The Problem-based Learning Model for Teaching Entrepreneurship

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The Problem-based Learning Model for Teaching Entrepreneurship

Shipra Vaidya
National Council of Educational Research and Training, India


This chapter describes a pilot program designed to investigate the teaching of entrepreneurial skills at the elementary level using a problem-based learning approach. The ultimate goal of the program is to broaden the scope of general education to cover these life skills rather than to teach entrepreneurship per se. The overall course objective is to let students understand why entrepreneurial attributes are essential for their future survival in the workplace. The results of the experiment indicate that, when appropriately guided, children can comprehend the rather complex "adult" concept of entrepreneurship and learn to think entrepreneurially and creatively.


Among the many challenges confronting educators today is the mismatch between the goals of the curriculum and the demands of the workplace. The objective of elementary education, which is compulsory in India, is not just to prepare students for higher education; it needs to ensure well-rounded development of the child and to lay the foundation for future employability by arming the child with essential life skills, often also called core work skills.

Against this backdrop, this chapter reports a pilot program designed to explore the teaching of entrepreneurial skills at the elementary level using a unique problem-based learning approach. The aim is ultimately to widen the scope of general education to include these life skills rather than to teach entrepreneurship per se. The overall course objective is to let students understand why entrepreneurial attributes such as self-efficacy, leadership, and creativity are essential for their future survival and success in the workplace.

Entrepreneurship as Generic Competency

The concept of an entrepreneurial culture in education is new to Indian educational discourse, although it could be argued that some aspects of entrepreneurialism are visible in the Indian education system, such as the emphasis on linking education to the economy or on developing skills for employability (see various reports by the Ministry of Education, 1964–1966, 1975, 1978, 1985; also Ministry of Human Resource Development, 1986). Recent debate has centered on whether our present general education equips students with generic competencies and skills needed for the knowledge society so that they will be able to function in a competitive global environment when they join the workforce. The development of the entrepreneurial individual presupposes an education system that builds not only theoretical knowledge but also practical knowledge, including how to obtain the information needed and how to flexibly apply knowledge to the different contexts that emerge in a constantly changing environment.

As humans make the world increasingly complex and challenging, lifelong learning becomes a necessity in order to keep up with a rapidly evolving technology-powered workplace. And with career paths becoming increasingly nonlinear and the pursuit of knowledge interdisciplinary, people have to continuously update their knowledge to be able to apply it to newer contexts. Hence, we need to build a learning society, not just a knowledge society.

The functional objective of education is to prepare students to be conscientious citizens who make positive, productive contributions to the society and the economy. To that end, imparting an understanding of what entrepreneurship entails ought to be an integral part of education for all, with early and frequent exposure to the entrepreneurial behaviors exhibited by real-life practitioners in a wide variety of contexts. However, given the multitude of jobs and professions with their different sets of skills and demands, there is a need to identify the common denominator in what it takes to achieve success, regardless of the profession.

As such, in addition to subject knowledge, developing generic skills and competencies should be an important objective of any educational program. The word competence is often used interchangeably with terms such as skill, capacity, capability, aptitude, and proficiency, with their overlapping meanings. Together with skills, competence implies the possession of a set of dynamic qualities necessary for understanding and accomplishing a task. It has an all-encompassing meaning that conveys a necessary and sufficient level of preparedness for carrying out a set of tasks reliably, accurately, and responsibly in accordance with predefined standards or expectations in a given social context (including the work context).

Generic entrepreneurial competencies can be broadly considered in three dimensions (NCERT, 2005; see also NCERT, 2000):

  1. Basic competencies relate to the personal attributes necessary for undertaking any task, including sensitivity, sense of aesthetics, critical thinking, creativity, motivation for work, capacity for analysis and synthesis, as well as the ability to grasp methodologies, tools, and techniques.
  2. Systemic competencies relate to the overall capacity for working in changing contexts, including the ability to develop a holistic perspective, to change and redefine one's role, to take initiative, and to chart new paths.
  3. Interpersonal competencies relate to the social aspects of work, including social skills, communication skills, the capacity to understand and accommodate others' points of view, as well as the ability to work with others and in interdisciplinary contexts.

