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Making Leadership Great Again: Breakthrough Educational Models

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

Gillian Benjamin, Oxford MBA at the Saïd Business School, shares key takeaways from the  Skoll World Forum session “Making Leadership Great Again: Breakthrough Educational Models”.

In the lunchtime session directly prior to this panel, Bill Drayton, Founder and CEO of Ashoka, implored audience members to help others understand the implications of the new world order in which the repetitive actions of a machinist on a factory floor, or a line manager in a multi-national company, were fast becoming redundant. He highlighted the need for a radically different skill-set and ‘growing up system’ to give young people the competencies needed to thrive in environments of constant and rapid change.

During the panel on ‘Breakthrough Educational Models’ the founders of two innovative institutions, both based in the global South, shared key ingredients of their success.

Fig 1 - Making Leadership Great Again

Jose Zaglul, Co-Founder and former President of EARTH University shared the story of the establishment of the institution he helped set up. The campus, based in Costa Rica, offers an innovative four-year undergraduate programme in agricultural sciences and natural resources management with one crucial difference from ordinary degree programmes – the technical and scientific knowledge gleaned on the course is just one of the four pillars that make up the curriculum. The other three pillars ensure that students leave with a deep social and environmental awareness, the attitudes and values needed to drive change and the lived experience of having set up their own entrepreneurial venture. EARTH has 430 students from 41 countries, 83% of whom are from rural communities.

Hopping across continents to South Africa, co-founded and CEO Chris Bradford shared the story of the African Leadership Academy (ALA), ALA is a two-year pre-university programme based on the UK A-Level system, combined with unique curricula in Entrepreneurial Leadership, African Studies and Writing and Rhetoric. ALA currently has 264 students drawn from 47 African countries, with many graduates going on to study at some of the most prestigious universities around the world before coming back to the continent to drive growth and development. One such example is Moroccan panelist Jihad Hajjouji who is an ALA alumn currently pursuing her MBA at the Stanford Business School.

When discussing the ALA curriculum Bradford stated with respectful veneration that Zaglul was his personal hero and had been a huge inspiration to ALA as they crafted their programme two decades after the formation of EARTH.

Fig 2 - Making Leadership Great Again

Three key lessons can be drawn from the success of these two institutions:

1) Create opportunities for youth leadership

Recruiting students from underserved communities can be challenging as prior academic performance can be a poor shorthand for future potential. Zaglul shared how a track-record of civic action in teenage years helped EARTH identify and recruit the most promising students, many of whom lacked the top grades of their peers from more privileged contexts, but who made up for this through exhibiting tangible leadership capabilities. Such leadership skills, developed through implementing projects to improve their immediate contexts, point to an understanding of their personal agency and a world-view that sees the status quo as malleable and open to improvement through personal action.

Youth social action projects therefore play an important role in the development of young change-makers, and serve as important identifiers to institutions who are driven to recruit talented students from underserved contexts where quality primary and secondary school instruction may be lacking.

2) Put the emphasis on learning, not teaching

Bradford shared a word association game he has tested the world-over: To begin, think of words associated with ‘school’. Then follow the same process for ‘learning’. Having played this game with educators and students from all corners of the globe the results are resoundingly similar:

When asked to think about ‘school’ people mention nouns such as headmaster, teacher, bell and test. ‘Learning’ rarely appears in the top five most-mentioned associations.

When asked about ‘learning’ people talk about things like discovering new skills through stretch experiences and the value of engaging with inspirational mentors to guide them on their journey.

The contrast in the associations is stark and points to the need to explicitly redesign our education apparatus in a way that fosters experiential learning. Bradford calls for a radical re-organisation of how we deliver the educational experience through two key shifts:

  • Educators need to shift from thinking about learning as the delivery of content towards the learning as nurturing the key skills students need to hone.
  • The learning environment needs to shift from a space where the teacher is seen as an imparter of knowledge to a peer-learning space where students learn from one another and the teacher through experiential projects.

