Johannes Linder is changing the way children are taught inside and out of the classroom in order to inspire and institutionalize social entrepreneurship as a means to achieve effective citizenship for students.
The New Idea
Johannes believes that entrepreneurship education is indispensable for empowering students with the tools to be effective citizens. The earlier that young people are given the space to develop their own initiatives, the more they are able to define themselves personally and professionally. During his time as a teacher at an Austrian occupational business school, Johannes noticed the limitations of an education system that discriminates against students of underprivileged social backgrounds. He determined that the school years are critical for students to learn how to be responsible, active citizens and discover their own entrepreneurial skills to realize their ideas. Johannes’ entrepreneurship curriculum applies non-conventional teaching methods inside and outside of the classroom. His model is spreading and becoming institutionalized across Europe.
Johannes’ first step is changing the curriculum through entrepreneurship skills-building classes. All classes are designed to be highly practical, enriched with group-exercises, and include partner activities with other schools across the country. In addition, he has introduced a series of practical school projects to link classroom learning with the outside world.
In a later stage of the curriculum, students are encouraged to set up and run their own initiatives. Many students continue with these initiatives on a full-time basis after graduation. In order to keep the program fresh and exciting for both students and teachers, Johannes’ teaching methods urge students to come up with innovative ideas, green solutions, and new business models in the field of social entrepreneurship. His nationwide “idea” contests and competitions, for example, attract 2,500 students every year, including students from Bulgaria and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Johannes has created links to business mentors and works with companies to coach entrants. In the process, he engages adults in the education of their communities’ young people through teacher training.
The Austrian education system unequally supports children raised in families of disadvantaged social standing. Only one-third of Austrian students between 14 and 18 years of age attend the Gymnasium, a high school equivalent that teaches a broad curriculum in preparation for university acceptance. The remaining two-thirds of Austrian students, often raised in low-income or migrant families, attend occupational schools such as Handelsakademie and Handelsschule, two well-known occupational business schools. These students are less likely to seek higher education than students who graduate from the Gymnasium. What is more, occupational business school curriculum employs a great deal of memorization and rote learning combined with old teaching methods and outdated text books. Teachers lack creative approaches and are unaware and disinterested in the consequences of these top-down methods of teaching. Many teenagers loose interest in learning new concepts, which limits their knowledge intake and ability to recognize their own capacities to change the status quo.
The Austrian educational system reinforces class, economic, and social stratification. In fact, there is a striking difference in the quality of education between the Gymnasium and occupational business schools. Studies show that students who attend the Gymnasium typically have greater self-confidence and eagerness to seek out and pursue future opportunities. Students of occupational schools, however, graduate with more limited qualifications. When paired with the dull and disengaged education they receive, students from the occupational schools experience higher rates of unemployment and fewer opportunities to progress in their professional lives.
In addition, changes in the economic environment and social values have contributed to mounting pressures on youth worldwide. Poorly paid positions, unprecedented rates of unemployment, social exclusion, and low self-esteem are frustrating for young people. Simultaneously, changes in employment patterns, the marketplace, and the economy have shifted discourse on what it means to be a successful student, employee, or citizen. Given the increasingly competitive job market, personal and professional success requires innovation: Students need to be able to learn new concepts, spot patterns, take initiative, communicate ideas, and work with others. In this fast-paced world, these skills require practice; those who master them early will be in high demand in the future.
A supportive environment for learning and for youth to enact small-scale change is critical for changing the current-day education system. Young people need to be exposed as early as possible to what it means to be heard, develop their own ideas, put them into action, and be an enabler of change. Johannes has pioneered entrepreneurship education as central to the curriculum in CEE and Austria.
Even though methods of entrepreneurship education have existed sporadically in the past, Johannes’ specific focus on social entrepreneurship as a path to effective citizenship is unique. He believes that entrepreneurial skills are essential to educate independent young people and create active citizens. By incorporating his methods into the national school curriculum, Johannes ensures that the entrepreneurial skills he teaches become teaching standards across the country—and therefore his entrepreneurship education is transforming the way today’s young people are raised. Johannes has created new standards of excellence in the school system, providing an unprecedented quality check for teachers.
Johannes’ approach teaches social entrepreneurship to two-thirds of all Austrian young people. He currently employs a multi-part strategy which includes establishing entrepreneurship education within mainstream school curriculums, offering entrepreneurship competitions, workshops, and debate programs for students, and training teachers domestically and Europe-wide to carry on his idea.
Johannes constantly develops and refines his innovative ready-to-use training and teaching resources for educators. These materials support teachers in class and have become leading books and materials in the field. He has compiled a whole set of innovative teaching materials for all grades such as handbooks, exercise books, case studies, and CDs for teachers and students. Johannes is also working on a board game that can be incorporated into classroom learning. His creative materials are reaching about 20,000 students every year and are used in three to eight hours of the curriculum each week. Both his teaching materials and competitions encourage students to think beyond commercial entrepreneurship (e.g. he is shifting language and geography curriculum), while solving problems creatively and collaboratively.
Johannes’ business plan competitions encourage young people to combine their entrepreneurial thinking with self-driven action. Each year, 2,500 students participate in these competitions, which include students from Bulgaria and other CEE countries. The international scope of the competitions challenges students to think beyond Austria, which adds practical momentum to their projects. Students’ learn how to develop their business ideas, receive coaching from partner companies, and present their projects to a top-level jury at the end of the process. Impact studies indicate that in the 17 to 19 age group, about two-thirds of entries carry out their business plans. Austrian occupational business schools now encourage students to participate in case competition student teams on a regular basis. The number of entrants is increasingly perceived as a quality check for a school’s teachers—are they doing a good job getting students interested and skilled in entrepreneurship? Hence, even though it has proved difficult to formally introduce teacher rankings in Austria, Johannes’ competitions are providing a means to conduct evaluation.