Entrepreneurial competencies can be taught, learned, internalized, and enhanced through appropriate learning experiences and contexts. Problem-solving exercises, design tasks, project work, and other practical activities provide the perfect framework and opportunity for initiating the learner to the art of working, imparting specialized skills and developing generic competencies. An understanding of which generic competencies are of value at the workplace in the new social paradigm allows teachers to design the requisite learning experiences and integrate them into the curriculum. Such experiences have profound impacts and need to be planned with care. Experiential learning in diverse contexts deepens overall understanding and enhances skill, competence, and confidence. It also provides opportunities for developing the vital skills of adapting and surviving in a constantly changing environment. The relevance of the curriculum to the real world is extremely important for students. It is not necessary to look at the high-technology artifacts to appreciate this. We have only to look around us to realize that every aspect of human life necessitates enterprise and resourcefulness. The study of entrepreneurship allows students to learn a broad spectrum of generic skills and competencies. The challenge for educators is to model the flurry of activities usually witnessed in students to construct environments where the process of learning engages both the mind and the hands. There is good reason to broaden the scope of education to allow students the opportunity to explore their future paths and society's concerns with a critical mind. Learning specific professional skills is useful whether or not the student intends to pursue those specific professions in their future lives (Vaidya, 2002, 2005).

Experiential Learning

Learning can be defined as a process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experiences. Successful learning requires both guidance from the instructor and practice by the student. In other words, learning does not just happen. It occurs through a cyclical process involving four stages: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. Experiential learning does not mean that students learn everything on their own. The instructor is still present, providing a framework for learning, offering guidance, and helping students to expand their thinking as their confidence develops.

Too often, however, we find classroom learning approaches varying between two extremes: the didactic knowledge transmission approach where the teacher is the "sage on the stage" and the constructivist approach where students are given tasks to engage them. The former approach is often criticized for treating students as passive recipients and assuming that knowledge can be transmitted and assimilated by students' mind. The latter approach, on the other hand, while motivating students to complete tasks and activities does not necessarily engage them in the knowledge creation process (Vaidya & Vaidya, 2002; UNESCO, 1996).

An experiential education, by contrast, introduces students to the complexity of real-world situations, which often cannot be replicated in the classroom. Table 8.1 summarizes the differences between traditional

Traditional learningExperiential learning
StudentStudent as passive spectatorStudent assumes less risk for learning
Impersonal and vicarious learning experiencePersonal and direct learning experience
Low student involvement and commitmentHigh student involvement and commitment
Student as active participantStudent assumes more risk for learning
TeacherTeacher-centered and teacher-controlledStudent-centered and student-controlled
Teacher's experience primaryStudent's experience primary
Teacher as transmitter of knowledgeTeacher as guide/facilitator of learning
Teacher is decision makerStudent is decision maker
Teacher knows betterStudent knows better
Teacher responsible for student's learningStudent responsible for own learning
Teacher as judgeNo excessive teacher judgment
Learning/knowledgePredefined learningCustomized learning
One-way communicationTwo-way dialogue
Passive learningInteractive learning
Goal is to accumulate and assimilate knowledgeGoal is to develop knowledge, skills, and attitude
Linear, sequential learningNonlinear learning
Predictable outcomeOutcome not always predictable
Emphasis on pedagogyEmphasis on learning
School viewed as regimentalSchool viewed as fun
Product/knowledge orientedProcess oriented
Theory basedExperience based

learning and experiential learning. An offshoot of experiential learning is problem-based learning (PBL). PBL is designed to put students in real-life situations where they have to solve real-world problems. It can be readily adopted for developing entrepreneurial competence, and indirectly generic competencies, in elementary students.

Cultivating Entrepreneurial Abilities: A Basic Educational Challenge

The entrepreneurial spirit is essential for human endeavors, including teaching and learning. Entrepreneurial attitudes and skills can be developed in people of all ages, even school children. What we need to do is to believe in the potential of kids and to inspire the entrepreneurial spirit at an early age. Encouraging and supporting a child in entrepreneurial pursuits brings many benefits to the child. Although not all students will go into business, an understanding of what is involved in becoming a successful entrepreneur offers valuable insights into their personal potential as well as practical lessons in economic and financial principles. This knowledge, of course, will serve as a foundation to help students become productive citizens. For entrepreneurs to be successful, they must have strong analytic skills and a sense of curiosity, and these need to be cultivated in students too. Teaching children the monetary value of the rupee is another way to help foster entrepreneurial abilities. Opening a savings account in a child's name and letting him or her determine how much to spend and how much to save helps the child learn to plan for the future and build confidence in making decisions.

