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.