A Holy Education


Last week, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet , Tenzin Gyatso, visited Cambridge to attend the Global Scholars Symposium, a conference organised by scholars, for scholars from over 40 countries studying in the UK.  Not only did we learn about the importance of using non-violence to resolve conflicts around the world and the current holes in our modern education system, but the experience of planning and hosting the spiritual and former political leader of Tibet was an education in itself.

 The email arrived Christmas morning, stating that His Holiness had accepted our invitation to speak at the Global Scholars Symposium. The excitement was overwhelming, even though at that moment we did not realise what a huge responsibility this would be. When organising a VIP visit, every minute must be planned for, no detail can be overlooked. Although this visit was predominantly organised by students, a seemingly countless number of people worked together from the London Office of Tibet, St. John’s College, the Gates Cambridge Trust, and the Cambridge Union Society. Everyone had their role, and because of this, constant communication was critically important.

 The visit was a great success. During his weekend in Cambridge, His Holiness spoke to more than 1,600 students, national, local, and student press organisations, and had 2 talks streamed live on the internet to reach followers around the world. It was an incredible experience for everyone involved, and especially for us students. It is not often that students get the attention of such a high profile, and inspirational visitor.

We were the main organisers for every detail, including accommodation, meals, security, transportation, guest lists and media coverage. By the end of the visit we had dealt with everything from university politics to undercover police officers and people fraudulently posing as press. Needless to say much of this was outside the realm of our PhDs, which are in Linguistics and Neuroscience, and it was the first time we experienced the luxury of holding official entourage badges.

During his visit, His Holiness shared his teachings on compassion and non-violence principles, as well as clear words to the media to report the truth, which requires looking beyond the surface appearance of an issue. A continuing theme throughout all of his talks was the need to improve the modern education system around the world, to incorporate ethics and universal morality. We need to “educate the heart” to make people happier and more caring individuals if we want to solve some of the world’s problems, he said. His Holiness is a global voice of peace and left many scholars changed for the better, more inspired and passionate to use their careers to make a positive impact in the world.

Along with His Holiness, scholars at the Global Scholars Symposium heard inspirational talks from Justice Goodwin Liu, His Excellency Gordon Campbell, Professor Cindi Katz, Wes Moore, Wanjira Mathai, Sir Tim Hunt, Tony Juniper, and many more. As hoped, scholars left the conference feeling inspired and motivated to bridge ideas into action, in order to make a real contribution to tackling the world’s greatest challenges.

*Brianne Kent [2011] and Cameron Taylor [2009] are doing PhDs in Experimental Psychology and Italian respectively. Picture credit: Jeremy Russell.


Reducing the risk of building sustainable neighbourhoods


Over the past five years, more and more of my work is with developers who are developing new neighbourhoods or updating existing areas. As a sustainability consultant, I look for ways we can take advantage of large scale development to transform the efficiency of our energy, water, waste and transport systems. Neighbourhood development often has benefits over individual sustainable buildings.

For example, if you can build a cluster of office buildings next to residential buildings, then a local energy centre can generate electricity and heat throughout the day and share these across the buildings. In Australia, this arrangement can be 80% efficient, compared to the 35% efficiency of electricity from our large power stations.

Similarly, having a water recycling system for a whole neighbourhood is more cost-effective and easier to manage than each building having its own water recycling system.

Around the world, there are more and more examples of this kind of thinking. Treasure Island in San Francisco will recycle wastewater and compost on site. In Copenhagen, two neighourhood heating and cooling networks have been developed and will save 14,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases per year. We have planned a new inner Melbourne suburb where 10,000 people can live with no more water, waste or energy than an ordinary development for 3,000 people.

We often think developers are not interested in sustainability because it gets in the way of business. Even developers that want to ‘do the right thing’ will worry about costs.

Risky business

It helps to understand these big projects from a developer’s point of view. Developers put enormous amounts of money into a development, without knowing how long it will take to finish or if anyone will buy the buildings once they are finished. It’s a risky business.

Sustainable infrastructure works best if it is put in place early. So you can see why a developer would be nervous about investing in this infrastructure upfront, even if we know that infrastructure will be profitable in five or 10 years.

To overcome the deadlock, I have used two strategies: cluster-based infrastructure and procurement approaches that depend on the level of market maturity for each technology.

Cluster-based infrastructure means planning neighbourhoods that can be developed one small stage at a time. Each stage will contain the right mix of buildings that make sustainable infrastructure viable. Over the years, as a developer builds each stage, he or she can take advantage of the most cost-effective, efficient and reliable technology that exists at that future time. This approach minimises the risk of locking up resources early on.