In cultivating entrepreneurial capabilities in children, the role of the school should lie in supporting entrepreneurship and not in pushing the child into it. An entrepreneurial culture needs to be created to arouse interest in entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is more of an attitude than a skill or a profession. It is well understood that children form their vision of the outer world at a very early age by asking questions relating to causality and justification. Hence, in relation to the formation of the entrepreneurial spirit, stimulating such questions at an early age encourages children to think about the role of entrepreneurs in society. Entrepreneurship education in school not only promotes entrepreneurship but also encourages children to be the architects of their own fortunes.

With this understanding, entrepreneurship can be defined for educational purposes as the ability of the individual possessing a wide range of essential skills and attributes to create wealth, cope with challenges, and make creative contributions by transforming ideas into practical and targeted activities, whether in a social, cultural, or economic context. Thus, it would be useful to start entrepreneurship study early in the educational journey of the learner and maintain it over the entire journey. It should not be confined to any particular age or time of learning. Nor should it be restricted to the context of business entrepreneurship. The importance of these qualities transcends the money-making aspect to students' future survival. Thus, it leads us to the very heart of general education itself (ACEID, 1994; see also Covey, 1989).

The Project

The purpose of this research is to profile entrepreneurship study as an educational objective in order to foster creativity and innovation at the elementary level. The focus is on helping children grasp the concept of entrepreneurship and fostering their entrepreneurial skills along the way. An active learning approach is adopted to develop a range of skills, both soft and hard, which include idea generation, teamwork, research, and networking, as well as building confidence.

Aside from providing a vehicle for enhancing the capacity of the learner to think entrepreneurially, the project's intention is also to create an entrepreneurial culture within general education. The main thrust of this experimental program is to build the foundation for learning practical knowledge. This activity-based program is developed to explore children's understanding of entrepreneurship. It makes use of teaching materials, lesson notes, and narratives (in the form of short stories) designed to promote an entrepreneurial vision, initiative taking, and relevant skills. The emphasis throughout the course is on providing opportunities for students to learn through activities by doing tasks, addressing problems, and evaluating options, step by step.

The entrepreneurship course material is built on real-life themes covering skill sets required for entrepreneurship, including

  1. Taking initiative
  2. How entrepreneurs think
  3. What entrepreneurs look for—an opportunity
  4. Using your senses to find opportunities
  5. What signals a good opportunity
  6. How to sell your idea
  7. Developing a business plan

The result is a program that immerses students in a highly intensive learning environment. The objectives of the program are

  • to make students realize their latent potential and to develop their capabilities for meeting the challenges ahead
  • to counsel and motivate students to make independent career decisions and pursue unusual and challenging career options
  • to foster entrepreneurial traits including pursuit of excellence, self-efficacy, and a problem-solving mindset

To assess the level of comprehension of elementary students, two social science teachers delivered the material to a heterogeneously constituted group of 40 students selected from grades 6 to 8. These students had a business or professional family background. The sample was selected to comprise close to 50 percent girls for investigating any gender differences in entrepreneurial abilities and any stereotype of girls' career aspirations.

In class, the teachers ensured that all children could see the text and illustrations being presented. Some children chose to look at the text as the teacher read, while others preferred to just listen. They were referred to illustrations whenever appropriate and asked to relate them to the text. It was felt important to maintain a friendly atmosphere and to encourage dialogue so that the children would be forthcoming with their views.

The PBL Approach to Entrepreneurial Skill Development

The PBL approach puts the child in the driver's seat. It emphasizes student-centered learning with teachers acting primarily as facilitators. Students are encouraged to actively engage with the learning material and turn to teachers only for advice and guidance instead of being passive recipients of lectures.

The following questions guided this study:

  • Are elementary students able to comprehend the complex concept of entrepreneurship?
  • Can the teaching of entrepreneurship be brought down to the elementary level?

The study was conducted with the assumption that the group had no prior understanding of entrepreneurship. The children had never encountered the term "entrepreneur" in their formal study.

The Course

The course began with an introduction of the concept of entrepreneur-ship. The children were split into five groups of eight each. Deliberate efforts were made to constitute the groups heterogeneously comprising both boys and girls from each of the grades 6 to 8.

