Promoting Entrepreneurial Thinking in History Education
How can history education respond to globalisation and the need to foster innovative thinking in young people
Over the last decade or so, entrepreneurship education has become increasingly important in education systems worldwide. Responding to increased globalisation and the more dynamic culture of innovation in education systems such as those in Ghana, India and China, there is a genuine concern in the west that its education systems are not fit for purpose.
Employment markets are now global, with the world’s top universities priding themselves on attracting undergraduate and postgraduate scholars from all over the world. Many education systems outside the west, due perhaps to a scarcity of resources and a greater need for education to overcome immediate pressing issues in infrastructure, healthcare and agriculture, have developed along more flexible and enterprising lines. This means that young people cannot simply compare themselves to their national or regional peers but must think about the fitness of their education on a global scale.
Though educators, particularly in the arts, are reluctant to allow commercial thinking to penetrate too far into the classroom, there is a growing realisation that all subjects need to demonstrate the alignment of their curricula to the future employment needs of their students. How can this be achieved in history teaching? In addition, how can the greater representation of Black British and Black world historical narratives help make history teaching more entrepreneurial? This paper will consider these questions and discuss how history educators can approach course and lesson design to promote the development of key entrepreneurial characteristics in their students that will boost engagement and promote the value-adding capabilities of the subject. The aim is for students to see at an early stage how knowledge of world history and the skills of historical investigation, mainly when applied to investigating the histories of other cultures, can help them become sought after value-creators whether in employment or self-employment.
‘The development of entrepreneurial attitudes, skills and knowledge should enable the individual to turn ideas into action.’(European Commission, 2016)
With its focus on the past, history has perhaps been less pressured than other subjects to think about the role it has to play in nurturing entrepreneurial skills. However, the gains are not uni-directional – entrepreneurial thinking has a lot to offer history education in driving value creation, improving engagement and improving the employability of future graduates, making the discipline more respected and valued in society. One of the biggest obstacles to this is the limitations of the guidance on entrepreneurial education. Often produced for more numerate subjects, it tends not to speak to the particularities of history teaching. More work is needed to empower educators to see that entrepreneurial education can enhance history teaching and that it is an easy-to-implement pedagogical approach that speaks directly to the principal tenets of history education. This paper hopes to go some way to achieving this.
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Benefits of a more entrepreneurial approach to history education
While many people would consider economic growth and job creation to be the principal benefits of entrepreneurial education, a strong component of it focuses on personal growth, self-reliance, and increased engagement in the learning process. Some scholars thus contrast “traditional” education, characterised by standardisation, a focus on content, passivity, and centred on single subjects, to “entrepreneurial” education, which is individualised, active, collaborative, process-based, project-centric, experiential and multidisciplinary. Entrepreneurial education aims to build “enterprise capability”, being the ability to handle uncertainty, respond positively to change, conceptualise new ideas and bring those ideas to fruition – essentially, it is the drive to create societal value and effect change. Thus, entrepreneurial thinking is not only about starting businesses but about nurturing creativity, proactivity, and innovation in young people.
As mentioned, central to this is nurturing an inclination to create value for others: ‘entrepreneurship is … about the change and learning that the individual entrepreneur experiences by interacting with the environment, and the change and value creation the entrepreneur causes through his/her actions. Learning and value creation are thus seen as two main aspects of entrepreneurship’. This is because value creation drives motivation and engagement, which is particularly important for a subject like history, which is usually optional in most schools after KS3. An increased focus on developing these skills could boost interest in the subject and encourage the strongest and most engaged students to stick with it at GCSE and beyond.
There are two types of value creation: routine value creation, for example, writing an essay at the end of a module, and explorative value creation, which is when students make novel attempts at creating value. A history education that can achieve a balance between these two is ideal. Therefore, assignments should include both those with pre-set deliverables and those with less certainty that require students to conceptualise the final deliverable themselves. These are known as cognitive competencies and are the most valued competencies in formal education at secondary school, the former more than the latter.
However, entrepreneurship education requires that more effort is put into developing what are known as non-cognitive competencies, such as optimisation, efficiency, innovation and new offerings. This shows that entrepreneurship education is not simply about setting “business” assignments; it is about creating opportunities for young people to think about value creation by giving them greater ownership over how they can document and share their knowledge. ‘Optimisation’ and ‘efficiency’ suggest that students should be encouraged to think about the process of value creation and knowledge sharing. Thus, as well as working on the end product, they should also be encouraged to reflect critically on the process of value creation itself, thinking about ways it could be improved. For example, educators could ask students each term to create an educational poster for a local cultural organisation based on an item from the organisation’s collection and linked with a topic covered in school. Their value creation process could involve selecting an item, conducting research, planning the poster, and creating the poster. When they return to do the same task a second and third time, educators could ask them to think entrepreneurially by critiquing their previous process – where can they optimise, how could they make certain elements more efficient. Researchers have warned that a failure to prioritise such non-cognitive learning significantly affects performance and future employability.
