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Inspiration and leadership in the classroom

Skoll Scholar and design enthusiast, Ahmed Abu Bakr, shares his experience of an average Oxford MBA classroom. But it wasn’t the subject matter that he found captivating, it was the leadership of its professor that truly inspired him.

In my first week of the MBA programme, I was introduced to the idea that we can all be classified into one of four categories: activists, theorists, reflectors, and pragmatists. Now of course, that was a clear oversimplification – we’re obviously not one or the other, but a mix of each in varying quantities. Nonetheless, the exercise forced me to explicitly recognise my inclination towards reflection.

And so, as my year at Oxford comes to an untimely close, I find myself taking stock of my time spent here. So what am I taking away with me? Well, a great many things: new skills, new friends, great memories, and an expanded perspective. But most importantly, I’m taking back inspiration. And today, I want to share one such story of inspiration from my time here.

I met him in the first week of our first term, on a Friday afternoon. Half of us were feeling the post-lunch drowsiness seeping in, while the other half really just wanted to get started with the weekend. There was nothing particularly remarkable about him at first glance. The most I could have said about him back then was that he seemed decent- kind, soft spoken, and as we eventually learned, modest to a fault. And he was teaching us statistics.

But over the course of eight weeks, I found in him a real life John Keating (ref: Dead Poet’s Society– be sure to watch it if you haven’t already!). Never have I had the privilege of seeing someone so very passionately and creatively impart knowledge – and let’s face it, statistics isn’t the most exciting subject out there-  and win the heart of each and every student in the room. His name is Siddharth Arora, and his love and passion for the statistics was unmistakeable from his very first class. But what was truly remarkable was how he took on the full onus of helping us discover beauty in his subject.

Far too often have I seen teachers crush the spirit of learning in their students. Growing up, I have personally witnessed teachers ruin mathematics, physics, language, and a myriad of other disciplines for many of my fellow classmates. I have seen teachers teach through their authority, arrogantly, complacently, trying to stuff knowledge into the minds of students, and leaving no room for wisdom. Too often have I seen teachers forget that they must earn the attention that we chose to pay.

But Siddharth understood that. He cared enough to truly engage us. He showed us the presence of statistics in breath taking videos of the flight patterns of starlings, in the disturbing reality of climate change, and in the quotes of Rumi. He cared enough to go out of his way to make things like regression and conditional probabilities interesting, relevant and engaging for us all. He cared enough to voluntarily stay back on weekends and help us when we were struggling and he cared enough to provide us with snacks as we waited our turn to discuss our issues with him. And because he cared, we cared back.

It was particularly evident on the last day of his class. Incidentally, this was also the last class of term for all of us- a much needed study break was just waiting to begin. The clock struck five and he let us know that we were free to leave, but that he still had about 20 more minutes of content to cover. The weekend had begun, the term had ended, and everyone chose to stay back to finish a statistics class.

You see, over those eight weeks, Siddharth did so much more than simply teach us. He inspired us, shared his passion, gave us pearls of wisdom for life in general, and was there for us when we had needed him. He showed us genuine care, and got us to care back, and in doing so he demonstrated tremendous leadership within the classroom. And through it all, he personified humility and grace.

Section C, MBA class of 2017 with Siddharth Arora (more than 45 minutes after the end of class)

Section C, MBA class of 2017 with Siddharth Arora (more than 45 minutes after the end of class)

For me personally, he inspired a vision of the sort of person and the sort of leader I would like to be. Someone who doesn’t let authority, position, and credentials eat away at the intent to try harder, to be better, and to give more. Someone who empathises, and someone who cares. Someone who wins hearts through deliberate and protracted effort. And is humble and genuine throughout it all.

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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.