Learning by Doing: is education policy getting it right?

Lisa Freiburg, Kericho 2014 Fellow

Back at my usual job in Germany in the international education policy sector, I spend most of my days behind a screen reading, writing and talking about the importance of skills development for youth. On everyone’s screen, behind every office door and at every single international conference, you’ll read and hear the same thing over and over again: there is a youth employment crisis.

In response to this, yes! CRISIS, many organisations have been advocating for entrepreneurship education as a way of encouraging young people to become self-employed.  The thinking behind this is that through entrepreneurship education young people can learn to be innovative and acquire the skills needed to successfully manage a business, thereby creating more job opportunities and reducing unemployment.

Seems obvious, but what entrepreneurship education looks like in practice has been somewhat of a mystery to me.

There are plenty examples of initiatives that aim to encourage entrepreneurship education. For example, in 2006 – even before the youth unemployment crisis hit – UNESCO published a series of learning materials called Starting My Own Small Business. The materials aim to provide “supplementary knowledge to young people receiving technical and vocational education and training (TVET) in formal or non-formal settings so that they can acquire an entrepreneurial mindset and the knowledge to set up a small business.” (UNESCO, 2006).  With the help of these basic learning materials, UNESCO hopes to motivate young people and equip them with the necessary skills and knowledge to start a business. Several exercises in the learning materials are practical oriented and could definitely help to sensitise young people to the world of ‘business’. On the downside, you will quickly realise how ‘written materials’ have an expiration date when you read the chapter on ICT highlighting the importance of fax machines in doing business.

The International Labour Organization introduced a training programme placing emphasis on developing positive attitudes towards enterprises and self-employment and creating awareness of enterprises and self-employment as a career option for young people. Interestingly, the programme is entitled ‘Know About Business’ – insinuating that knowing about business should be enough to be able to actually do business.

Looking at these initiatives, while clearly with good intentions, it seems that sometimes we forget what we are actually trying to achieve: encouraging and helping young people to become entrepreneurs. Are these initiatives and the piles of learning materials developed achieving what they ought to achieve? Probably not, is what the cynic in me is thinking.

Having visited some schools in Kericho and having spoken to a number of students, my fears have been further confirmed. While the majority of students, especially those who are planning to start a business of their own, are taking classes on business-related subjects – including on finance, marketing and entrepreneurship – the vast majority of these classes are purely focused on theory. They read about it, write about and maybe even talk about it. BUT the practical side of things is completely absent.

Looking at Balloon Kenya, the work is quite straightforward. Balloon offers young people the chance to set up or expand their business – there is little reading, little writing, quite a bit of talking but mostly lots of DOING.

While policy makers across the globe are crossing their fingers that young people will be confident and equipped enough to set up a business after just reading about it, Balloon Kenya knows how it works: you don’t learn by reading about it, you learn by doing.