Power Players

How a school in Asia is creating future entrepreneurial leaders — by opting out of traditional teaching methods

Founders Agnieszka Tynkiewicz-Gile (L) and Trevor Gile (R) talking with students of the Liger Leadership Academy
Courtesy of Liger Leadership Academy

The working world is acknowledging the need to step away from the traditional 9-to-5 and embrace change.

Yet, should this also be the case with how we approach education? Two entrepreneurs believe so.

The founders of the Liger Leadership Academy (LLA), Trevor Gile and Agnieszka Tynkiewicz-Gile, see the traditional, passive style of education as one that no longer works.

"The problem with the Victorian model of education, the one that's traditional, lecture-based, is it presupposes that the adults in the room know everything that the young people need to know," Gile, founder and chairperson of LLA's board of directors, told CNBC Make It.

"And the fact is, as the world's changing so fast, we have no idea — as educators and parents — what a young person today is going to need to know in 10 or 20 years from now."

Their solution? An entrepreneurial approach to education with an institution (LLA) that teaches children through project, opportunity and experiential-based learning, on top of essential curriculum.

And it's not as though the couple's beliefs are unfounded. A 2014 study by University of Washington discovered that more students failed science, math and engineering lecture-based courses, compared to those integrating "active learning," which involves problem-solving and debates. Studies have pointed out active learning's benefits, including increased content knowledge, critical thinking and enthusiasm for studying.

Investing in tomorrow's leaders

After 10 years in the making, the Liger Leadership Academy welcomed its first students in 2012, with the ambition of giving pupils an opportunity to become socially-conscious change agents that could support Cambodia's socioeconomic development.

The Liger Leadership Academy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Courtesy of Liger Leadership Academy

Cambodia is currently regarded as a lower middle-income nation, with the World Bank seeing quality of human capital as being of the "utmost importance", to secure upper middle-income status by 2030. And with 65% of Cambodia's population under the age of 30, LLA saw a potential solution.

LLA has 110 students aged 11 to 18, all of whom went through a seven-step recruiting process to secure a place, with 16,000 Cambodians having been screened. Each student receives a complimentary $15,000 scholarship to the Phnom Penh-based boarding school, where the bill is footed by the serial entrepreneurs.

In return, students dedicate six years to this education model, and can collaborate on supervised projects — whether that's creating and performing original theatrical productions, or building robotics. Each group plans, researches, negotiates, and does all the work to execute a final product.

"You can imagine what a big undertaking it is and how many things you can learn along the way," said Tynkiewicz-Gile, founder and president of LLA's board.

Students are then encouraged to share their results, so classmates who haven't participated get an insight into that topic and can always explore further. "We can't teach them everything," said Gile, but "there are ways to find out what you need to know, when you need to."

Outside the classroom, senior students (aged 15-18) are encouraged to live independently, with flatmates cooking meals, managing budgets and doing laundry — responsibilities that many Westerners fully-adopt after leaving home or attending university.

"(As) our project-based learning is experiential, students spend a lot of time off campus using the world and real life as our classroom and learning environment," said Dominic Sharpe, LLA's country director, over email.

Students of the Liger Leadership Academy
Courtesy of Liger Leadership Academy

While this may sound like a dream for only the privileged, the founders emphasize that it's by no means "an elitist program."

"We're not spoiling them. It's run on a very lean budget."

Taking risks

Years after its inception, LLA's students have achieved a lot. 18% have presented a Tedx Talk, 95% of female pupils have competed in global coding competitions, while 75% are published authors, the website states. LLA has secured partnerships with NGOs (non-governmental organizations), Cambodia's Ministry of Education and the International Labor Organization.

Having invested $15 million into this, the founders now want to take this education model global.

Encouraging individuals, institutions or countries to drop traditional education, however, is tricky. It involves considering the risks, what it could mean for future employment and integrating into a society that's used to tradition.

One reason why it's so difficult to change the current system is "because for generations, it worked," explains Richard Gerver, a globally-recognized expert in education, leadership and change.

"We used education to filter young people into routes that best suited their abilities; white collar, blue collar, technical, academic. We were trained to seek out certainty and prepared to function in an industrial age founded on and fueled by efficiency," said Gerver, adding that he fears that the most-established economies will be slowest to embracing change.

The founders knew the risk when starting out, which is why they feel "deeply indebted" to the first cohort's families who gave LLA a chance.

Students of the Liger Leadership Academy
Courtesy of Liger Leadership Academy

Speaking over the phone, students Sopheak and Samnang explained how the school offered them an opportunity to pursue ambitions, with Sopheak having recently secured a place into a program that offers a full scholarship in the U.S.

The students have faced their own obstacles, however, explaining that trying to "do good" and deliver change in the region hasn't always been welcomed. Yet, the pupils remain optimistic that these scenarios allow them to develop soft skills; along with acknowledging the importance of focusing on the problem at hand, rather than delivering immediate solutions.

"Young people will surprise and amaze you if given the opportunity and motivation. Real life must be an integral part of education, and failure should not just be accepted, but expected," said Sharpe.

Looking ahead

Beyond Cambodia, education's future remains topical. In a 2018 report, the OECD expressed the urgency to prepare students for jobs and technologies that haven't yet been created.

"Education needs to aim to do more than prepare young people for the world of work; it needs to equip students with the skills they need to become active, responsible and engaged citizens," the report states.

As Gerver highlights, even "major graduate employers are now questioning whether the system is producing young people with the soft skills that are fast becoming the hard currency of the 21st and 22nd centuries."

The OECD believes that students who are "best prepared for the future, are change agents" — and the founders are fully behind this.

"What we're doing can impact, can benefit children from any country and any socioeconomic background — and we're more convinced of that with each passing day," said Gile.

"We've spent a decade doing the heavy lifting. We're here, we're done, we've proven it, it works — now it's time to scale," said Gile, who claims that mentors have approached LLA for collaboration, including former NASA and Boeing employees.

"From any angle that you approach this, it makes good sense for everybody involved."

Founders Agnieszka Tynkiewicz-Gile (L) and Trevor Gile (R) working with students of the Liger Leadership Academy
Courtesy of Liger Leadership Academy
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