I’m fascinated by how people learn. This fascination is one of the reasons I enjoy doing what I do at USE so much.
Throughout my professional life I’ve kept on learning – something I think everyone should do – and the more I learn, the more I reflect upon my learning, and the more I reflect, the more insight I get into my own learning style and approach. I realise now, for instance, that as well as being very much a visual learner, I also respond surprisingly well to group work – something I would have found inconceivable when I was a socially-inept teenager.
My own educational background is relatively conventional – I did pretty well at school, went to a good University, worked for a good few years, picking up skills, knowledge and experience along the way, before returning to the same University to do further study and eventually ending up in the position I am in now, doing curriculum development and teaching for USE, all the while continuing to develop myself professionally. But many people take very different routes to learning, either by choice or by necessity.
Back in June – as one of my ‘keep in touch’ days whilst away on maternity leave – I went to a one-day ISBE workshop on Entrepreneurial Learning in Organisations, held at Manchester Metropolitan University. The delegates were a good mix of academic and professional staff from higher education institutions, and entrepreneurs who were recent or current participants in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses education and business support programme.
There was plenty of discussion around the question of “what is entrepreneurial learning?”. Some of the same keywords kept returning to the fore – entrepreneurial learning is social, iterative, opportunistic, and often based around learning through doing. There were a few things that really stood out to me, particularly when we were having small group discussions and chatting to the entrepreneurs about the way they learned.
Entrepreneurs are, of course, not a homogeneous group. They are as diverse as the myriad fields in which their businesses operate. Universities, including Sheffield, have plenty of them. But a significant portion of the entrepreneurs at the ISBE event were school-leavers rather than graduates, who had spent their entire working lives learning through doing.
In many ways, the only way to learn how to start and run a business is to get on and do it, making mistakes along the way, reflecting upon these mistakes, learning from them and moving on, all the time making adjustments, developments and improvements, and walking away entirely if needs be. Even so, the Goldman Sachs 10,000 participants had really welcomed the (very rare) chance to step out of the hectic day-to-day running of their business to reflect on their learning and professional lives, share experiences and learn from others. I was really struck by how important and useful it had been for them to learn, or receive mentoring, from their peers, but especially from those in entirely different sectors.
Learning socially, and from those from different backgrounds, is something we encourage at USE. Our Making Ideas Happen (MIH) module thrives on interdisciplinary project groups being brought together to develop social enterprise ideas. We also, as part of MIH’s assessment, get students to reflect upon the group work, learning and skills development that they’ve undertaken throughout the module.
It’s difficult sometimes to see the value of reflection. But, as we saw at the ISBE event and as I know through my own work, reflection isn’t a one-off event that takes place once in a person’s lifetime; it’s an iterative process, and it takes place over years and years, constantly building on what’s gone before. The experienced, successful entrepreneurs I met at the event saw it as really, really valuable.
In so many of the enterprise education activities taking place across the University, students are thrown into situations where they have to work with others and cope with constraints and uncertainty, learning to be creative with limited resources, responding quickly to challenges and learning through action. These are exactly the sorts of things entrepreneurs do every day.
Some might argue that you can’t teach someone to be an entrepreneur. But you can certainly go a very long way in helping someone build the types of skills, knowledge and experience which make them enterprising.