Entrepreneur-oriented Education

Source: Zhao Learning website, Feb 2011

Entrepreneurship and creativity are undoubtedly the Holy Grail in the 21st Century–hotly pursued and extremely elusive.

This is why China, Korea, Singapore, and Japan, as I wrote in my book Catching Up or Leading the Way, have all included creativity as a major goal of their educational reform efforts. This is why these countries have been investing heavily to develop entrepreneurship, foster innovations, and make their colleges and universities world-class.

But according to President Obama, we (the U.S.) just have them. Interestingly, cultivating entrepreneurship and creativity has rarely been mentioned as a goal in US education reform initiatives, which have really been worried about achievement gaps in test scores and teaching science and math.

In the same radio address, Obama’s goal of education is “to have the best trained, best skilled workforce in the world” to work for “the next Intel, the next Google or the next Microsoft” that may be created in America. He does not seem to be worried about who may be creating “the next Intel, the next Google, or the next Microsoft.”

As far as I know, entrepreneurs and creative talents do not grow on trees and if they did America does not have a monopoly of these trees. I am sure Americans are not born more or less creative or entrepreneurial than the Chinese, Koreans, Singaporeans, or Japanese. I am also sure it is not pure luck or an accident. Unlike natural resources like oil or gold, entrepreneurs, creativity, and world-class universities do not just happen to be in certain places. Thus we cannot take it for granted that America will always have the bold entrepreneurs and bright new ideas as if they just fall from the sky. We must try to understand where they come from so we do not cut down those trees that produce entrepreneurs and creative talents in America.

More importantly, entrepreneurship and creativity are not only an American business but also the business of the globe. As the world faces an uncertain future, we will need a lot more entrepreneurs and creative talents to develop new industries, new products and services, and new solutions to the many challenges facing humanity.

Research on entrepreneurship and creativity has typically focused on two areas. The first is the personal traits and characteristics of entrepreneurs or creative people. The second is the environment, including characteristics of the societal, cultural, economical, financial, and other social variables that generate more or fewer entrepreneurs or creative products. Given my concern is mostly how schools can help or hinder the development or entrepreneurship and creativity, I will only discuss findings relevant to education.

Entrepreneurship and creativity are closely related and are not just math and science, as Florida and colleagues have shown in their study. The excessive focus on a few subjects will great reduce the diversity of talents and hinder innovation and entrepreneurship. Furthermore, in the age of globalization, all entrepreneurial activities are conducted in the global context. Understanding other cultures and proficiency in a foreign language greatly enhances the entrepreneur’s perspective on the global market and their capacity to interact with workers and consumers worldwide.

Research on entrepreneurship suggests that entrepreneurs tend to share this attribute of non-conforming and are willing to take risks. They are not only willing to but also seek to deviate, to come up with new ideas, and that is creativity.

Chinese students “have been exposed to a school system that predominantly emphasizes the learning of basic knowledge and analytical skills,” whereas the American school system tends to stress self-orientation and self-expression.

Second, the high-stakes nature of the Chinese testing system pushes the Chinese students to be “concerned predominantly about doing well on standardized analytical tests, and there is conspicuously less incentive for cultivating creativity.”  In contrast, in America, “an individual can, and many do, excel in this society by way of creative achievement, independent of his or her performance on standardized analytical assessments.”

The world needs more entrepreneurship and creativity but the dominant thinking about schooling today is still about preparing employees for entrepreneurs. Schools are asked to prepare students to develop the skills and knowledge that will help them find a job. This is one of the reasons existing businesses executives have been given such a big platform to define what schools should teach. But given the uncertainty of the future, a future where many jobs have not even been invented and many of the presently existing businesses may not even exist, schools have to prepare students to invent jobs, not find jobs.

… entrepreneurship and creativity are much more than a set of prescribed knowledge and skills. They are more spiritual, psychological, social, and cultural than simply cognitive skills. Therefore we cannot wait until they grow up and provide a crash course on entrepreneurship and creativity. We have to start young and deliberately work to develop what is needed for entrepreneurship.

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