Furthermore, Johannes sees critical thinking and debate as essential ingredients for building citizenship that creates real changemakers. His newest edition to the portfolio trains young adults on how to use arguments and debating styles to critically reflect and discuss problems in society. They are set up in a similar fashion to Anglo-Saxon debate clubs, which is a structure unparalleled in the Austrian education system. The fact that the debate is built into the social entrepreneurship curriculum ensures that students will not simply be socially entrepreneurial on an individual basis but will have the communication skills needed to drive the dissemination of their ideas. Johannes has most recently integrated debate into the formal curriculum of occupational business schools throughout Austria.
The last core strategy Johannes employs is his teacher training initiative, which influences Austrian and Eastern European educational patterns. By providing teachers with well-designed and subject-specific trainings, Johannes broadens the impact of the materials available for teachers. The trainings are conducted in a participatory manner, offering tools that support both the theoretical aspects of entrepreneurship education and students’ engagement in hands-on exercises. Johannes has trained 400 teachers out of 2,700 business teachers that exist in Austria. In 2010, he also launched a growth strategy for his training program, which involves two teachers sent to each of the trainings by the school administration to ensure continued impact. He has trained teachers in ten Southeast European countries including Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Croatia, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia. These new teachers become champions of trainings in their schools. For example, these teacher training alumni have already trained a cohort of forty teachers in Montenegro, who have gone on to change the formal curriculums in their schools. Johannes has also trained teachers in Luxemburg, Germany and Switzerland, where he is also involved in a pilot project.
Johannes’ program has proved to create sustainable impact: On an institutional level, Johannes influences the system directly by his memberships in several regulatory committees of the Federal Ministry of Education. He is also a member of the regulatory committees of Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Romania, in order to spread his model to Southeastern Europe as sustainably and effectively as possible. There, he has also developed innovative teaching materials together with local educators. In an entrepreneurship project in Bosnia and Herzegovina materials were developed in all three official languages for students and teachers. Johannes even institutionalized his program through founding an entrepreneurship education center in Bulgaria. He wants to continue scaling his work all over Europe with a focus on countries in severe economic crisis.
Johannes’ strategy to spread internationally is intentional, although not proselytizing. Because he expects schools to equip themselves for this work before approaching him, he only begins engaging with local school systems once they have mobilized the necessary resources to begin work. Johannes has been approached by countries in CEE, in addition to Germany and France. Once agreed that he will become active in a new country, his expansion strategy is based first on finding committed teachers in local schools to lead efforts. Johannes educates them with the basics of his work and then encourages them to find their own ways to make the ends of his teaching outcomes meet with the possibilities of their school systems.
As a result of Johannes’ work, two-thirds of all Austrian students between 14 and 18 years of age (about 60,000) receive 3 to 8 hours of entrepreneurship education per week. His program, which has been formally adopted by the Ministry of Education, creates thousands of new student projects each year. Johannes has been invited to spread his approach to students aged 10 to 14. Johannes works with ministries and government officials all over the region and plans to spread his ideas even further.
During his early days as an entrepreneur, Johannes spent his free time as his class speaker. Since he always advocated for students’ causes and defended their needs, the class trusted him and accepted him as the leader. For ten years, Johannes volunteered for his local church, following his personal mission to remain an active leader in improving the well-being of others. However, he was not satisfied with the kind of projects his church conducted, and launched his own fundraising events for the causes he wanted to support. Soon enough, Johannes realized that taking initiative generated more resources than could ever be offered by traditional fundraising.
As a young adult, Johannes decided to engage in social service instead of the compulsory military service. Specifically, he worked in a public social aid agency for deaf-blind people, which inspired his next entrepreneurial idea. In cooperation with his agency, Johannes founded a bike rental company. The deaf-blind people improved their capacities to learn through the opportunity to work for the rental service, in addition to learning how to bike.
Johannes was the first in his family to complete a university education. During his studies in business pedagogy, he was increasingly astonished by the fact that facilitating student led ideas and entrepreneurial creativity were completely neglected in business administration curricula. He decided to dedicate his life to becoming a teacher so that he could inspire widespread participation in and innovation throughout society. Johannes realized that this meant that he had to base his approach on a philosophy of education as an instrument of liberation, not assimilation. He realized that to advance full and active citizenship he had to change not only the curricula, but also provide new teaching tools and textbooks. Teaching materials needed to be fun, yet also useful and inspiring for the individual student. Johannes wanted schools to become pioneers in effective citizenship and changemaking.
Passionate about his mission throughout his academic career, Johannes was selected to serve as a guest professor in Entrepreneurship Education at Columbia University in 1990. Upon his return, he worked with a professor from Vienna University of Economics and Business to shift his teaching and research, look into new dimensions of entrepreneurship and participation, and develop new teaching methods in the field.
Eventually fulfilling his desire to put research and development into action, Johannes taught at a Viennese high school. There, he implemented the first pilot project for entrepreneurship education based on new teaching methods, including case studies and practical exercises. The pilot was very successful and Johannes was asked to teach at four Austrian universities that educate trainers. Gradually, he started teacher trainings, until 2000, when he founded the Initiative for Teaching Entrepreneurship and his work moved quickly; launching summer programs on entrepreneurship education (2005) and founding the Impulse Center for Entrepreneurship Education in cooperation with the Ministry for Education (2009). Johannes then founded the Department of Entrepreneurship Education & Business Education at the University College of Teacher Education Vienna/Krems. Eventually, he directly influenced curricula and syllabi in schools all over Austria, and later expanded to the Balkans and Southeastern Europe.