Making sense of enterprise education?

Written by Steve Aicheler

Hidden on page 24 of the Entrecomp framework is a learning outcome which says “I can combine my understanding of different contexts to transfer knowledge, ideas and solutions across different areas.” It’s part of the Creativity competence, level 6 of being curious and open. So with that in mind I’d like to tell you a story of how I hope we, as Enterprise Educators can demonstrate this competence.

Like all good stories I need a cast of characters, so let me introduce Martin Lackéus – well known to many of you and our keynote speaker at IEEC. My second character is Nick Gibb who was until recently Education Minister in the UK government. Finally, David Snowden, a keen mountain walker, although that fact is probably not relevant.

At IEEC Martin challenged us as Enterprise Educators to take the Red Pill, to peel the scales from our eyes and to peer, curiously, under the hood of our practice to understand both what we are trying to achieve, and what is or isn’t working. As in the 1999 film The Matrix, reality may not be a pleasant experience – but is it better to live in reality or to continue to fool ourselves that we have reached the sunlit uplands of ‘perfect’ Enterprise Education?

Now let me take you to two other interests of mine, life after all does exist outside of EE (no, really it does!) To de-stress I try to run on a regular basis, although on this particular occasion I decided to engage with another interest – that of politics. If, like most, you despair at the shallow, soundbite politics of the moment then the “Political Thinking” podcast on BBC sounds does offer a more nuanced, non-aggressive deep dive into understanding the motivation and approaches of politicians. On this particular run I chose to listen to an interview with Nick Gibb an education minister who I feel would not immediately fall in love with the approaches often used in EE practice.

The conversation, led by Nick Robinson took the listener through why Nick Gibb feels that his approach to education is valid. On one of his keynote policies, that of synthetic phonics Nick tells us of his evidence led approach – both in the introduction of phonics, in its roll out and in his ongoing resistance to those who feel other approaches may be more effective. One argument used is that phonics reduces the number of sounds to be memorised from 1000’s to only 40+. This feels like a logical argument to me, a reduction in the need to memorise 1000’s of basic words, coupled with an evidence base that the approach is effective.

This contrasts to another of Nick Gibb’s key policies, the ‘knowledge curriculum’. From the evidence of this podcast alone, this policy seems much more based on personal experience, anecdote and the unevidenced opinion of ‘experts’. Counter to the phonics approach, this requires the memorisation of many facts.

Listening to this interview I couldn’t help but to make a connection to Martin’s presentation and his call to build the evidence that Enterprise Education is developing real value and is not merely a construct that is giving us the illusion of satisfaction – are the approaches we are taking in EE evidence led like phonics, or based on gut feel and personal experience like the ‘knowledge curriculum’, and how can we tell the difference?

This is where I need to introduce my final character, because in reality, Enterprise Education is more complex and more chaotic than teaching young children how to read*. The Cynefin Framework, from the Welsh, Cynefin – a sence of place,  developed by the mountain walking David Snowden is a decision making framework designed to help leaders to make better decisions. It does this through a process of sense-making. Perhaps too often in EE we find ourselves in a state of disorder, leading to difficulty in developing effective solutions, or believing that the answers must be simple, we attempt to categorise what we are doing as obvious and search for ‘best practice’. While this may work for teaching children to read using phonics, in EE this is leading to what Martin has referred to as the McDonaldisation of EE, a set of practices which don’t respond to where we, or our learners are.

Different elements of EE may fit in one of the three remaining Cynefin domains, situations which are chaotic, complex or complicated. How we support an individual student to progress with an idea may often be chaotic, the development of Entrepreneurial Competencies within a program constrained by PSRB requirements is complicated – but can be guided by ‘good practice’ whereas the development of accelerator programs or extracurricular work would be complex, governed by rules of thumb, but allowing for emergent or adaptive practice.

So before we are able to provide the evidence that Martin has challenged us to produce we must first understand the domain in which the different elements of our work may sit and therefore the type of practice which may best help us to achieve the outcomes we desire and a true understanding of what is actually working.

We need to look to other fields, such as decision making and combine this understanding within our context. We must also understand the factors which lead to those decision makers like Nick Gibb who are able to influence policy to choose to follow the evidence or to choose to follow their instinct. We must remain curious and we must encourage and find time for proper conversations with colleagues from other fields to enable us to truly respond to Martin’s challenge.

*Other than limited experience in reading with my own children I cannot claim to have first hand knowledge of teaching children to read, so it may well actually be complicated and chaotic.

I’d like to thank Mark Neild for reviving my interest in Cynefin, a concept I came across a number of years ago – I knew it was relevant but hadn’t quite connected the dots.