Activity 1. Taking initiative: Introducing the concept of entrepreneurship

To begin with, the word "ENTREPRENEUR" was written on the blackboard. Each of the small groups was asked to talk about this word as they understood it. The students were allowed to use the dictionary or discuss among themselves within the group. It was evident from the discussion that they understood the word only in general terms, such as a rich man, wears lots of jewelry, smokes a cigar, or helps others. The gender and age of the children did not appear to affect this perception.

This part of the course was conducted in both English and Hindi. Different shapes and sizes of entrepreneurs were described in terms of external body parts and internal organs. Different forms of entrepreneurship were discussed in relation to "working for a good cause," and each time the children were made to see that entrepreneurship is not just starting or running a business but has also a social context. Working to help a community is a kind of entrepreneurial activity.

A story "Melody Maker" was then narrated. It was chosen to show that entrepreneurship is not restricted to adults. Even young children like themselves can engage in entrepreneurial activities. The story was narrated empathetically, laying stress on each and every emotion in the situation. The idea was to arouse the interest of the children, to motivate them to think like entrepreneurs.

The children listened enthusiastically to the story. A few were simply listening and trying to relate to the expressions of the teacher, while some others were reading the text as the story was narrated. However, when the concept of entrepreneur/entrepreneurship was introduced for the first time, the children were not able to link it with the tale. For example, when asked if they would like to engage in an entrepreneurial activity, they did not relate the question to the story. However, with a little intervention, they could cite raising money for leprosy patients and helping slum children, for instance, as such activities.

A jigsaw game "Things I Can Do and Things I Care About" depicting the social aspect of entrepreneurship (Figure 8.1) was played to discover some easy ways to make a difference. The children were encouraged to create additional pieces themselves to make the game more interesting.

Activity 2. How entrepreneurs think and what they look for: Seeing, observing, and recalling

This activity was conducted to assess the thinking processes of children in recognizing business opportunities and to teach how to make use of one's senses to spot good business ideas. The children were first asked to list down, as many as they could think of, all the people they saw on their way to school and what these people were doing. As the activity progressed, they were asked to write down all those activities from their list that they felt people were doing for money.

Later, the teacher facilitated a discussion on market gaps, a concept that the children could not comprehend theoretically. But with the use of an activity, they could get a feel of the concept to some extent. The children were asked to list all the businesses that they could think of in their neighborhood. They were able to point out major businesses like financial institutions but not street hawkers, vegetable sellers, stationery shops, and other small businesses. However, with guidance, they could recall all those business activities. The response was enthusiastic. After that, the children were given time to think and then list a few business activities that they did not find in their neighborhood. With a little facilitation, they were able to name some examples.

The activity then changed course to focus on hobbies. Initially, the children came up with common hobbies like dancing, singing, reading, and listening to music. With some prompting, they were brought on track and began to recall things they learned in their arts and crafts class. They came up with business ideas such as making soft toys, baking and cooking for birthdays and other kinds of parties, selling friendship bands, making candles and decorative items for festive occasions, and producing music discs or composing songs. Some children interested in stitching and embroidery talked of fashion design and further extended it to interior design.

The notion of dignity of labor did not emerge in the discussion, as the children came from high-income families. When the popcorn hawker operating near the school gate or outside the cinema hall was mentioned, the idea of going into such a business did not appeal to them. Perhaps, being urban kids, they had higher aspirations.

At this stage, the children were able to grasp business terminology, talking and conversing in business lingo, about sales, profit and loss, and so on. They also had an idea of advertising and the purpose it serves, as well as factory or industry being the place of production. They had a limited understanding of market and market gap, in that market is a place where things are bought and sold.

Activity 3. Selling a business idea

The session on how to sell your idea centered on the five major decisions required in selling a product:

  1. Who and where are your potential customers?
  2. What motivates your customers?
  3. What is the cost of promotion compared with the cost of your product?
  4. How do you reach your customers?
  5. How do you promote your product?

The teacher cited a few products, such as soft toys, music discs, dance classes, medicines, and fast food, and asked the children to name the consumers of these products. Without difficulty, the children understood that the key to selling a product or service is to identify its consumers.

Discussion on each of the five decisions was followed by a quick activity. The points and ideas arising out of the discussions were noted down on the blackboard for all to see. This helped guide the thinking of the children, and they came up with diverse ideas. However, the crux of the matter was that the students were not able to focus and think deeply on any business idea arising out of the discussions. In each activity, they talked of different types of business ideas, but the teachers had been instructed to steer the children's thinking along the line of hobbies and skills. The children were repeatedly prompted to think around their hobbies for potential business ventures that were related to their hobbies. The teacher then listed different types of sales tools one by one and asked the children to relate these tools to business activities around them.

