“It’s the teachers fault!” Students attacking their entrepreneurial teachers

We humans like when things go our way. When we don’t end up in unexpected trouble, when we don’t end up as prime target for angry rallying people. We prefer smooth operation, and a moderate level of change. I think this is a main reason why truly entrepreneurial education is very rare in education today. Without using proper tools, entrepreneurial education is often a recipe for teachers ending up in trouble, stress and calendar strain due to the complexity of interacting with the world outside schools and universities. Therefore, most teachers don’t make their teaching as entrepreneurial as they perhaps would like to, out of self-preservation. Why mess up your life? Why not just do what the system expects in terms of traditional chalk-and-talk and keep your calendar open to family, leisure and relative calmness.

My working definition of entrepreneurial education is when we let students use their knowledge to create something of value to stakeholders outside our school / university. This requires relations to be established with such stakeholders, a time-consuming job that someone has to assume responsibility for. My way of solving this is to let my students establish these relations themselves, on behalf of our university. They generally like this a lot, but it always results in both strong positive and strong negative feelings. When people from the outside world like what the students are doing it leads to strong personal growth, pride and a feeling of meaningfulness and relevancy (and of course deep learning of curriculum content). When on the other hand these same external people dislike what happens in the collaboration process, and from time to time things end up troublesome, the students’ emotions are rather characterized by strong anguish, discontent and distress. The same thing happens when the outcome of the process is uncertain. To most people, uncertainty is really scary. And what happens then is that their resulting emotions need an outlet. Who better to direct these negative emotions to than to your own teacher? After all, it is the teacher’s fault that the course is not as structured and predictable as all the other courses provided by other teachers. And why the hell can’t the teacher just tell me what will happen now? At Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship we have seen this every single year for two decades now. Indeed, when I was a student here myself, I was one of the most emotionally explicit students, rallying againsts my teachers a lot.

I often try to tell both my fellow teachers and our students that negative emotions are an important part of entrepreneurial pedagogy, and that it is a good sign that we are doing something quite right. This does not always lead to people calming down, neither my colleagues, my students nor myself. I wonder how I had reacted to such an “excuse” for educational messiness and ambiguity 15 years ago when I was pouring my own anguish and distress over my teachers.

Yesterday I found myself (again) in front of ten students rejecting my attempts to explain that negative emotions are natural to the process – “This is entrepreneurship!”, “This is what you signed up for!”, I tried to say. Rejecting this, they instead asked me to confess all my mistakes made as a teacher during the last six months. And boy did I confess. “Sorry for putting you in such an ambiguous situation with outside stakeholders holding you accountable. Sorry for trying to give you a really good educational experience, it was all my fault. And I even did it on purpose, knowing how bad you would feel about it. Let’s all go back to traditional class-room lecturing with no real-life content. Then you can get your 100% waterproof course-PM. You will know exactly what will happen, every minute of it all.”

I don’t know if they forgave me. They are probably still upset with me. So I thought i’d write this text to reflect on it. One good thing that we have now that didn’t exist 15 years ago is the entrepreneurial toolbox of effectuation, customer development, appreciative inquiry, design thinking etc. I think this can be a way to simplify for the teacher and streamline the complex and emotional roller-coaster process that entrepreneurial education can result in. It could also serve as an explanatory base for the students, to show them what they are experiencing and why they feel so bad about it. One of my favourite quotes is from Blank: “If you are not prepared to fail, you are destined to do so”. Read more about these tools here in my paper for OECD on entrepreneurship in education, or watch my short 10-minute videos about it here.

But entrepreneurial and experiential education will keep leading to emotionally distressed students at times. And what should they do with their negative emotions? Whose responsibility is it to cure them from their uncertainty and ambiguity fever? And what is the best way to break the news? Ideas anyone?

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2 Responses to “It’s the teachers fault!” Students attacking their entrepreneurial teachers

  1. Nigel Adams says:

    An excellent reflection Martin. Good that you got it off your chest!

    Keep fighting!!!

    You might also be pleased hear that the BBE students who complain the most about some traditional Business School subjects, such Operations Management, when they are running their own businesses after graduating, they frequently say that the subject was the most helpful!

    Very similar to you now compared with your student days!

  2. Alex Kakouris says:

    Haaha! Of course it is teachers’ fault not to provide adequate teaching…! But this fault is forgivable. Please let your students know that I already forgave you. However, teachers often do another mistake, not easy to forgive, when they teach entrepreneurship. They do not conceptualise and accept their role as facilitators. Adopting other roles, e.g. experts, they emit ‘hidden’ expectations to transfer students the ‘secrets’ to manage and especially grow, ventures.

    Dear Martin, could you tell what kind of students had this reaction? Where they MBA or entrepreneurship students? Your result, and reflection, is awesome for many of us who try to teach entrepreneurial contexts. Thanks for sharing!

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