The key to successful entrepreneurship teaching is to create opportunities for learners to fail

Sihle Magubane interviewed one of the leading experts in Entrepreneurial Leadership at African Leadership Academy- David Tait. He shared some insights on what a successful entrepreneurship education should look like:

Sihle Magubane: What’s the difference between teaching entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking?

David Tait: There is, and there isn’t.  One helps the other. On the one hand, if you are teaching entrepreneurship you want to see learners evidence their application of entrepreneurial thinking through starting something. On the other hand, entrepreneurial thinking is a mindset and can be applied in various settings.  At the core, you want to get an understanding of how people have applied that type of thinking before and during their learning experience.


SM: What outcomes, then are to be expected with such an education? And how do we measure them?

DT: You need evidence. There should be less talking and thinking about entrepreneurship, with more focus on action.

For the two different styles of teaching entrepreneurship, the assessment and measurements may be different.  If you are focusing on teaching entrepreneurship, the outcomes are more straightforward to measure. The evidence of this would be when a learner has a solid business model or business- alongside with the other entrepreneurial skills such as creativity, communicating for impact and other solid, tangible skills. The follow up to that when they have a venture are other tangibles such as jobs, revenue growth and others.

Entrepreneurial thinking becomes difficult to recognize when it’s happening, hence more difficult to measure.  It’s a big challenge that educators have to contend with. How do we know that it is happening? The educator can give an objective assessment on a scale to measure the level of entrepreneurial thinking happening with students.  For example, most students that come to African Leadership Academy would have already evidenced entrepreneurial thinking in some way, through their experiences in leadership positions, as an example, and a significant number did start something before they applied to the academy. Once they get to the academy, we then measure how they do in the school activities and evidence innovative problem solving.

SM:  What is the one thing that has to hold in order to teach entrepreneurship well?

DT: You need to set up a space where learners can feel safe about failing. Where they can take risks and fail. That is why the Student Enterprise Program exists at ALA. This program is where students run businesses in a way that mirrors the real world- they pitch for funding, pay rent and taxes and have to generate revenue (if for profit)  and are held accountable by a board made up of external experts.

Secondly, at such a young age, it is also a good time in anybody’s life to fail a lot more and try out new things.

Failing academic subjects is another matter as it is connected to grades, possible pressure from parents and schools. The traditional idea is that if you get good marks, you will land a good job. However, in the real world, companies are never hiring for any of that – they want problem solvers.  Entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs differ very little, characterized by a high appetite for taking risks. Taking risks creates a culture that almost celebrates failure.  From the way that companies have been run, it’s a complete change. Take Google for example, the company celebrates failure and even sometimes promotes people for risking big and failing.

The trick is how you get people used to failure is doing it in baby steps, providing positive feedback about their failure.

SM: As an educator, where do I start? What are some of the small things I can do  to introduce entrepreneurial thinking in my classroom?

DT: Think about different ways in which you can use the curriculum that is set for your subject. You can use a project based approach where you get learners to create a project, with specific deliverables around their learning (and this is where they can fail)

Of course this largely depends on the structure of your classroom, its easier to draw this link with subjects such as business studies and economics.

The third thing is that the program should not interfere with school and the need to get learners to complete the curriculum and get good grades.  Some of the more successful initiatives include entrepreneurship clubs where the school facilitates a market place where learners can create businesses and make revenue.

Dave Tait is the Head of Entrepreneurial Leadership at African Leadership Academy where he has been for 7 years. He has a diverse background including design and was also a chef. He enjoys cooking and gardening.