November 2014 | By: By Heidi M. Neck

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Video: A Practice-Based Approach to Entrepreneurship Education »

Practice-based learning often is seen as the stepchild living next door to the ivory tower. Nevertheless, there is a long tradition of thinking and research that supports learning through practice. Take Aristotle, who said: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

Given such a rich legacy, Billett (2010) notes that there is nothing new about learning from practice, but he is surprised that learning through practice is positioned in contrast to the traditional educational experiences offered in higher education (Rogoff and Gauvain, 1984).

In this article,* I’d like to promote the practice-based approach as a model of learning to support entrepreneurial action. Here, we are not promoting the pure practice models that ensure competence in a specialized occupation such as medicine, law, or even a position in a symphony orchestra. On the contrary, our goal is focusing on synthesis that encourages the practice of actionable theory. Rather than a narrow view of learning through practice which requires particular knowledge to enact the practice, we align with a broader perspective:

[Learning] can be enhanced by particular kinds of pedagogic activities, which, as instanced, required the practitioner to represent their tacit learning in some way. This requirement creates an imbedded practice that has significant pedagogic qualities in so far as it generates the kinds of knowledge structures that make explicit what was tacit, and generates richer understanding about practice, but from and through practice, not on behalf of it. (Billett, 2010, p. 29)

A noted criticism of practice theorists is that they often treat practice as a singular and distinct construct while overlooking the complexity, diversity, and range of practice (Dall’Alba and Sandberg, 2010). This is precisely why we cannot simply say that entrepreneurship is a practice and must submit that entrepreneurship is a method composed of a portfolio of practices. In addition to learning through practice, we leave room for learning about practice. Both contribute to skillful performance (Dall’Alba and Sandberg, 2010).

The complexity of practice theory cannot be overstated, and our book cannot give justification to its rich history in the social sciences, especially in the fields of sociology and anthropology. Rouse (2006), analyzing the work of seminal practice theorists (e.g. Foucault, 1972; Bourdieu, 1977, [1980] 1990; Giddens, 1984; Pickering, 1992; Turner, 1994; Schatzki, 1996; Rouse 2002), identified several themes in practice theory that relate to our work and support entrepreneurship as a method or even metapractice. In other words, entrepreneurship is a set of practices that describe and give information about the method of entrepreneurship.

Combined, our practices create a method of thinking and acting entrepreneurially:

  1. Practices are meaningful performances governed by social rules and norms. Each practice highlighted in our book is governed by theory from multiple disciplines within and outside of business administration.
  2. Practices become the background of culture formation and the platform for social structure construction. The practices of entrepreneurship discussed in the following chapters can create a culture of entrepreneurship among students, in classrooms and beyond.
  3. Practices are dependent on human agency and social interaction. Through sustained practice, habits are formed that expand existing knowledge structures and encourage new ways of acting. Thus, entrepreneurship is learned through practice.
  4. Practices create shared meaning through “shared presuppositions, conceptual frameworks, vocabularies, or ‘languages’” (Rouse, 2006, p. 515). Entrepreneurship education, through a practice-based approach, becomes a community of learning that is student centered. Just as we have been talking about what practice is, it is just as important to talk about what practice is not as it relates to our approach. An interesting line of inquiry emerging in the management and entrepreneurship literatures, but borrowed from cognitive science, is the concept of deliberate practice to achieve expert performance (Ericsson et al., 1993).

Deliberate practice is devoting a large number of focused hours to intense practice to achieve mastery of a skill. For example, Chase and Simon (1973) studied chess players and estimated that mastery was achieved only after 10,000 to 50,000 hours of practice. More recently, Campitelli and Gobet (2011) estimated that chess players need only 3,000 hours of deliberate practice, and found that other variables, such as season of birth, cognitive ability, and being left-handed, contributed to mastery. Deliberate practice has been applied to entrepreneurship as a way to show how some entrepreneurs outperform others. Baron and Henry (2010) proposed that expert performance resulting from deliberate practice could differentiate successful entrepreneurs from the less successful. They argued that deliberate practice by entrepreneurs could enhance cognitive resources while also increasing motivation, self-efficacy, and self-control. But, a characteristic of deliberate practice is prolonged periods of highly focused practice such as those seen with chess players, athletes, and musicians. Baron and Henry (2010) admitted that prolonged periods of practice may not work for startup entrepreneurs, nor is it clear what specific skills they would deliberately practice over and over.

To resolve this dilemma of extreme amounts of devoted time, Baron and Henry (2010) delve into the entrepreneurial learning literature. They introduce two types of learning: experiential learning and vicarious learning (Kolb and Kolb, 2005). For example, quarterbacks can learn while playing football (experiential learning) or they can learn by watching tapes of other quarterbacks (vicarious learning). Baron and Henry (2010) note:

Applying this general principle of vicarious learning to entrepreneurship, we suggest that an important route to building expert performance in situations where time pressures and other environmental conditions provide little opportunity for hours of overt focused practice is offered by exposure to a large number of pertinent, realistic, and highly relevant examples. (p. 57)

The solution to the time dilemma required of deliberate practice, in our opinion, is not a solution at all. Rather, the approach offered by Baron and Henry is nothing new in entrepreneurship education—the use of examples and case studies as modes of vicarious learning—and is not moving entrepreneurship education forward. Students are relegated to the role of involved spectators (Higgins and Elliott, 2011). However, this does lead us to an important question related to the practice-based approach we are proposing. How does our practice-based approach differ from Kolb’s popular notion of experiential learning?

Kolb (1984) defines experiential learning as knowledge created through the transformation of experience (p. 38). He emphasizes a focus on the process of learning rather than outcomes of learning as well as the knowledge created and re-created through experiences. In other words, experiential learning emphasizes the experience, feedback from, or interaction with others on the experience, and self-reflection on the experience (Kolb, 1984; Jennings and Wargnier, 2010).

Figure 1.1: The Practices of Entrepreneurship Education

The Practices of Entrepreneurship Education

Our practice-based approach complements that of Kolb and other experiential learning theorists. Our approach is mostly concerned with learning within the practice as well as learning through practice. Thus, the only way to learn within the practice is through experience. In each of our practices of entrepreneurship education learning, innovation, communication, interpretation, and history are present—the essential elements of experiential learning (Higgins and Elliott, 2011). In sum, the entrepreneurship method as a series of practices can be learned only through experiential approaches.

With an understanding of why we elect to view entrepreneurship as a method as well as a better understanding of what we mean by practice intertwined with the importance of theory, we point to Figure 1.1—the five practices subsumed in the method. Our concept of practice relates to the acquisition of skills, knowledge, and mindset through deliberate hands-on, action-based activities that enhance development of entrepreneurial competencies and performance. Given the complex and multifaceted nature of entrepreneurship, a single practice is not possible.

*This article is excerpted from Teaching Entrepreneurship: A Practice-Based Approach, by Heidi M. Neck, Patricia G. Greene, and Candida G. Brush.


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