Research into Entrepreneurship Pedagogy in Primary Schools in the United States

Apr 15, 2021 | Spring 2021


Northwestern ’23

Ajay is a Computer Engineering sophomore at Northwestern interested in how ethically-centered innovation can address inequities and promote wellness in a sustainable way. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball, listening to improv comedy podcasts, and reading sci-fi.

Research into Entrepreneurship Pedagogy in Primary Schools in the United States

Research in entrepreneurship has boomed since the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published its initial report detailing growth in entrepreneurship across member nations in 1998 (OECD, 1998). The dotcom boom and resulting rise of big-tech entrepreneurs, the growth of dilutive and non-dilutive funding opportunities, and the growing influence of entrepreneurs on public policy accelerated this trend (McCann, et al. 2012). Due to entrepreneurship’s significantly disproportionate impact on economies, entrepreneurial pedagogy has burgeoned into an industry in itself. 

While entrepreneurship is highly individual and takes many forms, there is a consensus that the skills underlying entrepreneurship can be taught and that experiential methods through entrepreneurship are effective for students of all ages and backgrounds (Henry et al., 2005; Lackéus, 2015). Namely, hypothesis-generation and testing as well as creative problem-solving are malleable skills that benefit from intentional practice and lead to growth in grit, leadership, and critical-thought. However, most studies focus on tertiary education systems, namely colleges and universities, despite preliminary successes of entrepreneurial programs in primary and secondary settings in raising awareness and interest in entrepreneurship as a career choice (Hassi, 2016; Sikic et al., 2012, ODEP, 2014; Irons et al., 2014). A recent student found that only 3% of publications address entrepreneurial pedagogy in primary settings despite the role of primary school in developing foundations for future learning and its longstanding impact on educational disparities (Aamir et al., 2019; Sylva et al., 2004). I will now explore two specific modifications that merit further study or inclusion into existing entrepreneurial pedagogy, which is a nascent field and generally limited to pilot, experiential-learning programs funded by private donors. 

Social Entrepreneurship

Growing awareness of the capacity of entrepreneurs to positively impact both immediate and global communities and the efficacy of  socially-oriented companies in generating stakeholder value has led to increased interest in social entrepreneurship. This provides an opportunity to introduce primary students to the intuitions surrounding social innovations, including the concepts of intersectionality, human-centric design, and the importance of stakeholders in crafting attractive solutions. Projects based on such models have shown promise, but these programs could be strengthened by emphasizing critical and moral thinking skills that the Great Recession and growth in economic stratification have proven are desperately lacking in American public schools (Dolph et al., 2008). Particular emphasis should be placed on addressing inequities, such as the bias female-identifying entrepreneurs face in securing funding and support for their ventures (Wilson et al. 2007). Finally, entrepreneurship should be framed as a prosocial activity and platform for building social skills with an emphasis on the entrepreneurial institutions present within communities relevant to the student body (Zidani et al., 2019). Entrepreneurship inherently depends upon synergy between the executives, employees, investors, and customers, and research suggests having healthy relationships with competitors also contributes to start-up success (Dew et al., 2007).  Emphasizing local problems within students’ immediate spheres of influence, including their schools, neighborhoods, cities, or cultural communities at large, can help them ideate specific solutions to problems they likely have experienced first-hand, allowing them to ideate within areas of intellectual and personal interest and familiarity. 

Expanding the Definition of Entrepreneurship

While entrepreneurship has a positive relationship with existing social and economic capital, necessity entrepreneurs, or those that create businesses for the sole purpose of supporting themselves and their families, are just as important to creating value for their communities (Garcia-Lorenzo et al., 2018). Additionally, entrepreneurship through the establishment of community programs, innovations within existing organizational infrastructures, or simple supply-chain refinements are as critical as those involving the founding of multinational corporations (Omer et al., 2017). Thus, students should be exposed to case studies and innovators from multiple industries and career paths, including within schools and clubs, nonprofit organizations, companies of varying sizes and scopes, and other forms outside the traditional, venture capital-driven form glamorized by pop culture. Helping youth create products or services that work for all members of society and that address accessibility issues and systemic inequality, regardless of monetary value, can expand concepts of innovation and encourage talented students to emphasize community service and volunteerism. Curricula should emphasize the creation of true value, research-driven ideation, and integrity to catalyze the creation of tangible solutions that directly address problem-metrics (Russell et al., 2020).

Concluding Remarks

Much significant research on entrepreneurship and pedagogy has occurred in developing countries due to growing evidence that community-centric interventions are best pioneered by local stakeholders, including entrepreneurs (Rajan, 2005). A number of studies focusing on rural communities in Africa and India evaluate the role education plays in fostering entrepreneurship, in addition to education’s general effects on opportunity, equity, enfranchisement, and other key social metrics (Dolan et al., 2016). Outside these countries, there is a strong correlation between PISA scores and entrepreneurship education, particularly in settings that encourage project-based, experiential, and free-form learning, such as Finland, Sweden, and Slovenia (Dal et al., 2016; Oosterbeek et al., 2010). Further investment in entrepreneurial education at the primary-level is thus warranted and should focus on expanding the definition of entrepreneurship with an emphasis on social entrepreneurship as discussed above.  While there has been investment in entrepreneurial education in the US through nonprofits like VentureLab and Lemonade Day (Bishop, 2019), institutions should invest in teaching core entrepreneurial skills  such as self-presentation, risk-tolerance, stress and risk-management, hypothesis generation and testing, grit, and social attunement (Chau, 2010). 

Furthermore, community and culturally relevant forms of entrepreneurship can be used to further serve underserved populations by providing culturally sensitive role models for students (Mars & Schau, 2018). For example, in many immigrant enclaves, entrepreneurship often consists of selling traditional foodstuffs to the native community. Pairing students with ethnic restaurant owners of similar backgrounds can help the students understand how their individual traits and heritage can ground businesses that serve and enrich the communities they are a part of. Community-focused, project-based models will thus encourage participants to focus on social impact using the skills and resources at their disposal, which may or may not take the form of commonly-envisioned iterations of traditional firm-based entrepreneurship that can positively impact developing and developed economies alike.  



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