Would adding innovation in the school curriculum help Australian business?

How do we encourage children to be more innovative?

If the Australian school curriculum brought in a practical entrepreneurial elective for students tomorrow, it would pose a strange paradox – the basis of all entrepreneurial activity is dealing with failure and the result of the best technological innovation is disruption.

In entrepreneurial terms, learning from failing is a form of success. This can be a difficult concept for children to grasp when the concept of failure in schools is often discouraged. So teaching these things, which challenge the status quo, could arguably be seen as a contradiction in terms.

Maybe twenty years ago, but not now. Few now argue the following proposition: for students to succeed in the 21st-century economy, there has to be a propensity to analyse and solve current business problems, look for better ways to deploy them be capable of taking calculated risks to achieve a new result. There has to be a mindset that it may all come unstuck and yet in the process of failing, new ideas often germinate.

A 20th-century mindset still dominates the current curriculum, says Jan Owen, CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA), together with what she calls the “dysfunctional” careers advice system.

“Our whole education system is not purposed for the future, but for an old world – as the jobs and demands have changed, we haven’t updated it to fit,” Owen says.

“It’s a big issue – how do you quickly and over time make entrepreneurial muscle grow? The only way to do this is go hard and go early.”

Former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley says the school system can play a key role in encouraging innovation by allocating time to encourage experimentation, free thinking and the courage to fail.

“Children have a natural capacity to be curious and we have to nurture that curiosity somewhere within the curriculum without the structure of examinations and pass and fail realities.

“Given technology breakthroughs, educating in the modern era is a significant challenge, but balancing framed education with the freedom of movement may well be a step in the right direction.”

Australian youth falling behind?

Last year, the Queensland University of Technology’s Australian Centre for Entrepreneurial Research was asked to poll 2000 adults for the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), as part of the GEM’s bid to gauge the economic benefits of entrepreneurialism worldwide.

Associate Professor Paul Steffens, who ran the Australian program for GEM, says Australia ranked highly among the innovation-driven economies such as the US across all age groups – that is, in all age groups “except for our young people”.

“They are lagging behind by as much as 40 per cent compared to their American counterparts,” Steffens says.

New businesses must be the driver of new jobs, with 41 per cent of jobs created from small or medium enterprises less than three years old.

“The latest data from the GEM shows that if we want to equip young people to take advantage of this opportunity, we need to imbed enterprise education into their schooling,” he says.

The good news is that children do innovate, despite their schooling – not because of it. Not-for-profit entities such as Club Kidpreneur and FYA’s “$20 Boss” program are active in schools, the latter involving around 2000 schools across the country and 7000 students this year.

Each of the children was given $20 as seed funding for a start-up company, to create a start-up, or pool with other students to work on a joint project.

The results were spectacular, says Owen. Some turned $20 into $600, others pooled money for ventures, and in one case, a school in Alice Springs created 30 new money-making enterprises.

One school created a boot camp for their teachers, another turned old driftwood and unwanted timber into stylish breadboards, which sold vigorously.

Teaching entrepreneurialism works

The GEM data showed that among Australians 18-24 years old, almost 20 per cent of young people who received enterprise education at school went on to become entrepreneurs, compared with less than 10 per cent for those who received no enterprise education.

This carried over to the 25-34 year old age group. Among them, 25 per cent who had received some form of enterprise education went on to become entrepreneurs compared with 15 per cent for those who didn’t.

The Council of Small Business Australia’s Peter Strong echoes the same optimism that innovation can be inculcated, estimating that 10 per cent of any school population will be entrepreneurial. However, he says it will not happen unless schools actively identify them and mentor them.

“There are about 150,000 kids running real businesses,” Strong says.

“It could be anything – kids making surfboards and selling them on the internet, to kids with a real business plan to make money out of babysitting.”

The conventional system of apprenticeships, training and university are “all very good”, but do not cater for a person actively going into their own business, Strong says.

“We need to explain this to kids and make them understand the basics of business plans and markets and do it in a way that is not too complicated and doesn’t talk down to them.”

A better future ahead

CPA Australia welcomes the Prime Minister’s National Innovation and Science Agenda.

“The Government has recognised that the mining investment boom is over and that our future prosperity depends on the strength of our ideas.”

However, he says there remains a need to refit the school curriculum to the new knowledge-based needs of business.

“There are about 150,000 kids running real businesses” 

“In the coming decades, a great many jobs will be disrupted by changes in technology and the way we live our day-to-day lives. We need a comprehensive national STEM education program to ensure our next generations have the knowledge and skills to take up the high-paying jobs of the future.”

Jan Owen also welcomes the National Innovation Agenda, which will introduce computing and coding challenges for year 5 and 7 students, as well as a “cracking the code” competition for students from years 4 to 12.

The current trend of 30 per cent youth unemployment – and widespread underemployment – will only increase if we do not, Owen says.

“There are 60 per cent of kids in higher education studying for jobs [that] won’t exist in the next 10-15 years.

“There are too many overeducated university students working in cafes or hospitality rather than using degrees they paid $30,000 for. That’s a loss of $56 billion to the economy right there.”

Owen says the latter figure was worked out by the FYA with the help of economists and research from National Australian Bank, based on “the loss of productivity by not having people actively engaged”.

How does the government reconnect schools and innovation?

A statement from the Department of Education said that under the Skills for Learning and Work Strand of the Work Studies Years 9-10 curriculum, there is a specific part that deals with entrepreneurial behaviours: “This element develops student understanding of the qualities that lead to entrepreneurial behaviours and their importance for 21st-century workplaces, enterprises and communities.”

“Children are much less risk-averse than adults and they are naturally curious. If we can nurture those qualities and give them a high-quality STEM education, then we set them up to be the innovators of the future,” says Malley.


September 2020
September 2020

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