21st Century Learning

What Is the Best Way to Crush Entrepreneurial Spirit? Force Children to Take an Entrepreneurship Class!

Gallup recently shared the results of their annual poll on entrepreneurial ambition among American students.[1] In the prior five years of polling, 33% to 35% of high school students indicated that they planned to start their own business. This year that number dropped to a lowly 27%. This drop would not necessarily be noteworthy, if not for the unending emphasis that educators, economists, and politicians have placed on the importance of cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit in the next generation.

The focus on entrepreneurship is well placed. We have entered a period of technological advancement that is unprecedented in the history of humankind, and it is accelerating at an exponential pace. Within the next few decades, it is predicted that half of the jobs on earth will become obsolete, and many futurists believe that we will hit technological singularity.[2][3] Most young people are not going to have the luxury of getting a degree or learning a trade, and settling into a job for the duration of their adult life. They are going to be forced to constantly evaluate their skillset and their place in the world, acquire new skills as necessary, and create opportunities that allow them to provide value to others in a rapidly evolving marketplace. In the past, an entrepreneurial mindset was a lifeline for those who could not stand to work for others, but in the future, it will become a necessity to survive.

While the interest in entrepreneurship among high school students hit a low, Gallup pointed out that a majority (55%) of middle school students plan to start their own business. Gallup suggested that the 2:1 ratio in entrepreneurial ambition between the groups may be a result of goals changing with age, although that would not explain the widening gap between the two groups. Gallup also posited that familiarity may result in decreased interest in entrepreneurship among students. On that point, Gallup is part wrong, part right.

Gallup is part wrong because there is evidence that being introduced to entrepreneurship at a young age increases, rather than decreases the likelihood that one becomes an entrepreneur. This is particularly the case for children of entrepreneurs, who are two to three times more likely to become entrepreneurs than their peers who were not raised in entrepreneurial households.[4] Therefore, the phenomenon of student interest in entrepreneurship decreasing as academic entrepreneurial offerings increase needs to be scrutinized.

Gallup is part right because the wrong type of familiarity breeds contempt. Gallup points out that high school students were twice as likely as middle school students to have access to classes on entrepreneurship. In line with the counterintuitive reality of education, the more that learning experiences are formalized into curriculum, tested, and graded, the less likely it is that students will want to engage in that experience once class has ended. If you want to crush the entrepreneurial spirit in students, force them to take an entrepreneurship class.

Furthermore, schooling, with or without entrepreneurship classes, impedes an entrepreneurial orientation in students because it produces a risk averse mindset.[5] By virtue of high school students having on average four more years of schooling than middle school students, they are less likely to be able to tolerate the ambiguity and uncertainty of an entrepreneurial existence.

As opposed to Gallup’s misguided proposals for more academic offerings, schools should immediately drop entrepreneurship classes, entrepreneur workshops, and startup fairs if they are interested in fostering an entrepreneurial spirit in their students. Instead, schools need to step aside and allow students to engage in self-directed learning experiences in real world contexts so that young people can experience the challenges and joys of entrepreneurship in a low risk setting.


1.     US High School Students' Entrepreneurial Ambition at New Low (Gallup)

2.     For example, Thomas Frey has claimed that 2 billion jobs will disappear by 2030.  

3.     Kurzweil Claims That the Singularity Will Happen by 2045 (Futurism)

4.     Like Father, Like Son? (Entrepreneur) 

5.     http://www.abrome.com/blog/2017/4/21/does-self-directed-learning-create-an-its-all-about-me-problem

Does Self-Directed Learning Create an “It’s All About Me” Problem?

People often ask me what makes Abrome different than other schools. This allows me to turn virtually every conversation with someone I meet into a discussion of the merits of self-directed learning and Learner autonomy. Most people are unprepared to hear what I have to say because it is too far removed from a worldview shaped by society and 13 years in traditional schools. They instinctively reject Emancipated Learning because they were repeatedly told they needed to stay in school, buckle down, study, and go to college in order to get a good job. The notion that we live in a meritocratic society where schools are the great equalizer has become a cultural meme that has seeped its way into education, politics, philanthropy, and the home. I go into these conversations with an understanding that not everyone will agree with me; I am planting seeds for the future. 

Participation trophies, not autonomy

Recently, a retired gentleman in Georgia asked me what I did for a living, and I told him that I run an “alternative school” in Austin. He probed. I explained that Abrome is a self-directed learning space that supports young people so they can take control of their educational experiences, and thereby take control of their lives. He immediately rejected the concept. First, he questioned how someone could learn chemistry if not required to, and then he moved on to asking how one could ever be an employee if they were not trained to follow orders. Finally, he came out and said it: “Doesn’t this self-directed learning create an ‘it’s all about me’ problem?”

