Entrepreneurial literacy?

I was reminded of the importance of ‘literacy’.  I don’t mean specifically written/read English, but literacy in the way it has come to be used in Education, as ‘competency’ in whatever subject or field.  I was working with a colleague in Malawi who had no literacy in using Excel.  What struck me wasn’t that he was struggling with various functions, formulas etc. – I was too.  But that he simply was not familiar with the basic operations underlying the use of Excel.  He struggled with highlighting cells, copying and pasting etc.etc.  In fact, he was having real difficulty with the kind of basic operating procedures that are essential to use Microsoft Office.  How to save files, what to click to minimize etc.  Why?  He’s a bit slow, yes!  But, he was learning from scratch something that most of us under a certain age in the UK have learned almost implicitly through exposure.  I don’t remember many specifics of my IT education. I’ve always had to learn or relearn processes whenever I’ve done anything substantial on the computer.  However, what my IT education has provided me with implicitly is the underlying familiarity, competency or literacy.

What then are the essential literacies of the C21st?  The question has something of a tired, clichéd ring about it, but is nevertheless pretty important.  I’ve suggested ‘literacy’ in citizenship and entrepreneurship is important for citizens.

‘Literacy’, I suppose, consists of a body of knowledge and the competent application of that knowledge.  It doesn’t mean knowing everything, but, crucially, knowing how to approach problems in a specific field (knowing what the paradigm is?).  There is ‘literacy’ in citizenship.  Is there literacy in entrepreneurship?  Perhaps it’s in a familiarity with acting on initiative, risk, and capitalising on the future?

I read something by Anita Roddick questioning the value of MBAs for entrepreneurs.  She was suggesting that entrepreneurship is about risk and obsession (I think she used the word obsession, it might have been dedication), and that these are qualities that can’t be taught.  Perhaps you’re even just born with them.  Certainly she suggested they’re not best taught by business schools which are bastions of stats quo.

I think I would caution Roddick’s fatalism.  Business schools may not best teach entrepreneurship, but that doesn’t mean we can’t create conditions in which entrepreneurship can flourish.  Although how to teach literacy in entrepreneurship is a slightly different question to how to teach the equally important literacy in IT (or just plain literacy), I suggest the clue to the answer is in implicit learning (see also previous posts) and in the value of experiential learning. 

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4 thoughts on “Entrepreneurial literacy?”

  1. It always astonishes me (and my parents, who both work in primary education) that basic touch-typing skills are still not taught to children at a primary age. We set so much stall on handwriting, which is obviously vital, but leave children to evolve their own word processing skills, picking up whatever poor ergonomic and laborious bad habits they find along the way.

    On a less literal level, I would point to the demise of teacher-discretion and a wider sense of humanism in education to explain a lack of initiative in what ought to be a much wider entrepreneurial class. From key stage one onwards, pupils are immersed in a box-checking, do-just-enough-to-pass-the-exam mentality, which restricts the potential to develop real passions, for subjects or projects. Outside the elite Universities there is a real fear of making one’s own decisions or showing initiative. Until we can place enough trust in the judgement of our teachers and decimate the prescriptive and reductive constraints of the national curriculum, I don’t see how any kind of free-thinking enterprise is ever going to prosper.

    Obviously, not until they’ve implemented mandatory typing lessons for everyone. Isn’t flagrant self-contradiction fun kids?

  2. Thanks Sandy.

    The National Curriculum is in many ways not a bad thing. The History National Curriculum for KS3 (years 7-9) is a pretty good balance between national framework and teacher autonomy. It can be over-zealously adopted by schools or departments (much as other education legislation, or the, by some interpretations, response of minor officials to Stalin’s purging decrees), but it’s generally quite useful, I think.

    I agree with everything else you say. Lack of early exposure to the more interesting and useful elements of computing is quite ridiculous. Perhaps also the way it is often taught is wrong too. IT is resolutely a tool, and becomes a vital, and even exciting, tool provided the problem to be tackled is sufficiently engaging.

    I think you rightly point out the contradiction, highlighted by Alex’s post. The answer, perhaps, lies in designing structures of appropriate size to accommodate the appropriate balance between accountability and autonomy. This might be, as Schumacher in ‘Small is Beautiful’ says, ‘an articulated structure that can cope with a multiplicity of small scale units’. That balance between teacher autonomy and accountability might best be served by a network of federalised schools. Each federalisation made up of 5-6 schools, each of around 200 pupils.

  3. OK, imagine we set out to teach children about risk and obsession. What would we do? Warm up with some real-life stories, ideally real visitors to the classroom telling their own real stories of risk and obsession? Then what, undertake some activities designed specially to be variously risky and obsession-inducing? Then tell our own stories of what the activities felt like? I don’t know…but heck we might as well try it. I think one of the most exciting aspects of schooling in Britain today is the introduction of enterprise education and the campaign to get teachers to think broadly about ways to engage young people in enterprise. This is not, as I think Jacob has made clear in his articles on entrepreneurship, just about making money. It’s about developing those attitudes and skills which help individuals to handle uncertainty and manage change. It’s not just to meet the needs of future employment, but life in general. It requires a different teaching approach because it’s got nothing to do with getting 10 out of 10. This isn’t about doing what you’re told all the time. It’s about individuals making decisions based on changing information. Since the skills can only be learned through getting less than 10 out of 10, i.e. from taking risks and making some mistakes, educators should provide environments and activities which both enable this to happen and provide timely support for recovery. ‘You were obsessed by this idea of a solution to the problem, and tried it out. In fact the solution you tried didn’t work. What are you going to try next? What help do you need?’ It’s hard to provide this kind of support in massive education environments. That may be one reason why the ‘small scale unit’ approach makes sense.

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