The winner takes it all…

by Caherine Brentnall

It may seem somewhat heretical in a world of enterprise challenges, mini business contests and knock-em-out accelerator boot camps, but I harbour some uneasy feelings about competition and its impact on motivation and learning.

An illuminating exchange with my eight-year-old son reminded me why the other week. Sat around the dinner table, we discussed a letter from school I had salvaged from his bag about what (in my opinion), sounded like a reasonably fun learning opportunity. An historic but long dilapidated barn in our town is being restored and as part of this project a commemorative quilt will be created, made up from squares designed by local school children. I thought this would be just up my son's street as, though not all elements of school appeal to him, his respite is being creative in art, design and technology.

But no matter how much I enthused, the answer came back clear: 'I'm not doing it, there's no point.' He went on to explain that as it was a competition and he had no chance of winning (or at least this was what previous experience had taught him), there was no point wasting his time. And he felt this despite being the child of an education-obsessed parent (that’s me),  and the unsuspecting subject (that’s him) of all kinds of home experiments to build grit, develop a growth mindset, value effort and learn that practice is the key to success.

I understand where he's coming from, because my formative experiences with competitive sport left me somewhat emotionally scarred. P.E. for me was a series of ritual humiliations. The panic of being the last to be picked; the embarrassment of doing something publically that you’re just not that good at; being last in sports day in front of a larger audience…. I could go on. It was enough to put me off ‘team’ sports for years. I'm happy to say now that I really like to run, hill walk and dance (my favourite), but I took up these activities despite my experiences at school, not because of them.

Which brings me back to entrepreneurial education in which, I would argue, too many young people’s experiences are in a ‘winners and losers’ type activity, which potentially could have the same unintended consequences of simply putting them off further exploration or involvement.

Though I don’t deliver them, I am sometimes asked to be a judge at one day enterprise competitions. During a recent one a fellow judge (an entrepreneur), said that he felt that every team’s idea had the potential to be workable business. And it was true. Sure, there needed to be some development and refinement, but who was to say that any of one of the ideas had a greater chance of success than the other? Yet the message to participants was this – these are the best ideas, and the other message was (potentially), you’re the winners, the rest of you are the losers.

Recent research explores the potential adverse impact for some students of the ubiquitous competitive, high stakes, win-or-lose style of entrepreneurial learning. Heilbrunn and Almor (2014), found that there is the potential for the design of entrepreneurial learning to reproduce social inequalities, rather than unlock every young person’s entrepreneurial spirit. The researchers investigated the impact of taking part in a competitive business contest and found that for middle and higher socio-economic students there was a very positive impact. However, for lower socio-economic students, their self-efficacy and the desire and feasibility to be an entrepreneur went in the wrong direction. Post analysis interviews showed a complex mix of interacting factors, from less parental support, to less time spent on task, and interestingly the feeling at regional meetings and competitions of being ‘under privileged, backward and less capable.’ 

Interestingly, research which explores the qualities of expert entrepreneurs shows that initial ideas are evolved and developed according to feedback from customers and stakeholders. Effectuation (the theory developed out of the research) challenges the myth of the heroic entrepreneur who identifies the goal and musters all the resources required to bring it to life.  Rather, it shows that the means and resources inform the development of the goal, and that the goal changes according to interactions, partnerships and resources acquired along the way. It’s just not a simple win/lose scenario.

A fascinating and exhilarating element of the Entrepreneurship 360 network has been the opportunity for educators to work alongside academic researchers and other partners to explore and debate entrepreneurial learning approaches. I hope one of the outcomes of the project is that new collaborations are seeded which generate more opportunities to explore the effects of different learning design and approaches so educators have research practice and pedagogy that develops the entrepreneurial competencies of all young people.