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Experiential learning and greater agency
If one considers the issue of the deficit as it relates to a multiplicity of historical narratives within the history curriculum, a re-imagining of history education that borrows from the African tradition would recognise multiplicity and experiential learning. Many models of entrepreneurial education go some way to proposing a system that would do just that. One proposes multiple learning blocks that combine to shape an educational experience that is more democratic and individualised and less susceptible to manipulation and dogmatisation. This model proposes that developing entrepreneurial thinking requires, among other things, (1) letting students construct entrepreneurial stories anchored in their own life-world, which in turn will help them develop their skills at spotting opportunities, and (2) letting students reflect upon problems and disharmonies in their own life-world to help them develop everyday value creation skills.
Entrepreneurship ‘develops the capacity for students to generate and demonstrate how ideas are developed into innovative products and services which deliver cultural, economic, environmental, intellectual and social value, with a view to enhancing an individual’s ability to contribute to social and commercial activity and wider society.’(European Parliament, 2015)
This effectively empowers students to select or modify the course of their education by looking at the deficits and opportunities in their own lives for inspiration. This is an extremely powerful tool in history education that could lead to deep engagement and deep learning. For example, educators could give students one “free” project a year in which they could select their own topic in history, design their own research plan, decide their own deliverable, and independently undertake the work to achieve it. Students should be asked to reflect on their own lives, their family history, regional concerns and national and global events, and to justify why it is they want to learn more about the past of a particular people or region, and how they think it could help in their understanding of the world today. Educators could facilitate this by holding a history “fair”, dedicating a lesson to introducing students to different broad geographic regions of historical enquiry, making sure to leave no part of the world out, as well as to key themes in global history. This will go some way to helping students brainstorm ideas. Educators could exclude any regions and themes that are already heavily covered in the syllabus to push students to think more novelly to spark innovative thinking.
The aim here is to embrace the more functional and less dogmatic nature of traditional African pedagogy and democratise learning to encourage more diversity of topics, helping boost the entire cohort’s learning capabilities.
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Interdisciplinarity and Multidisciplinarity
Interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity are central to the African philosophy of history. Traditional historical practice is the African tradition is not so distinctly differentiated from philosophy and religion. Educators could embrace the interdisciplinary nature (from the perspective of the educators) and multidisciplinary nature (from the perspective of the students) of the African tradition by working with colleagues to create opportunities for students to work on projects that fulfil criteria in more than one subject. For example, teachers of religious education and history could jointly lead classes that look at the nature of African religion and the role that religion has played in the political history of a particular community or nation. An excellent example of this would be Haitian Vodou. Another example would be to look at the African Church, perhaps in western or southern Africa, and its role in the political and cultural histories of those regions.
Another collaboration could be with the English department to explore African epic historical poems and oral histories such as the Sundiata, or proto-nationalist narrative histories like Samuel Johnson’s History of the Yoruba or CLR James’ The Black Jacobins. Students could combine historical and critical analysis to explore the texts. In oral histories, further collaboration with the drama or music departments could bring the text to life through performances, allowing students to gain a 360 degree understanding of the history itself and the oral and communal nature of Africa’s historical tradition.
‘Letting students try to create value to outside stakeholders will then result in development of entrepreneurial competences, regardless of whether successful value creation is being achieved or not’.(OECD, 2015)
These skills of interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity are deeply entrepreneurial, developing in students and educators alike the ability to think about a subject from multiple angles, appreciate how different methods of analysis (historical and literary) and different mediums of dissemination (oral and literary) allow one to engage with the past of different cultures in different ways. Key to such initiatives is also teamwork which is a central feature of entrepreneurial thinking. Students should be encouraged to think about all of the different types of knowledge, analysis and delivery methods to be used and assign specific responsibilities to teammates.
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Interacting with people outside school
According to the Danish Foundation for Entrepreneurship (2012), ‘entrepreneurship is when you act upon opportunities and ideas and transform them into value for others. The value that is created can be financial, cultural, or social.’ In addition, they define entrepreneurial education as ‘content, methods and activities supporting the creation of knowledge, competencies and experiences that make it possible for students to initiate and participate in entrepreneurial value creating processes.’
