Teaching entrepreneurship - an instructor's perspective

This article, co-written by Professor David Kirby and Simon Gifford, complements earlier articles on the purpose of entrepreneurial education and whether it can be taught. Here we focus on how it can be taught and the effectiveness of different types of teaching. It outlines the key elements required for teaching “for” entrepreneurship, the skills and expertise required by the teacher, the teaching context and what teachers can do to overcome some of the constraints on provision. It suggests that teachers have three options namely Do it Yourself, Team up, or use an Online Programme Manager. It concludes by stressing that both institutions and teachers need themselves to be entrepreneurial by taking the initiative and launching a programme - rather than waiting for the “perfect” moment.

1. Introduction

Would you like your students to graduate with the type of mindset that makes them natural innovators, opportunity seekers, problem solvers, critical thinkers and people with the capacity to reflect and then act? Would you like them to be in demand by employers and/or to be able to start their own business on graduation? Then giving them the opportunity to acquire an entrepreneurial mindset will produce that positive result.

However, as Colin Norton and Norin Arshed said in an article: the legitimacy of entrepreneurship education is tormented by four ongoing issues:

  • First, what is its purpose?
  • Second, can it be taught?
  • Third, how should it be taught?
  • And, finally, is it effective?”

The first two questions were answered in our earlier blogs (get the ebook here) and in this article we will cover the third question by considering how it should be taught, what are the constraints that many education institutions face and how can we overcome those to offer an entrepreneurial mindset to our students.

2. An expert’s opinion on teaching entrepreneurship

We began by asking the well-known expert on entrepreneurial education Professor David A. Kirby what he believed was the best way to teach entrepreneurship. His response was: “it all depends upon your intent, but you can teach it in three basic ways:

  • Teaching about entrepreneurship – that will give students knowledge of entrepreneurship
  • Teaching through entrepreneurship – that will give the student some entrepreneurial skills
  • Teaching for entrepreneurship – that will result in a student obtaining an entrepreneurial mindset

Taking Professor Kirby’s discussion and adding in our (Mashauri) own research and experience, we summarise the three ways of teaching and the key elements associated with them in the table below:

3. Key elements of teaching “for” entrepreneurship

Although perhaps any entrepreneurial education is better than none, clearly the most effective for really producing a positive change in the student is teaching “through” and “for” entrepreneurship where “for” will have the greatest impact. This is our focus for the rest of the article.

Building on this and considering input from various experienced entrepreneurial educators, articles and our own experience, it is useful to look at how to teach entrepreneurship from three perspectives:

  • Teacher skills and expertise
  • How to teach
  • Context of teaching

Below we consider each of these in turn.

3.1 Teacher skills and expertise

The following are the requirements that teachers should strive towards if wishing to offer excellence in entrepreneurial education:

  • Teachers themselves need to be entrepreneurial: ideally professors should have experience in developing a business and can bring this expertise into the classroom. But more than anything they should be prepared to experiment in the classroom and to learn by doing.
  • Innovative and flexible in class: teaching entrepreneurship tends not to be a linear, agenda-driven process but a journey students are guided along (including occasionally getting lost). This requires high flexibility from professors in designing and running programmes.
  • Demonstrate humility – encourage students to question and  let them discover answers:“even if you know the answer to a question, it is often better to feign ignorance and let the students get to the solutions themselves”.
  • Motivational and encouraging: teachers sometimes need to play the role of a cheerleader as well as a football coach; and offer positive support to  students as they develop their new mindset.
  • Realistic and practical: although students will appropriately often have lofty ideas (such as grandiose social impact ideas), one of the professor’s roles is to keep the students “feet on the ground” even while “they have their heads in the clouds”.
  • Knowledge of entrepreneurial best practices: educators should have a good understanding of the tools and processes that make up venture development best practice and help students to know when and how to use them.
  • Portfolio of cases and examples: to bring the experience to life, teachers should have real and relevant cases they are able to share with students to both motivate and guide them.

3.2 How to teach

There are some key elements that must be considered and included when thinking how to teach entrepreneurship.

  • Active methods of engagement are required to release creativity and so lecturing time should be limited with the emphasis on students doing not listening
  • Group work helps develop leadership and cooperation skills and, where possible, students should be given group-level tasks
  • Multidisciplinary interaction and diverse teams add great value, so mixing disciplines, backgrounds, cultures and personalities should be an objective of the educators
  • Real life learning experiences and permission to fail are necessary to develop entrepreneurial competence and skill so environments where this can happen should be designed into the process.
  • Evaluation of students in entrepreneurial education often  falls outside of standard university scoring processes. Educators must design learning outcomes relative to entrepreneurial  skills and be creative in the measurement thereof.
  • Student reflection is absolutely critical for learning to take place and adequate time for this activity and guidance in its use must be given.
  • Tough and objective feedback will often be required and space for this should be built into the programme.
  • A one-size-fits-all approach cannot work in entrepreneurial education and so programme flexibility must be developed to allow for different pacing for different individuals and groups. Mentors can often be useful in this respect.
  • Theory is still necessary, but  it is better to be immediately useable and given “just in time”.
  • Digital teaching methods are necessary to optimise entrepreneurial education, especially if required at scale, and should be used to build in flexibility and personalised learning.