The second strategy I’ve used is to show sustainable infrastructure to developers in three categories of market maturity. The most mature systems are cost-effective, low risk and widely available in the region. In many places, passive orientation of land plots and stormwater swales fall in this category. Developers can use these strategies straight away.

New technology

The second and third categories are technologies that are less market mature or not yet commercially viable. There may be fewer suppliers or the regulations are not clear. These systems need different procurement strategies to reduce the developer’s risk. If the risk is managed, then a developer is more willing to design for these technologies.

Sometimes, my biggest wins have been where the developer future proofs a development so that in 10 years it’s easier for this emerging system to be built in.  This requires minimal investment upfront and I know that it will make all the difference for the future business case for an infrastructure system like stormwater recycling.

You might have walked around your neighbourhood and spotted sustainability opportunities. Let’s think about it from the point of view of those that would need to invest upfront. Are there ways to break the project into smaller parts or spread it over time? If so, we could get going with it straight away.

*Joan Ko [2006] is part of Arup’s sustainability group in Melbourne. She did an MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development. Photo credit: Marcus and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.

Education after a crisis


Countries which have been through deep trauma and crisis caused by violence and war need to prioritise conflict-sensitive approaches to education, an international meeting heard earlier this month.

The High-Level Symposium on Conflict-Sensitive Education took place at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and ended with a joint declaration emphasising the importance of such approaches for countries’ long term recovery from conflict. I attended as part of my own research work on the role of education in promoting reconciliation following violent inter-group conflict.

Speakers talked about how education, although central to countries’ development, receives much less funding and attention than health which has more immediate results. The event also served to launch a new set of tools to help educators working in conflict-riven societies and to share good practice on integrating conflict-sensitivity in education systems.

Co-organised by UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) and the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE), the event attracted 250 international participants, including over 100 delegates representing national Ministries of Education, UN agencies, national and international research institutions, funding agencies and NGOs active in the field of education in conflict-affected and fragile contexts.

Quality, safe education

Opening statements by INEE members underscored the need of children and young people for quality, equitable, relevant and safe education and emphasised that conflict-sensitive approaches to education contributes to peace-building in important ways: “frustrated youth” can be constructively engaged; resilience can be built in states, economies and communities; and conflict and fragility can be mitigated. Panel discussions centred on “Building peaceful societies in a post-2015 world” and “National initiatives and plans to develop conflict-sensitive education policies and programmes”.

In the first panel, Qian Tang, Assistant Director General of Education at UNESCO, emphasised that education is a pillar for all development goals. He drew attention, however, to two oversights in international development cooperation concerning the immediate and longer-term importance of education. First, educational responses in post-disaster and post-conflict situations should be immediate, but humanitarian budgets allocate very little towards education. Mr Tang observed that the international community still does not recognise how important education is to post-crisis recovery.

Second, the value of education is not merely technical but civic. The ultimate objective of education is not to read and write in Mr. Tang’s words, but to raise responsible citizens who respect human rights and can live peacefully with other cultures. The second panellist, Carol Bellamy, former Executive Director of UNICEF and current Chair of the Board of Directors of the Global Partnership for Education, underscored the importance of pursuing post-2015 education goals in an integrative manner. She pointed to the tendency among the international community to “pick low-hanging fruit”, meaning getting children into schools without looking at the broader and deeper needs in the education sector. She claimed that a mood of “complacency” has overtaken the international community with regards to education, as evidenced by the levelling off of financial investment. Unlike public health interventions, such as immunisation programmes whose value-for-dollar is easy to prove, educational investment is a longer-term process and is harder to assess. She called upon humanitarian and development sectors to collaborate more deliberately for the sake of increasing the quality of educational investment in post-crisis settings.


Between panels, Maria Lucia Uribe, Coordinator of the INEE Working Group on Education and Fragility, launched the INEE Conflict-Sensitive Educational toolkit, explaining its structure, contents and purposes. It includes a Guidance Note which introduces key concepts related to conflict-sensitive education; offers strategies for implementing programmes and policies in a conflict-sensitive manner; features conflict analysis activities and tools; and offers case studies on the application of conflict-sensitivity in education from Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Colombia. A Reflection Tool provides a comprehensive framework of questions for reflection on the interaction between conflict and educational policies and programmes, and opportunities for conflict-sensitivity and peace-building in intervention planning. It is designed to aid the integration of conflict sensitivity at all stages of the educational project cycle: assessment, design, implementation/management, monitoring and evaluation.

Martha Hewison from Save the Children UK then shared her organisation’s experience piloting the tools for conflict-sensitive education in several countries, including Somalia, Mali and South Sudan. Lessons learned from field-testing were used by the Working Group to refine the tools.

