In partnership with the World Innovation Summit for Education we have written ‘Learning a Living,’ a new book that focuses on radical innovation at the education/work interface. In anticipation of its release in mid-November, we are launching a month-long campaign to celebrate and bring attention to some of the most powerful thinking on, and examples of, initiatives which hold out the hope of radically new approaches better fitted to the conditions of the 21st century. Read more about the book here.
For the book we conducted a large number of extensive interviews with a wide-range of educational experts. This week we will be sharing some of their unique insights about preparing students for the working world.
Florence Tobo Lobe is suffused with energy as she tells the story of the Rubisadt Foundation. It is a story that begins with her own upbringing in Cameroon – an “easy” childhood with parents who were determined to buck the trend and give their daughter the best possible education. The young Florence flourished, ending up as a senior lecturer in Chemistry at the then University of Yaoundé, via a PhD from the University of Paris-Sud (ORSAY).
But Florence always knew that she wanted to return to Cameroon to make a positive contribution. Florence set out to tackle the dual challenges of what she saw as a poor and highly unequal education system, particularly in the sciences – her professional passion.
She began by working with young people of both sexes at secondary school level to improve the quality of their science education. But she soon decided that her work should focus on young women. The reasons were manifold.
Firstly, she was horrified that young women were doing well at primary school – better than boys – but began dropping out at secondary school, when the financial and social pressures became too great, a huge waste of talent and potential.
Driving around Cameroon’s cities Florence also noticed the shocking number of women – many younger than those with whom she worked – out on the streets, “selling their charms.” She later found that many were attracted to prostitution by the older women in their trade who were driven around in smart cars, wearing expensive clothes – their role models.
Finally, Florence knew that it was women in Cameroon who were the “primary socialising agents.” In other words, it is women who shape and transmit traditions from generation to generation within families. If women are encouraged to embrace meaningful learning opportunities then the impact will be exponential, as they introduce new norms and assumptions to their families.
The Rubisadt Foundation was born.
The curriculum at the Rubisadt Foundation is shaped around two themes – scientific content, and the personal development Florence believes is required to turn her students into changemakers.
The scientific content is taught in highly practical ways. Young people are involved in experiments and witness applied science and engineering in factories and elsewhere. The personal development content is totally bespoke. It starts with a one-to-one conversation between Florence (or one of her staff) and a young woman:
“Who are you? What do you enjoy? How do you see your future?”
This is followed by a series of other interviews – one-to-one conversations with her mother, her father (if she has one), and her favorite teacher, group conversations with both parents, and with her whole family – to help the Rubisadt team fully understand her circumstances. Only when Florence is satisfied that she really knows the young woman in question will she be put her in a classroom setting with others.
Early group work at the Foundation is focused on self-reflection and relationship building. Self-confidence, self-assessment, self-respect - Florence sees these qualities as critical to developing the ‘personality’ required to be voracious learners, capable of making a genuine contribution to Cameroonian society.
By focusing on the development of a new world view, underpinned by a shared sense of responsibility for oneself and ones community, Rubistadt’s supplementary science classes and annual summer camps become something much more than additional tuition.
This is reflected in the choices of its graduates. After having held highly skilled jobs overseas, “most of the girls come back,” despite the gloomy economic environment. They, like Florence, feel a responsibility to Cameroon – they want to help reshape the country. They “can’t ignore where they come from.”
Students are taught to be ambitious, independent and entrepreneurial. Finding employment is just another challenge they will take on for themselves, as a matter of self respect. They come to understand that “their happiness depends on themselves.” Florence argues that encouraging such an attitude is only possible if you “set the bar very high.” It is her aim that all Rubisadt’s students feel “free to think [they] can do anything.” This includes changing the perspective and attitudes of their own families.
For seven years, Florence worked alone. She now has a small team of 12 teachers and educators, all of whom are utterly motivated by Rubisadt’s mission. Retaining the fidelity of Rubisadt’s model is easy in this context – “everyone knows everyone…we are all responsible for Rubisadt’s successes and learn lessons from its failures.”
The next challenge for Florence is scale. She believes that over the past 10 years, she has built a model that works and can work anywhere. She now wants to extend its reach. Florence believes that the clarity and fidelity of the model will be crucial to the scaling process. Rubisadt provides something clear, well-articulated and well-evidenced that people can be trained in.
Central to Florence’s future plans is the development of a major Rubisadt campus in Cameroon. The Foundation has already received ministerial decree to open its own private high school. Florence conceives the campus as a ‘hub of excellence’ whose visibility will help to spread the Rubisadt word. It will host young women from Mali, Congo, Chad and other surrounding countries that face similar challenges to Cameroon. Florence is hopeful that these young women will become ambassadors, eventually setting up Rubisadt outposts in their own countries.
In the mean time, Florence is trying to talk to as many people as possible about her mission – “my policy is that sharing opens my mind.”
Reproduced/adapted from Living A Learning: Radical Innovation in Education for Work, published by WISE Qatar and Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing 2013.