Saturday, June 06, 2009

Teaching "about" stuff

One common discussion around universities is about the value of teaching disciplines that society tends to view as an art or a talent. In my area, I often hear it expressed as "can you really teach entrepreneurship?" Implicit in the question is that entrepreneurs are born, not made. I have also heard that people question whether one can be taught: leadership, teamwork, art, etc.*

This is a topic that has been discussed in this blog since its humble beginnings.

But what is my answer to the question? I usually respond "I don't teach students to be entrepreneurs. I teach them about being entrepreneurs." There is a difference. Not all students want to become enterpreneurs (a source of continuing puzzlement to me). But they want to find out more about the role of entrepreneurs in business and society. Or maybe entrepreneurship courses are popular for the same reason "Social Deviance" is popular in psychology and sociology departments- morbid fascination?

What seems to work best for my classes is providing a framework, discussion, and a chance to practice. A mix of encouragement, support and questions. For those that lean entrepreneurial, my classes provide examples and a chance to test out a new venture. And, I hope, a dash of inspiration. If they decide to pursue a new venture, class is just the start. Then my role becomes advising, assisting, watching.

Really, though, the answer to the question is more complicated. What is important is what students learn, not what I teach (I still cling to the idea that there is a correlation). Some students learn to be entrepreneurs in my classes. Some learn about entrepreneurs in my classes. In many cases, it is not the particular content of hours of reading, cases and discussion. But rather at some point, a student realizes "I can do this." They give themselves permission. They realize there isn't a litmus test or an entrance exam for becoming an entrepreneur.
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* I am not getting into levels of genius here. For instance, I think it is possible to teach basketball, but not possible to teach just anyone to be Kobe or Jordan. It is possible to teach painting, but not possible to teach just anyone to be Cezanne or Homer. And there are many impressive people who are self-taught. But being a self-taught entrepreneur is different than being a born entrepreneur, isn't it?

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