A recent article by Bill Aulet noted that teaching entrepreneurship was in the “start-up phase” and called for schools to do a better job. While I would agree that research and measurement of effective pedagogy and teaching techniques in entrepreneurship may indeed be emerging, the fact is that there is a very long history of entrepreneurship education, going back to the late 1970’s. My colleague Jerry Katz has mapped the infrastructure of entrepreneurship several years ago and reports the numbers of schools with majors and concentrations as well as key events in the development of entrepreneurship education. Katz’s work notes that even in 1986 nearly 600 undergraduate schools had courses in entrepreneurship. Today, the Kauffman Foundation estimates there are more than 5,000 courses offered at 2,600 schools.
While the growth of students wanting to be entrepreneurs is a new phenomenon at many schools, at Babson College, this has been the case for more than 30 years. In 1978, we created the first concentration, endowed the first chair in entrepreneurship and crafted a college strategy that showcased entrepreneurship. Our early commitment to Entrepreneurship led to positioning in the rankings at the top, # 1 in Entrepreneurship in our Undergraduate program for 17 straight years (US NEWS) and # 1 in Entrepreneurship in our Graduate program for every year since these rankings have been kept.
For decades we have debated whether entrepreneurship should be taught by entrepreneurs who have real world practical experience, or whether it should be taught from the perspective of theory, like other business disciplines. On the one hand, there are entrepreneurs telling war stories about how they achieved success with their insights and attributes. On the other hand, a more scholarly approach focuses on activity that involves the discovery, evaluation, and exploitation of opportunities to introduce new goods and services, ways of organizing, markets, process, and raw materials through organizing efforts that previously had not existed (See for instance, Shane and Venkataraman, 2000, Academy of Management Review). Students, however, depending on their level and learning objectives, vary in the degree to which they need (and want) to see the theory.
My colleagues and I, Patti Greene and Heidi Neck, have thought about, researched and experimented with ways to teach entrepreneurship for years. Patti, who is National Academic Director of the Goldman Sachs 10K Small Business Program spends a significant amount of time coaching and watching more than 100 faculty teach practitioners at various locations around the US. Heidi leads our Symposium for Entrepreneurship Educators Program which has trained more than 3,000 faculty world-wide. I have more than 30 years entrepreneurship teaching experience at all levels (freshmen to entrepreneurs) and presently oversee the 47 faculty and 100 entrepreneurship courses. Our work and research led us to a new way of teaching entrepreneurship.
We argue that in order to learn entrepreneurship, one must do entrepreneurship. But doing entrepreneurship definitely does not exclude theory. On the contrary, effective doing of entrepreneurship requires a set practices and these practices are firmly grounded in theory. What is a practice and why is this the best approach? Think about how children learn violin following the Montessori Method. A child selects a particular toy, begins to play with it, experiments with different possibilities, and even creates new ways to play with it. The teacher serves as an empathetic guide, offering possibilities, suggestions, and encourages the child to reflect on what they learned. While this is quite different from launching a new venture independently or in an existing organization, the element of practice is analogous.
We introduce five practices of entrepreneurship education with associated theoretical groundings. The concept of “practice” relates to the acquisition of skills, knowledge, and mindset through deliberate hands-on, action-based activities that enhance entrepreneurial performance. Given the complex and multifaceted nature of entrepreneurship, a single practice is not possible. Therefore, we introduce five specific practices of entrepreneurship education that represents a synthesis of theory and practice—actionable theory through practice. Our forthcoming book presents a discussion these practices; play, experimentation, creativity, empathy and reflection, and provides 45 exercises that any entrepreneurship teacher can use. (Edward Elgar Publishing, forthcoming, 2014). Yes, those teaching entrepreneurship do need to do a better job. But we also need to give teachers the tools. By teaching entrepreneurship as a practice that is grounded in theory, our next generation of entrepreneurs will develop competencies to be more successful.