Open any entrepreneur’s autobiography or listen in on any TED talk and you’ll find that many of them eschewed homework, bunked off school, refused to co-operate and back-talked the teachers. Many of the traits that hint at entrepreneurial talent have no place – and may even lead to censor – in a school setting.
However, in the run up to the recent UK general election all major parties lauded the role of entrepreneurs in the economy and discussed policies designed to ensure the country produced more of them. Entrepreneurs do something important, have control over their own lives and sometimes make considerable amounts of money (and more often make comfortable amounts of money). The world needs them.
Entrepreneurship is about thinking differently, inspiring others, being thick-skinned to a perverse degree, regarding knockbacks as opportunities for improvement, being endlessly creative (rather than being very creative once), having intense focus and boundless energy. All things that strike fear into the heart of your average teacher. So how can teachers ensure they don’t quell the very qualities essential to the future of the economy?
Sarah Hughes is a former teacher from Birmingham. She says it’s less about teaching a specific set of skills and more about using the traits observed in students and allocating tasks accordingly. "So I would ask some ‘sell’ certain ideas, such as why so-and-so deserves their painting in the National Portrait Gallery if I thought this would pique their interest."
Structuring teaching in this way, says Hughes, enabled her to capitalise on budding entrepreneurs’ traits or interests to teach them curriculum necessities such as historical analysis. "It’s not as simple as saying, 'these kids aren’t academic, perhaps they’ll be more interested in working on Wall Street'", says fellow teacher Wendy Johnson, "it’s about realising that teaching styles or lesson plans don’t always take account of different personality types."
Siobain Hone is graduate entrepreneurship manager at the University of Bath. While she believes there are "very few natural entrepreneurs" still, she says, "the ones I have coming through are very creative and inventive and are always trying new things." One thing she notices about all of them, she says, is that they talk a lot. "The naturals are the ones who want to tell you all about their ideas." Moreover, she adds, "the ones who don’t want to talk about their ideas and who guard them fiercely, often don’t have good ideas in the first place."
Hone says that while schools tend to favour students who do as their told and to brief, at university, at least on her courses, "You want people to be individual and quirky. I like the arsey ones." However, she counters, "when you’re six you haven’t learned anything yet so perhaps there isn’t place for disruption."
Paul Stevens, a secondary teacher from Huddersfield, says there can be so much box-ticking in teaching that encouraging, or at least rewarding children to think outside of it is nigh-on impossible. "We’re not encouraged, or, frankly, don’t have the time to indulge creative or sideways thinking," he says. However, he says he tries to encourage sparks when he sees them. For example, "Sometimes group-work helps to encourage certain traits, such as being overly talkative. I notice some pupils spread work well and bounce ideas off each other so I try and encourage this where possible."
Teachers can also take a few leaves out of home-educators’ recognition that not every child learns the same way. Allowing children to focus James Dyson-style exclusively on one project is not always possible for the classroom teacher but for the home-educator and educated it’s often the default teaching style.
At a speech at the World Business Forum two years ago, the popular writer Malcolm Gladwell outlined what he believed was the key factor in Steve Jobs’ success; urgency. Jobs did everything at speed. He wanted his ideas carried out yesterday.
Stick those traits in a classroom student and we’ve got a kid sent out of the room for being impatient or, worse, sent for tests for ADHD. As Albert Einstein once said, "It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education."
As Malcolm Gladwell also writes in his book David and Goliath, entrepreneurs are often disagreeable and don’t care what others think of them. Structuring teaching around getting rewards, the approval of teachers or even the praise or admiration of your fellow students might not always be the way to get the best from a budding entrepreneur.
Teacher turned businesswoman and founder of Stopcocks Women Plumbers Hattie Hasan (who spent seven years teaching in an inner-London school) agrees. She says, "Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t spot a budding entrepreneur at five years old. They are just not looking. They [the entrepreneurs] are creative, funny and often under-stimulated at school. They find things to do, chat (a lot) and are great at enrolling other children into exciting activities. If only education could concentrate on childrens’ strengths and individuality rather than try to make them all the same so that they can be 'handled'."