Students who disengage from school tend to feel discouraged about their futures. They begin to lack hope. And without hope, they disengage further. This spiral impacts their academic performance, their learning, and their sense of self-direction.
At The Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative, we’ve been concerned about this pattern for years—it’s one of the reasons that we’re so passionate about offering the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program to middle, high school, and college students. We believe that having an entrepreneurial mindset can help students stay engaged in learning as they transition into adulthood.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the challenge of student engagement to a new level. While distance learning worked for some, many others lost ground in their education while schools were closed. Those who have been able to return in person are adapting to unprecedented routines and safety protocols. And nearly all students – and their families – have experienced extraordinary levels of stress.
In addition, one recent analysis estimated that between 1 and 3 million children and youth “may have had minimal to no educational access since March of last year.” These students have simply gone missing. When re-enrolled, their learning gaps will be substantial.
So how can an entrepreneurial mindset help these students? Here are five ways that infusing entrepreneurship into the core of our systems of education can strengthen engagement.
The Five Es of Entrepreneurial Education
1. Expand how we talk about “entrepreneurship.
Re-define the term in a way that is accessible to all, regardless of their circumstances, interests, or chosen path. Here’s the definition we use: Entrepreneurship is the self-directed pursuit of opportunities to create value for others. And by creating value for others, we empower ourselves.
Entrepreneurship at its core is a process of discovery—the search for the intersection between our interests and abilities and the needs of our fellow humans. It does not require big ideas, venture capital, a unique personality, or an Ivy League MBA. It simply requires discovery skills that anyone can learn to develop. Unfortunately, our education system has historically undervalued, overlooked, or ignored students’ inherent curiosity and self-directed pursuits.
Too often, entrepreneurship education initiatives conjure images of Silicon Valley success stories or reality television shows that encourage students to come up with big ideas and write business plans. While these stories may captivate our imagination, they are by far the exception and do not reflect the boots-on-the-ground reality of most successful entrepreneurs.
2. Explore the entrepreneurial mindset.
Not all students have the desire to start a business. And that’s OK because an entrepreneurial mindset is not about business. Instead, it is a specific set of beliefs, knowledge, and thought processes that drive behavior. People with this mindset tend to believe in their abilities and take ownership of their lives. They have compelling goals that motivate them to be self-directed, action-oriented, and highly engaged. Furthermore, they look for solutions with resilience, resourcefulness, creativity, and critical thinking. Also, they follow through.
As humans, we are all driven by an innate need for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. That is to say, we all have a strong desire to be entrepreneur-ial – to be engaged in work that matters, to have agency and a voice, and to have the opportunity to apply our strengths to something greater than ourselves. And when given a chance to do so, we are much more likely to become engaged in our work, recognize the value of education, persist, and ultimately thrive.
3. Engage our students.
We need to do a better job of connecting learning experiences to our student’s individual hopes and dreams. For some, hope might be a touchy-feely concept that is easy to overlook within an academic context. Yet, a growing body of research indicates that hope uniquely predicts objective academic achievement above intelligence, personality, and previous academic achievement.
4. Embrace entrepreneurial learning.
To embrace entrepreneurial learning is to provide opportunities for students to develop the skills to identify and solve real-world problems within resource-constrained circumstances where the rules are unknown. No one is in charge, and no one is coming to the rescue. (Kind of like what we’re going through with the COVID-19 pandemic.)
It is only through this process, and in these circumstances, that we can genuinely develop self-reliance and resourcefulness, creativity, effective communication, teamwork, and other entrepreneurial skills.
5. Examine ourselves.
In the past, we created innovators and entrepreneurs by accident rather than design. However, if we are to embrace entrepreneurial education fully, we must also re-examine our own beliefs and assumptions about students that may no longer be accurate or effective.
To help all students re-engage in their education and catch up on their interrupted learning, we will need new methods, new frameworks, and new models that encourage all students to be innovative and entrepreneurial. The way we structure our systems has enormous power to shape our children’s behavior.