In the second panel, case studies on the provision of conflict-sensitive education in conflict-affected and fragile contexts were offered by the Minister of Education of Palestine Lamis Alami, the Minister of Education of Liberia Etmonia Tarpeh, and the Minister of Education of Mali Bocar Moussa Diarra. In Liberia, for example, the Minister explained that due to the country’s long history of armed violence, there is widespread trauma among teachers and students. In her words, children are exposed to violence, “antisocial activity” and “negative values” from an early age, resulting in them “involuntarily” and prematurely becoming adults. In such a context, she said, the challenge before the education sector is “huge”. She said the need for peace-building and state-building in Liberia was paramount. In this context, the involvement of UNESCO in the training of 1,300 teachers and the delivery of a values-based education curriculum sponsored by the government of Japan has been a welcome step forward. The Minister concluded her remarks by stating Liberia’s need to “restore dignity and sanity to the education sector for the benefit of the next generation”.

Psychosocial damage

Challenges raised by delegates included the need for greater attention to the longer-term psychosocial impacts of mass violence on communities and the need for more attention to the substance of education in post-conflict and fragile societies. The representative of the permanent mission of Algeria to UNESCO, Professor Noureddine Toualbi-Thaalibi, cited the largely unaddressed psychosocial damage resulting from Algeria’s history of violent conflict. As in other violence-affected countries, he explained that the symptoms of the destructiveness of violence are not fully evident in the immediate post-crisis phase; rather, they emerge over time. He argued that without systematic attention by the international community to the psychological reconstruction of children, youth and teachers, the achievement of other educational objectives in violence-affected societies will remain elusive. In response, panellist Carole Bellamy offered that “psychosocial issues are real” and that the traumatic impacts of violence “need to be kept in mind”.

The tools produced by the INEE on Conflict-Sensitive Education do indeed point to the importance of violence-prevention and psychosocial wellbeing of children, but at this stage make little reference to the importance of violence-recovery. Another important issue, raised by the Ambassador of Norway to UNESCO Tore Erikson, concerned the content of education. He acknowledged that while getting children to school in fragile contexts is a very challenging task, even more important is the substance of the education they receive once there. He asked what the implications of conflict-sensitive approaches to education are for such topics as the teaching of conflict histories, the design of language policies in divided societies, the uprooting of ideologies and the cultivation of tolerance.

The main programme was followed by a narrative concert by Peter Yarrow, former member of the American folk music group Peter, Paul and Mary which was actively involved in the American Civil Rights and Peace movements. Since 2000, Peter has dedicated much of his time to the organisation Operation Respect that offers programmes on bullying and violence prevention. Through the use of creative pedagogies, Operation Respect’s “Don’t Laugh At Me” programme cultivates empathy and solidarity among young people. Sharing songs and anecdotes from the programme’s experiences in Israel, Palestine and the United States, Peter drew attention to the critical importance of social and emotional learning as a key to community resilience and peace-building. In his words, educators should “nurture the hearts of children in non-political ways”.

Peter underlined that how students are taught is as important, if not more important, than what they are taught. The academic growth of children is impossible, he argued, if their fundamental social and emotional needs are neglected. It was an important reflection on which to end the event.

*Sara Habibi [2011] is doing a PhD in Post-Conflict Reconciliation. Photo credit: Ambro and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.

A new approach to education


The lines on the graph were flip-flopping across the printout more than the election results of a losing politician. I couldn’t understand how my repeats of identical blood tests, designed to show me if the donor had been exposed to bat-borne pathogens, could be so variable.

It made no sense. I’d done the tests following the protocol, doing the same thing that my fellow PhD students had done before me. I’d processed the data using the right procedure. I’d done everything I was supposed to do. And yet all I had was a mess of meaningless scribbles that completely failed to provide me with what I needed for my research.

Science, frankly, is a mess like this 90% of the time. It comes with the territory of pushing the frontiers of knowledge. But my laboratory tribulations scarily mirror challenges facing graduates across the US today. Students follow what students before them, including probably their parents, have done to get jobs: do well in high school, go to a good college, graduate with decent grades. The story is supposed to finish with them landing a solid, secure job – but like me with my scientific headaches – far too many graduates are finding themselves holding pieces of paper with scribbles that mean little in today’s job market and a process that has given them nothing to prepare them. In fact, over one half of recent grads are unemployed or working jobs that don’t need the degrees they’ve just spent four years and thousands of dollars earning.

I knew something was wrong with my scientific approach. And people are starting to realise that there is something just as wrong with how we do education.