He unoriginally posited that the problem with millennials and, by extension, current day school children, is that they all got ‘participation trophies’ growing up, and therefore thought far more highly of themselves, their capabilities, and their perceived value than they should. He continued by arguing that this exaggerated belief in their self-worth (or economic worth) resulted in young people who focused more on themselves than the organizations they worked for. He called them entitled. And allowing them to have control over their educational experiences would only amplify that entitlement.

It is not narcissism, it is necessity

It is common for older generations to dismiss younger generations by pointing out their narcissistic tendencies. Many of the generations that are so disappointed by today’s youth were often viewed as selfish loafers and slackers when they were young. While it is true that millennials and school-aged children are more narcissistic than gray-haired people, that is a function of youth, not of generational change. Across generations, younger narcissists tend to mature into older people who are less full of themselves.[1]

While labeling younger people as narcissists is unfair, if any generation deserves to be more focused on themselves, it is the youngest generation. Economically, they are facing a far more dynamic, disruptive, and uncertain future than their predecessors. Futurist Thomas Frey predicts that 2 billion jobs will cease to exist by 2030, while Ray Kurzweil argues that computers will achieve human levels of intelligence by 2029 and technological singularity will happen by 2045.[2][3] When that happens, the needs of the economy will demand competencies and skills that cannot be filled by the modern day worker. In fact, this process has already started. As of 2013, 18 of 30 major world economies are already experiencing talent shortages, and half of recent American college grads are unemployed or underemployed.[4] It is less a question of which industries are going to be disrupted or replaced, and more of a question of when each industry will be disrupted or replaced, and who will survive.

Further, the institutions and systems that we and our forebears have created and perpetuated are actively undermining younger generations from being able to prepare themselves for this uncertain future, much less lead remarkable lives. Despite the impressive social and technological progress that has occurred over the past few generations, we are leaving the younger generations with tremendous liabilities that may come due on their watch, ecological environments on the brink of collapse, and a cost of living that is difficult to meet given personal needs and societal expectations (e.g., healthcare, housing, college tuition). However, of all the institutions and systems that disadvantage the younger generations, perhaps the one that undermines them the most is the schooling system.

Education should be all about me!

Education should be a liberating experience that allows people to lead remarkable lives so they can positively impact society and improve the human condition.[5] However, schooling does the opposite. Schooling currently trains young people to bow to authority and to know their place in the hierarchy of society, as the gentleman from Georgia believed it should. It tells young people to wait their turn, and to jump through the hoops that have been established or protected by the incumbents in the hopes that these youngsters will eventually get their shot at lording over future generations. And while this approach was morally unjustifiable in the past, it is now also practically unviable for the future. The status quo will be displaced.

To continue to push young people into a coercive, standardized, and still industrialized schooling system is to prepare them to fail. Young people are going to have to become lifelong learners to be able to continually adapt and evolve in a world where institutions have no loyalty to their workers. Schooling undermines the love of learning. The longer that children are subjected to the practices and structures of schooling, the more likely they are to avoid voluntary learning experiences.[6]  Creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial competency are going to be vital to success moving forward, yet schools continue to shape a risk averse mindset in students through a demand for perfection on narrow and often meaningless academic  tasks, an intolerance for experimentation, and a constant push toward college degrees as validation of competence and intelligence.

For these reasons, education must be all about the young person. It is time to move beyond the argument that the purpose of education should be to benefit the nation or the economy. Education needs to stop being about the adults. It needs to focus on the children: their wellbeing and their future. To do anything less is to fail them. When today’s young people are rightfully given control of their education, their chances of leading remarkable lives increase dramatically.  And that benefits society.

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3020091/

2. http://www.futuristspeaker.com/business-trends/2-billion-jobs-to-disappear-by-2030/

3. https://futurism.com/kurzweil-claims-that-the-singularity-will-happen-by-2045/

4. http://zhaolearning.com/2015/04/06/a-world-at-risk-an-imperative-for-a-paradigm-shift-to-cultivate-21st-century-learners1/

5. http://www.abrome.com/blog/emancipated-learning-vs-bells-whistles

6. There is ample research that highlights that people lose interest in learning something after they are praised, tested, or assessed in some way, even in activities they previously enjoyed. After years of assessments across various domains, it is unsurprising that many adults still experience school-associated anxiety, and that voracious reading is an anomaly amongst those who attended traditional school.