… is like high-end siding on a house without a frame.

There’s a lot of buzz in the education world about how skills and character traits that characterize successful entrepreneurs might be imparted to our youth in order to foster successful participation in the new economy.

I’m a skeptic.

Research into how the essential traits of successful entrepreneurship can be passed on to kids has revealed that this idea is the pedagogical pipe dream of the entitled classes. Why? The most significant trait common to young entrepreneurs is that they grew up in affluent families and have plenty of money to experiment with. That is, when they start a new enterprise, they’re not risking their futures.

Not to say there aren’t a few go-getters out there that have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, but for the most part, when we try to understand and pass on the component attributes of the “average young entrepreneur,” we’re assuming a low-risk application of the skill set.

Most of these “model young people” are taking risks that are not really risky.

It’s true the economy is changing, the lifelong career looks to be a thing of the past, the traditional gatekeepers are losing their power over the direction of our lives, and there seems to be a trend toward more autonomous approaches to making a living. These are circumstances that favor those with a substantial safety net.

So how do we prepare our kids for that? Doesn’t it make sense to give them chances to practice entrepreneurship?

Well, yes, and no.

Yes, because we know that the old, predictable entryways to lifelong careers are crumbling.

No, because it’s putting the cart before the horse.

Developmentally speaking, the first thing younger adolescents need is to experience themselves simply as essential parts of complex, expertly managed, and already working systems.

From a school accountability perspective it’s practical to keep them lumped with their peers and getting credit for the same experiences at the same time (“Now it’s time for entrepreneurship class. Okay, now it’s time for math.”). But aside from the attention-getting proclamations of revolutionary school reforms, odds are that the true developmental benefits of pretending to be entrepreneurs inside a throng of other adolescents are scant. Most likely, entrepreneurial experiments simply improve student attitudes toward school because god knows those kids would rather be anywhere than in a classroom.

The ideal student-to-adult ratio for young adolescents is more like the ideal student-to-adult ratio in a toddler class – a handful to 1 – not because they need more supervision, as common knowledge would have it, but because they need to interact with a diversity of solid adult models so that they can interact routinely with reliable and skillful working people whom they admire, identify with, and wish to emulate.

I’ve written other posts advocating for a Pull Curriculum, where adolescent programs are being developed, but an equally necessary experience for the younger adolescent, is a highly structured apprenticeship type of engagement, in which students work alongside skilled practitioners in ongoing and high functioning adult enterprises. They have to feel their modest, ongoing efforts contribute to the humming of a complicated, and expertly run endeavor in which their participation is meaningful and modest. They have to show up on time and be depended upon as reliable junior colleagues who experience legitimate peripheral participation in professional communities of practice alongside experts and craftsmen whose work rhythms, professional discourse, problem solving, critical judgment, and interactions with patrons they can observe over time.

This is different from the currently popular programming that allows student groups to start their own businesses with adult funds and under adult supervision. The “young adolescent as budding entrepreneur” model is traditional education in 21st century packaging. We don’t really need more forums where adults are telling children what to do so they’ll appear ultra-competent in eyebrow-raising press releases, while not actually constructing and internalizing essential competencies.

Adolescents need to feel themselves as gears in the machine of society before they can be asked to design and run the machine.

It’s easy to generate buzz with businesses that appear to be student run, but most of these programs are achieving impressive visuals at the expense of genuine support for a necessary stage in young people’s development. Starting entrepreneurship with “Let’s have a vote on what to name our shop!” and “What kinds of products should we sell?” appears to empower kids, but misses the point of developmental education entirely.

Whenever we skip over crucial developmental tasks to help kids reach our goals sooner, we hobble them rather than empower them.

 

Unfortunately, in this era of school choice, ostentatious innovation-signaling is a far better marketing tool than are the messy, authentically situated, hard-to-track circumstances that cultivate genuine, non-linear, impossible-to-measure, internal self construction that helps young people emerge as competent, self-assured, and perspicacious agents of social growth and human harmony.


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Photo illustration: Chris von Lersner