Gradually, the children became observant of their surroundings. Previous ly, they had never looked at things around them so keenly or observed so closely. But when given a chance, they were able to do so. It is apparent from this exercise that, through appropriate activities, children can grasp rather complicated concepts. The need is to provide for appropriate teaching within the school curriculum so that entrepreneurial thinking becomes second nature to children.

Evaluating the Understanding of the Sample Group

The last two days of the experiment were devoted to assessing the children's level of comprehension of entrepreneurship. To begin with, the children were asked to reflect on the course for 15 minutes and to recall the lessons delivered earlier. The children looked at the pictures presented in the course with interest and reflected on the lessons within their group. This was followed by an activity to define entrepreneurs. Based on a picture shown (Figure 8.2), the children were asked to define entrepreneurship or entrepreneur in their own words.

The children were able to spell out the dimensions of entrepreneurship, such as recognizing opportunities or potential, taking initiative, looking around, keeping your eyes open and your ear to the ground, coming up with ideas, starting a venture, selling the idea, and gathering resources. They could even identify the characteristics of entrepreneurs, such as being independent, confident, and hardworking, providing employment, thinking independently and differently, seeking out opportunities, overcoming challenges, planning and organizing tasks, instilling team spirit, identifying team members' abilities, and making use of skills and hobbies. The children were not told the characteristics of entrepreneurs but learned about them in the course of the discussion. This shows that children can comprehend such a concept when guided.

Finally, the children were asked to write a business plan for either one of two business ideas: a bakery and confectionery outlet or a house painting business. The findings of this activity were, however, inconclusive. Children who had a business family background immediately understood the activity. Nonetheless, all the children enjoyed making advertising copy, posters, flyers, and jingles for their products.

The activities appeared to excite and inspire the pupils, although the long-term effects are not known. Nonetheless, it would still be of value to integrate entrepreneurial activities into the school curriculum. After the spark has been ignited, we need to fan the flame into a fire.

PBL: A New Teaching–Learning Paradigm for Promoting Entrepreneurship

Throughout the course, PBL was observed to be effective in developing entrepreneurial behavior among children. The children assumed greater responsibility for their own learning and were free to engage with the given problems as deeply as they liked. Complex, loosely structured problems acted as the focal points and stimuli for the course. Such problems encouraged idea generation and development. And by working in small groups instead of individually, the students tended to arrive at multiple solutions to a problem. The nature of the activities fostered the development of critical analysis skills essential for entrepreneurship, while their applicability and relevance to real life provided greater meaning to students. In addition, students were encouraged to extrapolate prior knowledge gained from other experiences to solve the problem at hand, much as entrepreneurs do when they develop new business ideas. Finally, assessment of students' learning became more comprehensive with PBL tasks.

At the same time, there are barriers to the adoption of PBL. Students, being accustomed to highly structured textbook-based teaching, often got lost if unguided within the PBL environment. The teachers, who were used to predictable outcomes with textbook-based pedagogy, considered training as important in using PBL and the constructivist learning approach.

Conclusions and Implications for Further Research

We believe that entrepreneurship offers a new way of looking at learning: that learning about an idea is not the same as living out that idea. We view entrepreneurship as a means to feel and think about a way of life, and we want our students to make the best of their lives. As such, we need to nurture individuals who are independent-minded and passionate about what they do. The course presented here is designed to encourage students to dream up novel business ideas and in the process to instill entrepreneurial thinking and behavior rather than merely preparing them for employment, which much of our current formal schooling still supports. All the activities developed for the study, with entrepreneurship as a central theme, are interdisciplinary in nature and constructed in such a way as to encourage students to think creatively and entrepreneurially about major world issues. They are designed to promote new idea development, creativity, and humor. The intention is to lead students to think beyond the "right answer" and learn to see opportunities in an ever-changing environment.

The findings demonstrate very clearly that the activities developed for this research can be replicated for an interdisciplinary learning environment in the school setting. The overwhelmingly positive response of the children is proof of the inspirational power of these activities. However, given the tentative, exploratory nature of the study, similar research designed for a wider setting is needed to confirm these preliminary results.


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The Problem-based Learning Model for Teaching Entrepreneurship

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The Problem-based Learning Model for Teaching Entrepreneurship