A couple of weeks ago, I started teaching my fall semester entrepreneurship classes. Even though this is my 26th year teaching the topic, I was confronted once again with the question of what to teach.
For me, this isn’t the oft mentioned debate of whether entrepreneurship can be taught at all . As someone who has conducted research on the genetic roots of entrepreneurial behavior, I know that there is an innate component to entrepreneurship. But I also know that even when people are born with a gift for something — whether that is for a sport, playing a musical instrument, managing people or identifying new business opportunities — those people still need coaching.
The dilemma I face is to which students do I target the class? Sure, all educators are faced with the problem of teaching to students of varying abilities. But when teaching, a professor faces another source of student variance — the motivation for taking the class. A small number of students take entrepreneurship classes because they are starting a new company right then and there. A larger number of students take the courses to learn about the subject matter for the future.
That’s not how it works when you teach a lot of other subjects. Almost no one takes a civil engineering class because they have a half built bridge in their yard and need help completing it. Few students sign up for criminal law because they are up on charges or are defending their best friend in court next week. They don’t take chemistry because they are making illicit drugs or fertilizer and think they haven’t got the formula quite right. And tax accounting is rarely selected by students unable to complete their own or Apple’s tax returns.
None of this would be a problem if it weren’t for the way teaching is evaluated in American universities. In more than a quarter century of teaching I have never had anyone come into my classroom to observe how well I was doing. Instead, that judgment is made at the end of the year by a committee that looks at the scores on the end of semester evaluation forms that students complete.
It doesn’t take long in the classroom to figure out what gets the high ratings. Students prefer “how-to” storytelling about the startup process to serious content almost universally. So if you want high scores, and the pay raises that go with them, you go with the how-to material.
The rub is this: that subject matter is only good for the minority of students who are starting real companies today. The how-to information will largely be forgotten or out of date by the time that many start a company, and isn’t of much use to those in the classroom who become investors or policy makers or big company managers.
Entrepreneur Education Based on How-To Can Quickly Become Obsolete
While I think about changing my approach every August, and could easily switch, given my own start-up investment experience, I have always resisted. Every summer I get one or two emails from former students who tell me that they just made use of something in their entrepreneurship class they took a decade earlier.
Some of them even tell me that they wish they could evaluate the classes now. They thought they liked the other approach better when they were in school. But now they don’t see any use for the other material.
Professor  Photo via Shutterstock