and are not treated as being responsible for their learning.”
Instead of building on existing education reform plans, such as Common Core, Zhao supports an altogether different education paradigm to prepare children to thrive in our rapidly changing world, which will put a premium on entrepreneurship in all fields of endeavor.
A mashup of democratic and project-based learning would enhance the characteristics that lie at the heart of the entrepreneurial mindset. Zhao envisions schools that combine three essential elements: a freedom-based, non-coercive environment (as can be found at England’s democratic Summerhill School); enhanced project-based learning opportunities (such as those offered at New Technology High in Napa, California); and interaction with the larger world (as practiced by a program that allows students at the Cherwell School in Oxford, England, to collaborate with students at the Gcato School in Eastern Cape, South Africa).
A democratic school such as Summerhill shifts the responsibility to the learner and honors the natural variety that exists among individuals. As long as the students follow the general rules of behavior (which they themselves have developed on an equal footing with the staff), they are free to spend their time as they choose, taking only the classes that interest them. Nurturing what interests and excites each child benefits both society and the individual, Zhao says — the world needs all kinds of talents and skills, and this method effectively harnesses each child’s intrinsic motivation to learn what makes sense for him or her.
This extends to whatever is needed to achieve their goals: “When a child has a reason to learn, the basics will be sought after, rather than imposed,” Zhao wrote in his previous book, “World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students.” “If they are true basics, they are hard to avoid.”
This also allows children to build on their strengths, which is what successful entrepreneurs do, he says, instead of wasting their efforts to try and become like everyone else. “We should give all children confidence, and an alternative space to find something to be good at,” he says. “We overemphasize the deficits of children, and that’s not a good starting point. … If we let people flourish in their own ways, hopefully everyone will find something they want to do.”
But freedom in learning is not sufficient, Zhao says. The underlying environment must be characterized by flexibility, diversity (with access to a variety of adults and learning opportunities both inside and outside the school), and agency (so that students are “citizens of a democratic society who help to shape the society,” Zhao writes, instead of “subjects of a kingdom built by adults”). And then on top of that, “for learning how to be a disciplined, creative entrepreneur, you need a product, and you need practice,” he says.
So to the foundation of a democratic school, he would add the offerings of a New Technology High School, which takes project-based learning to another level. Most project-based learning environments use projects to teach prescribed content and skills, and the teacher retains most (if not all) of the control. Much more valuable is what Zhao calls the “entrepreneurial model” of project-based learning, which places the emphasis on the product rather than the project— students create products or services that meet authentic needs, and build knowledge and skills in the process. The teachers facilitate the process, but the students decide what products to make.
The third and final layer involves establishing a global consciousness, which can be done in numerous ways. It can include learning foreign languages, collaborating with students on the other side of the world (for example, the Cherwell School and Gcato School students jointly established a chicken business), or teaching foreign students about things in your area and vice versa.
The Path From Here to There
These changes will require giving up entrenched beliefs and the sense of comfort offered by a system that emphasizes order, control and immediate tangible results in the form of test scores, Zhao says. But the high unemployment rate among recent college graduates is causing people to rethink their assumptions and question whether the current model of education is serving children’s best interests.
Zhao has observed some elements of the changes for which he’s advocating appearing in more innovative public schools, primarily in suburban areas with smaller school districts and more local control. And in many ways, he says, he’s advocating for the United States to return to its roots.
“America thrived on democracy and trying to celebrate diversity, and allowing individuals to flourish. … It can look very messy,” he says, but the payoff is worth it.