Fig 3 - Making Leadership Great Again

3) Inspire teachers to rethink their positions  

Passionate teachers strive to replicate the best classroom experience they had as students and in many contexts this means replicating the best lecturer who had the clearest notes on the board.

To shift to a new norm that truly serves students, institutions need to expose their faculty to radically different versions of best-practice to support them in refashioning outdated ideals they may be striving towards. This involves exposure to new teaching practices to support them re-imagine their roles.

In this regard, moderator Debora Dunn, co-founder of FEED collaborative at Stanford University pointed to the work of The Stanford d.school’s K12 Lab Network which achieves this goal by supporting educators think beyond current school models while concurrently building a community of practitioners to share the best practices that emerge.

She commented, “To tackle the many challenges that stand between us and a just and sustainable world we need a global army of young leaders who combine character, confidence and capability.” The lessons extracted from the work of EARTH and ALA highlight exciting leverage points to help transform education systems from those that merely equip students for repetitive work to those that foster the competencies, care and concern needed in our current socio-economic context.

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A Work Landscape in Flux for Young People

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017 MBA candidate 2017, Ahmed Abu Bakr gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session ‘A Work Landscape in Flux for Young People’

We all know that the world is changing at an unprecedented rate, but I regularly feel that we forget, often far too easily, that these changes aren’t entirely new. Marina Gorbis, executive director at the Institute for the future, reminds us that the technological disruptions we are witnessing today, aren’t really as rapid as we make them out to be.

The internet, the proliferation of mobile technology and sensors, and the big data revolution are a result of over thirty years of consistent investment and prioritisation in the space of communication technologies. She refers to the outcome of these technologies as greater “digital coordination”; and through this, she provides a broader definition for technology. If the internet and big data allow for coordination, then institutions and organised systems (for business, government, and otherwise) are also technologies in their own right- technologies for the coordination and allocation of resources.

'A Work Landscape in Flux for Young People' panel.

‘A Work Landscape in Flux for Young People’ panel.

And it is important to keep in mind that organised systems that are being disrupted today- financial markets, healthcare systems, the transportation sector, etc.- were actually major innovations in their own time that disrupted the status quo back in their day.

There is no doubt that the nature of work is being radically transformed by what Marina calls “digital coordination” technologies. But is it really a source of disruption for the nature of work?

The remaining panellists attested that young people in Egypt and Africa were choosing to delve into entrepreneurship and the growing start up culture because of two primary reasons. Firstly, there is an undoubted frustration within the youth populations where they are dissatisfied with the available economic opportunities. Fhazhil Wamalwa, managing director at Disa Energy Management, recalled how he was led to believe that a good education would result in a decent job, and how his inability to get on after his master’s degrees was a painful but necessary disillusionment.

The second factor is a deliberate and concerted effort by many to promote entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial activities as a response to the failure of the existing systems. Dina El Mofty (Injaz Egypt), and Marwa Moaz (Bamyan Media) both talked about their sustained efforts within Egypt to inspire and develop an entrepreneurial mind set.

With this context, it becomes evident that the changing nature of work, the rise of gig jobs, and the proliferation of self-employment and entrepreneurship is a response to the failure of the existing econo-political system where digital technology is less of a cause and more of an enabler.

One thing remains uncontested- the old institutions have to be reformed, and in some cases completely revised. For me personally, the key question is around the evolution of these new systems. The topic of the day seems to be around growing wealth inequality. But wealth inequality is a result of inequalities in the distribution of power- social and politcal. What’s even more troubling is the feedback effect on power from the accumulation of wealth. The 21st century has seen tremendous concentration of wealth because of a tremendous concentration in power. What can we learn from history to design new social and political institutions that distribute power rather than concentrate it?

Ahmed Abu Bakr is an MBA 2016-17, Skoll Scholar at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, and Co-founder of Jeeon