Often when people think of entrepreneurship, students and collaboration with the community, they think of work experience or the setting up of microbusinesses. However, the creation of cultural value is just as entrepreneurial as the creation of financial value. Many cultural organisations would welcome more concrete collaboration with young people beyond simply visiting exhibitions and historical sites. Students could be encouraged to explore local historical sites and cultural centres, including museums and libraries, and think about ways to create value for those institutions using the knowledge and skills they have acquired in their history classes. For example, a local library would welcome posters made by students summarising the key events in the English Reformation, perhaps to display in their children’s non-fiction section. Libraries would also welcome book reviews and recommendations from young people, which they can maybe attach to shelves or feature with a “Library Book of the Month”. Museums and cultural organisations would also welcome collaborating with students to create worksheets for students. Educators can integrate such value-creation initiatives into their course design, connecting with local institutions and building relationships. Not only will this give students the ability to develop their entrepreneurial skills of third-party value creation, but it will also allow them to begin thinking about how they could translate the skills they are developing in history lessons into the real world. This can lead to greater engagement with the subject during class time and in homework and hopefully spark enough interest that young people will take the initiative to apply to later volunteer at the institution or propose further knowledge-sharing collaborations.
In particular, many institutions lack the expertise to support their visitors in exploring their more diverse histories. By exposing students to more robust Black British and Black world histories, they will be in a position to offer a unique value proposition to such institutions, whether as a volunteer or in the future as an employee. Thus, expanding the syllabus to more concretely and consciously re-insert Black historical narratives will empower students with the knowledge they need to stand out as a valuable asset to cultural institutions.
There is an increasing awareness of the role that entrepreneurial thinking can play in nurturing social consciousness across the curriculum, particularly in highly politicised subjects such as history and religion. By shifting the focus away from a debate about what values we are instilling in students, to what value we are empowering students to create, entrepreneurial thinking can de-racialise discourses on the history curriculum.
‘Teachers should give their students assignments to create value (preferably innovative) to external stakeholders based on problems and/or opportunities the students identify through an iterative process they own themselves and take full responsibility for.(OECD, 2015)
It cannot be denied that young people are increasingly interested in educating themselves about (and insisting that they are educated about) historical patterns of inequality and how these translate into current societal challenges. They are particularly interested in the intellectual deficits that have underpinned much of western education and its role in limiting, as opposed to liberating, knowledge. Thus, the de-racialised plane of entrepreneurial thinking, which aims to democratise the assignment of value, appeals to a younger generation more conscious perhaps than any before it, of what it is being taught, about whom and for which end.
The (African) elephant in the room
Successful entrepreneurship, or the successful deployment of entrepreneurial thinking, requires a deep cultural understanding of the people, places and structures around one. As mentioned, entrepreneurial thinking aims to democratise value designation and empower value creation by responding to the life-worlds of students through collaborative endeavours. Sustainable and effective value creation requires conversation, compassion and community – these are the gateways through which deeper engagements with the world can occur, better opportunities can surface, and more successful campaigns of fruition move forward. Therefore, any person who truly wants to excel in today’s world cannot disregard the histories and cultures of the second biggest continent on the planet, or the histories and cultures of its vast diaspora. Thus, from a commercial and social enterprise point of view, understanding Africa, its cultures, and its diaspora are essential to developing an entrepreneurial mindset. History education is central to giving students constructive understandings of Africa’s past and helping to historicise present economic challenges and opportunities. Re-imagining history syllabuses to re-insert robust and constructive Black historical narratives is one of the most entrepreneurial endeavours that history educators can undertake.
Entrepreneurial thinking is essentially a mindset in which the individual takes the needs of society into account in deciding what to study, and the medium through which what they learn can be re-delivered to society. By democratising and humanising teaching and learning, entrepreneurial education has a lot to offer educators looking to enhance their subject teaching. Young people are yearning for deeper consciousness and the right to effect change, however small. A pedagogy that incorporates opportunity for shaping the curriculum in response to immediate challenges in society while empowering students to create value for others will lead to the perception of the greater relevance of history education. Educators have reasonable concerns about the commercialisation of the classroom, but it is hoped this paper has shown that entrepreneurial thinking cannot be reduced to the capitalist outcomes most associated with it. In true entrepreneurial endeavours, value is that which those promised it deem it to be. Therefore cultural value can be just as much a goal for entrepreneurs as financial value.
Cite this article:
Umolu, Apeike. “Promoting Entrepreneurial Thinking in History Education”. Centre for the Study of Pan-African Citizenship Education, part of the African History Project. 2022
European Commission. Eurydice Report – Entrepreneurship Education at School in Europe (2016) https://eacea.ec.europa.eu/national-policies/eurydice/content/entrepreneurship-education-school-europe_en
Ismail, Annafatmawaty Binti; Sawang, Sukanlaya. Entrepreneurship Education, Pedagogy and Delivery in Entrepreneurship Education – A Lifelong Learning Approach. Sawang, Sukanlaya (Editor)(2020)
OECD. Entrepreneurship in Education: What, Why, When, How. OECD (2015) https://www.oecd.org/cfe/leed/BGP_Entrepreneurship-in-Education.pdf
Xu, Stella Zhixin. Entrepreneurship Education in UK Secondary Education in Entrepreneurship Education – A Lifelong Learning Approach. Sawang, Sukanlaya (Editor)(2020)