Entrepreneurial learning: identifying the right leg-up for young paradigm shifters


November 17, 2017

What is EL and why run a pilot initiative?

The world is changing. Mastery of content and ability to ace tests is no longer enough to flourish in today’s dynamic and complex societies and economies. Capabilities that have always been important – creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, problem identification and problem-solving, and persistence – are becoming increasingly vital and valued by experts from the OECD, to the World Economic Forum to the CSIRO.

While capabilities have been in school curriculum and policy documents for over a decade, there is still tension between what is mandated by government, what has worked in the past, and what is needed now. Many Schools are already adapting new education approaches but Australia’s system sometimes creates disincentives for change, for example by narrow measures of schooling “success” such as NAPLAN and ATAR.

How can schools and school systems move to a new paradigm better suited to the times?

Entrepreneurial learning, through personalised learning and solving problems, is a promising way forward for education. It’s an emerging way to cultivate the capabilities needed alongside literacy, numeracy and subject knowledge to thrive, and a way to deepen learning engagement.

Entrepreneurial learning programs from preschool to PhD levels are not new, especially in higher education settings. Research and evaluations of entrepreneurial education from have shown some short and long-term benefits for school students in different contexts, including:

  • Improved student effort, creativity and agency (they are more pro-active) (Huber, Sloof  and Van Praag 2012)
  • Improved enjoyment and connectedness to peer and teachers (Huber, Sloof and Van Praaag 2012).
  • Improved capabilities, such as creativity, teamwork, social responsibility and resilience in secondary school (Kruger 2015)

Entrepreneurial learning is an approach worth exploring in Australian schools. In particular, how schools can pursue this, what helps and hinders, and what benefits or shifts they notice in their students, themselves and their schools as a result.

The Paradigm Shifters initiative

Mitchell Institute and two principal organisations joined forces to design and learn from an initiative exploring entrepreneurial learning in schools, called the Paradigm Shifters initiative. Twenty-one government secondary schools from diverse socio-economic and geographical contexts joined this trial to test new approaches to schooling. These schools committed to create the conditions, or extend what they already had in place, to develop more entrepreneurial-minded young people who could identify and respond to problems, creating value for others. They did this by applying three principles of entrepreneurial learning derived from the work of professor Yong Zhao:

  1. Develop more personalised education experiences so each person can pursue passions and talents to excel in unique ways.
  2. Engage in creative and entrepreneurial product oriented learning experiences that can, in unique ways, benefit local and global communities.
  3. Cultivate and prototype new approaches, processes and/or products. (The term products was interpreted widely to include services and entities, such as new leadership committees, or a new work-experience program or elective program redesigned by scratch by students, or promotional videos)

It was up to an action team in each participating school (combining students and teachers, with students usually in the driver’s seat) to identify what issue or opportunity to respond to, and then determine how to respond to i.e. – what steps to take, towards what end goal.

Every school belonged to a state-based entrepreneurial learning network and attended regular workshops where they learnt from experts and guest speakers (social entrepreneurs, tech entrepreneurs, film makers). School action teams also learnt from each other’s entrepreneurial learning pursuits – what issues or opportunities they were responding to, what they were seeking to change or create in response, and the progress and stumbling blocks along the way.

The research project

An exploratory research project ran alongside the initiative and sought to identify and understand what conditions help, limit or prevent developing entrepreneurial-minded young people.

There were four different groups of research participants: students, teachers, school leaders, and network coordinators (both former principals).

What we found

The research suggests that entrepreneurial learning can be pursued in many ways, and can be developed or adapted to fit local contexts, needs, strategic priorities and different student cohorts.

The term ‘entrepreneurial-minded’ provided schools with a new way of approaching schooling and of grouping skills and capabilities. All participants reported that this enhanced and supported the development of student capabilities. In particular, personalised and product-oriented learning was shown to help students develop and enhance vital capabilities, like creativity, communication and collaboration, and deepen student engagement.

Students applied entrepreneurial thinking to many subjects – using trial and error, refinement and perseverance – to improve the quality of their written work in English and to explore maths problems from different angles, for better results.

Importantly, adults play a critical role but in a reframed relationship where learning is teacher-enabled rather than teacher-dependent. The voluntary learning network accelerated change.

Teachers benefited too through learning with their students, developing a more expansive view of schooling and reflecting on their own practice – as an educator, mentor, and guide of entrepreneurial learning.

What next

The exploratory study on this initiative generated a number of recommendations of things schools and school systems could do to promote entrepreneurial learning. For schools, this included  providing opportunities for students to “step up” and lead their own learning. For systems, it included recognising the work already underway, and the strategic role of interest-based networks of schools in accelerating the development of entrepreneurial mindsets through exposing students, teachers and leaders with other schooling practices, ideas and experiences.

While the research data from this project contributed new understandings to knowledge gaps, it is important to further strengthen the knowledge base, especially as it applies in Australian schools, with more research and evaluation.

Dr Michelle Anderson is Director of Interface2Consulting and Adjunct Associate Professor with Mitchell Institute. She has worked as a secondary school teacher, National College for School Leadership, England, Senior Researcher, Australian Council for Educational Research, Principal Research Fellow and as a health and education executive.

Dr Bronwyn Hinz works in the Mitchell Institute’s schooling and early education programs. She has worked for the Foundation for Young Australians, the Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria, two federal politicians, and the University of Melbourne, where she taught public policy and Australian politics.

Hannah Matus works as a policy analyst at Mitchell Institute, with public policy expertise in the areas of early childhood, schooling and child health and wellbeing. She has worked for the Victorian Department of Education and Training.

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