Sir Ken Robinson gave the most watched TED talk of all time (over 15 million views) on how schools kill creativity – the exact skill that our students desperately need to survive in today’s constantly changing economy. In the US, we have an industrial-age education system constructed to train students in rote memorisation and obedience, while our employers and leading companies depend on analytical skills and innovation. A number of studies, carried out by an array of groups from Kent Careers Co and Microsoft to the Wall Street Journal, say that the leading skills desired by employers are initiative, innovation and creativity, communication and teamwork and flexibility.

The problem is, where exactly in our rigorous programme of multiple choice tests, fact memorisation and pursuit of the right answers as defined by a teacher or a textbook are we training our students in these skills?

Back in the lab, I had to admit that what might have worked for the researchers who came before me certainly wasn’t going to work for my new samples. I had to develop my own way of tackling these new challenges. My PhD gave me the chance to start learning and practising creative problem-solving. But there is absolutely no reason that students need to burn 15 years until they get to explore the skills that really matter. Still worse, not everyone can afford a graduate degree, or be as insanely lucky as I was through the generosity of the Gates Cambridge Trust. And that is why, as much I as I love science, I have decided not to stay in academia and instead took the incredible experiences I’ve had in Cambridge and launched a non-profit to offer the same valuable learning opportunities to anyone who wants them.

Black Mountain SOLE is the first residential, self-organised learning community for students who want to become self-experts, unleash their passions and creativity, unlock their innovative and world-changing problem-solving skills and learn by doing. We couple the open-access knowledge available online from Coursera, Udacity, edX and other revolutionary organisations with personal coaching and real-world projects. Students identify their passions and focus on the skills that they need to succeed in their chosen field, while our faculty supports them in their personal development. Forget scantrons, pop quizzes and formulatic essays. Our students will consult with real companies. Tackle community issues. Publish novels.  Our Geronimo Gap Year will help students learn how to maximize their time at university, if they choose to attend later, or jumpstart them in crafting a satisfying, successful career straight away.

Perhaps best of all, in building this unique school, I’m pushing my own limits, from tackling the fear of failure to developing a programme that’s never been done before. I will be able to stand beside our students, having walked in their shoes, and I will know that they really can do anything they want to.

*Alexandra Kamins [2009] studied for a PhD in Veterinary Science. Picture credit: Danilo Rizzuti and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

Science under the censor


Last July on Parliament Hill in Canada, funeral bells tolled for an unlikely victim. Hundreds of scientists clad in white lab coats paced mournfully, lamenting what they were calling ‘the death of science in Canada’. They were responding to alarming reports of government interference in the communication of scientific findings. Last week Canada’s Information Commissioner, who provides arms-length oversight of the federal government’s access to information practices, announced that seven government departments are now under investigation for censoring scientists.

The first accusations of censorship started in early 2008, when the Conservative Party of Canada gave the directive that anyone employed with Environment Canada would now need permission from the Minister’s office to speak with the media. This directive was since expanded, forbidding all scientists in government departments and research councils from talking to the media without prior consent. The Minister’s office can, and often does, refuse interviews, or asks that interview questions be written and submitted in advance. When permission is granted, it is often long after a news story has lost steam and attention has moved elsewhere.

When Dr Kristi Miller reported in the prestigious journal Science that viruses from aquaculture were spreading and killing wild fish populations, the story caught the attention of international media. Requests for interviews flooded the Minister’s office. They were all denied. Requests for data from Health Canada monitoring of radiation released from Japan’s Fukushima disaster – also denied. Last year, when scientists from around the world gathered at the International Polar Year Conference, Canadian scientists were shadowed by government ‘media relations contacts’ who monitored and even recorded conversations. Scientists have been receiving threatening reminders of the policy, and many feel that their jobs are at stake.

Peter Kent, the Minister of the Environment, defends these actions by stating that communications management is a standard tool in large organizations. While this may well be true, the government is taking unprecedented measures to withhold information believed to be counter to their economic goals, especially those relevant to oil development. By micromanaging scientific communication, they hope to restrict the information that reaches the public, thereby controlling the conversation.


It is a chilling signal for the international community that this level of censorship can occur in Canada, which in the past has ranked highest in the Western hemisphere on the Freedom of Press index published by Reporters Without Borders. Not to be taken lightly, Canada fell ten spots over the past year.

Scientists systematically gather information on the world. They make detailed observations on the state and trends of natural systems, and are often the first to take notice when human activity upsets these systems, and when the effects may consequently affect human well being. However, such research is effective only when communicated to the rest of the world.

Policy decisions cannot be based solely on science. They must acknowledge social, political and economic dimensions. However, government censorship of science will only lead policies related to our environment, health, and safety away from evidence and aimlessly towards ideology, in the process producing citizens who can’t tell the difference.

*Daniel Storisteanu [2012] is doing a PhD in Medicine. Picture credit: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net and Stuart Miles.