Setting out for Loughborough University (to guest speak at their entrepreneur’s ‘ThinkBig’ awards) I was reminded of the insight and wisdom of Patrick Awuah. Earlier in June I had listened to him talk at a GBSN conference in Tunisia.
To give you some context, Patrick left Ghana as a teenager to attend a US college. Qualifications gained, he then spent nearly a decade with Microsoft before exiting the commercial world to return to his home nation and establish Ashesi University. This institution’s bold mission is to ‘educate African leaders of exceptional integrity and professional ability’ and as this TED talk testifies, his work is gaining global renown.
What struck me about Patrick’s words in Tunis was the eloquence and clarity of his thinking as well as vision for education in Ghana. When discussing the need for entrepreneurial leadership he talked about the importance of creating a ‘framework of uncertainty’ within which students could learn. His words resonated with me completely and I was inspired by the purpose and scale of his challenge.
A framework of uncertainty
The world of work is a very unsure and unclear place. The traditional certainties and careers enjoyed by previous generations no longer exist. In this global economic malaise, preparing people for such uncertainty is vital but it is as much about how we teach as what we teach.
Writing for the Guardian (also in June 2013) about teaching methodology, Professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, Sugata Mitra, argues that we must seek “Questions that engage learners in a world of unknowns. Questions that will occupy their minds through their waking hours and sometimes their dreams.
“The ability to find things out quickly and accurately [will] become the predominant skill. The ability to discriminate between alternatives, then put facts together to solve problems [will] be critical. That’s a skill that future employers [will] admire immensely.”
Maverick to mainstream
Both Patrick and Sugata are educational entrepreneurs. In their view, empowering the curious mind so that it is ready to take on the challenges posed by work and societies today is absolutely critical; as opposed to rewarding people for their memory skills or ability to gain a top grade because they complied with the exact rigours of a particular course.
It’s well documented (by people such as Sugata Mitra and Sir Ken Robinson) that our education systems are rooted in the age of industrial revolution. Successive governments the world over have failed to modernise matters and it’s little wonder that young people are not being properly prepared for work. But economist Tim Harford would probably argue that it’s the maverick teachers who must be the catalyst for fundamental change. The challenge (if things are to really change) is to make today’s ‘maverick’ tomorrow’s ‘mainstream’.
The Loughborough students I met at the awards evening were all experiencing different levels of risk and uncertainty at the start of their entrepreneurial journey. However, with all whom I spoke I detected a zeal for fresh thinking and a hungry desire to seize new opportunities and create change.
My guest speaking ‘brief’ was to share some of my experience of starting and growing businesses. However, I felt that in order to empathise and hopefully connect with the audience I had to do more than simply offer a few stories. It was important for me to feel the uncertainty of their experience, speak from the heart and recall that ‘sensory cocktail’ of being excited and scared in the very same moment.
Whilst I thought through what I wanted to say, more time was spent considering a wider plan for the presentation in order to enhance the opportunity of identifying with the audience. To show my appreciation for their chosen route in life (but aware it could all go horribly wrong) I decided to hitchhike the 100+ miles to the event.
One mad-keen fisherman, a Welsh wagon driver and a woman who rescued me from a long wait on the M18 and I was at Junction 23 of the M1. With sufficient time to spare I even walked the remaining 2.5 miles into town. The hitch back to Yorkshire the following day was more straightforward.
Critically, the sense of achievement, overcoming of odds, meeting new people, being self reliant and operating within a framework of uncertainty will stay in my memory for decades. By contrast and example, the train journey from Aberdeen to York the previous week will soon be forgotten.
Firing the emotional neurons
For me, entrepreneurship is best considered not so much a subject but a suite of feelings surrounding a particular issue; and these feelings are typically generated when we are able to operate within Patrick Awuah’s framework of uncertainty. Critically, when this paradigm is allowed to thrive in an educational environment our emotions fire up (hope, wonder, surprise, confidence, frustration and disappointment etc.) and as a result we become far more stimulated and alert both as students and teachers.
So thank you to everyone at Loughborough University for organising and participating in a great celebration of entrepreneurial achievement. Offers for me to hitchhike to other events have already been received and I am eager to take up the challenges. However, please be aware that it could all go horribly wrong…
Key Learning Points: I need to follow the theme of this article and break away from the traditional, expected three-line ‘KLP’ structure that has been offered in all previous posts.
To help people learn about their entrepreneurial talent and enable them to contribute solutions to local, national and international problems we need to empathise with them and facilitate thinking. To do this we need to create the circumstances that allow enterprising minds to thrive. As Sir Ken Robinson says when quoting Abraham Lincoln’s speech from December 1862:
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new so we must think anew and act anew.”