Outside Consultant: Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?

This “Outside Consultant” column by John F. McVea, associate professor in the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at the Opus College of Business, ran in the Star Tribune on May 17, 2021.

It depends on what we think teaching really is.

If we think education is about filling the heads of students with critical facts, testing them, drilling them, and graduating them with all the information they need, then I would agree – we cannot teach entrepreneurship. We simply do not have a body of knowledge we could inject which would guarantee success. Entrepreneurship is a mindset, not a set of facts to be regurgitated.

In my view, we should never have confused the memorization of facts with an education. Forty years ago, my high school physics teacher told us, “My job is not to teach you what to think, my job is to teach you how to think.”

Instead, entrepreneurial education should be the development of our thinking skills for business innovation. Critical thinking is key. I tell our students that 90% of what they learn will have become irrelevant five years after graduation. But what never becomes irrelevant are their critical thinking skills.

There are several important aspects to this approach, e.g., the role of imagination. When we talk about imagination, we must take care to differentiate between imagination and the imaginary. We cannot just make up business ideas.

The imaginary is all unicorns and goblins. It’s the stuff that starts in our own minds, repeats only to itself, accepts no external challenge. It is untethered to the real world. Unchecked fantasies require little teaching and make poor investments.

On the other hand, imagination creates valuable new futures. It begins immersed in reality and asks, “How does this aspect of the world work today?” “What could it be, in light of new things we could do?”

Then it rehearses these ideas in the real world to test if we could create a valuable new future. This is imagination – the concrete world transformed.

John Dewey said that imagination is an act of construction, rather than the act of escaping reality. It's fueled by careful observation, analysis, synthesis and the visualizing of new futures. This is a mindset which can be taught, developed and nurtured.

Entrepreneurial imagination is a critical force, but it is also one immersed in the world. It is more tangible than dreams, more valuable than fantasy and it is, most certainly, a way of thinking that can be taught.

John F. McVea is an associate professor in the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at the Opus College of Business.