Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Educational Arsonists![1]

(or… what if we stuck a Startup Weekender’s head in an MRI?)

“Learning isn’t filling a vessel, it‘s lighting a fire” – Plutarch

Deep transformative learning is not easy. But positive emotional engagement really, really helps. Few places show that better than Startup Weekend.

As a veteran entrepreneurship scholar, my own teaching/training and research was molded by a sordid past as a tech entrepreneur (and now social entrepreneur). What has always fascinated me: Why is it the best entrepreneurship education is so insanely effective? How can we use this knowledge to grow entrepreneurial thinking in our communities? (And, sadly, why is it so hard for people who don't 'get it' to understand??) So..... What on earth is happening inside the minds of those students and, yes, us?

Transformational learning = Changing deep beliefs

True experiential learning is far more than “hands-on”. Transformative learning operates at very deep levels. What does it take to change very deep assumptions about how things work, moving us from the mindset of a novice to that of an expert? While it usually takes 10,000-20,000 hours of deliberate practice, deep transformative learning can accelerate the process. Doesn’t it seem likely that knowing what expert mindsets look like will help us get there faster?

Learning operates on two trajectories, incremental & transformational (figure below). We can acquire subject-area knowledge via incremental learning but “getting to expert” requires changing how we structure our knowledge. To change deep beliefs requires true experiential learning, through a series of critical developmental “lessons”.

Consider the series of experiential “jolts” that immersion into Startup Weekends provide: Upending, then rebuilding some very deep beliefs about what it means to be an entrepreneur.

[Note: This is equally true for other immersion & accelerator programs like TechStars, Founders Institute, Be Unreasonable and Y-Combinator, but I've been through SW.]

Critical Success Factors: Experiential Education

Immersion is one key to experiential learning because it forces you to let go of many deeply help assumptions… about entrepreneurship, about entrepreneurs, about ourselves. But the special sauce is having mechanisms to guide us. Expert mentors can help us learn the right ‘lessons’ of our experiences. But so can peer mentors (cooperative/collaborative learning has remarkable power). Is it any surprise that SW has such mindset-changing power?

Problem-based learning represents the best entrepreneurship learning. Rather than texts and homework, learners must solve messy, often ill-defined problems. I love how PBL lets me give students impossible problems and they rise to the occasion every time. And, along the way, they still acquire all the “textbook” knowledge. Forcing intent to become action makes all the difference. (Now you know why I love the SW/accelerator model!)

Finally, positive emotional engagement turns the madness of all this into a safe and fertile ground for dramatic changes in our deepest assumptions about entrepreneurship and…about ourselves.

Aren’t all of these exactly what programs like Startup Weekend provides?

So... what IF you stuck a Startup Weekender’s head in an MRI?[2]

So what ARE we learning in immersion programs like SW? (That we don't get in the usual "how to wrote a business plan" course?) What do we take away from the problem-based, peer-mentored/cooperatively-learned, expert-mentored, positively emotionally engaged immersion experience? As a cognitive developmental psychologist and neuroscientist -AND as an entrepreneur- here’s what I see.

Draw a Picture?

Imagine asking Startup Weekenders to draw us an “entrepreneur” – before and after. That mental model of “entrepreneur” is often going to change in fascinating directions – even for us ‘veterans’. In both Boise’s SWs, we had participants who really didn’t see themselves as an entrepreneur. Their mental models were limited at best and often flat wrong. Seeing the “light bulb” go on is a rush for this organizer... and their teammates and… themselves.

I consistently saw how participants’ mental models of what’s an “opportunity” go from “cool idea” to “I can do this”, from hypothetical to very real. They now perceived different barriers, more realistic & more likely action-oriented. (What’s really fun to see is that we come out of SW asking MUCH better questions. Here’s something I saw in both of Boise’s SWs: “Why can’t I find funding?”morphs into “How can I best qualify for funding?” (even better, “What kind of funding do I really need?” or "Do I even need external funding?")

And doesn’t all that sound like us accelerating toward a more expert entrepreneurial mindset? Learning. Without any “teaching”. That’s the genius of SW and programs like it.

My other favorite entrepreneurship education quote is from Epictetus:

“Experience is NOT what happens to you.
It is what you DO with what happens to you.”

In short: “Entrepreneur” is a verb. Startup Weekend and other programs like TechStars never let you forget that.


[i] Courtesy of Paul Hudnut, wizard of Colorado State’s awesome cross-campus program in commercializing sustainable technologies.

[ii] For more neuroentrepreneurship & entrepreneurial learning, see http://bit.ly/9VyUJm & http://bit.ly/b6aUYq

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