3.3 Context of teaching

When thinking about what should be taught and to whom,  there are a number of considerations to which attention should be given:

  • Entrepreneurial skills can be taught in conjunction with almost any discipline (and not just business studies); in fact an argument could be made that students in areas such as liberal arts, medicine or architecture may benefit more from entrepreneurial education than their colleagues in the commerce faculty
  • Although one of the primary goals of giving students an entrepreneurial mindset is to help them recognise entrepreneurship as a possible career option, there are many other valuable benefits even for those who end up as part of larger organisations (which may be the majority). Therefore a focus on intrapreneurs as well as entrepreneurs is important
  • Entrepreneurship education is not just about the professor and the students. It is critical that the education is connected with the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem; and students are exposed to players such as corporates, Technology Transfer Offices, successful (and not) entrepreneurs, and investor,etc.


4. What can you do

When considering the above requirements for excellence in entrepreneurial education, it is not surprising that there is less entrepreneurial education being offered than seems to be required. Probably the most critical constraint is the lack of educators  with the required experience and expertise to undertake this type of teaching. Furthermore, given the change in style and pedagogy required, it is not surprising that professors are reluctant to take up this challenge – at least not without support.

However, it is not fair to existing students for institutions to wait for the perfect moment before rolling out significant entrepreneurial programmes. Therefore, we end the article with three strategies as to how you might start a process of offering teaching “through” and “for” entrepreneurship. These are:

  • Do it yourself
  • Team up
  • Use an OPM (Online Programme Manager)

4.1 Do it yourself

There are some immediate steps that can be taken to get yourself on the path of becoming a good teacher of entrepreneurship

  • Get up to speed on the basics: lean startup process, customer development, business model canvas, new venture phases, entrepreneurial mindset
  • Start your own venture. It could be as simple as launching a “Shopify” business or designing a simple mobile app.
  • Take a teacher training course on entrepreneurial education (or as an institution, launch such a programme)
  • Start small – but start. Take a smaller group of students and teach “through” entrepreneurship. Practise with a few well-documented exercises or simulations (you will find a number on the Mashauri website) and learn as you teach.

4.2 Team up

Entrepreneurship education like entrepreneurship itself is best played in teams! Proven ideas that work well here include:

  • Work with your institution’s Centre for entrepreneurship / innovation (most institutions now have one) and / or the technology transfer office
  • Tap into other entrepreneurial teaching or activities going on in the institution such as entrepreneurs clubs and entrepreneurial competitions
  • Develop an institution-wide (or wider) “entrepreneurial professor group” and start sharing initiatives and best practices
  • Partner with a more experienced professor in running some early courses
  • Get involved in the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem around your institution (eg accelerators and angel groups, and identify opportunities to work with them and your institution

4.3 Use an (OPM) Online Programme Manager to get started quickly.

Online programme managers (such as Mashauri) provide off-the-shelf or customizable entrepreneurship courses that incorporate entrepreneurial best practices. These can be offered as stand-alone programmes for students or incorporated into existing university courses. Implementing such a programme at your institution not only gives you a fast-track insight into teaching entrepreneurship but also allows you to offer existing students this valuable opportunity.

Ways you might get started here are:

  • Select a programme that meets your desired outcomes and student target group
  • Learn with (or observe) your students as they work through the programme
  • Integrate it partly or fully with your existing lectures; or run it separately
  • Initiate a cross-faculty or university-wide programme that can be coordinated by the OPM

Note that Mashauri also designs and delivers offline and blended programmes customised to the requirements of the students and the instructors – why not drop me a line at simon.gifford@mashauri.org and we can set up a discussion.

5. Conclusion

Few higher education institutions will question the value of offering entrepreneurial education to a broad group of students; nor will they debate the necessity for the type of cognitive skills that are developed in such a programme. This article has touched on how to go about teaching entrepreneurship and also highlighted what that means in terms of constraints.

However, we do not believe there will ever be a “perfect” moment to start such a programme when everything is neatly in place. We would therefore recommend that you (or your institution) should start acting like an entrepreneur and launch a programme early,lean and refine on the fly and build the capabilities as you go. Or as Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn is quoted as saying: “Jump off the cliff and build the aeroplane on the way down!”

For  more in-depth discussion about this topic or to find out about the programmes that Mashauri offers, please contact me (Simon Gifford) at simon.gifford@mashauri.org

Please feel free to distribute this article to anyone else who you believe may have an interest in the topic.

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