How kids learn in school — Instead of teachers teaching content to the students, students could be learning from the ‘best’ teachers in different content areas at home. Then, go to school to perform activities, experiments, and have discussions that can help them internalize the knowledge. For students who are struggling, there are online platforms like Khan Academy, Coursera, edX, and Outlier, as well as tons of free, high-quality YouTube channels.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Navid & Nadeem Nathoo, Co-Founders of The Knowledge Society (TKS).
Following formative experiences in business, humanitarian work and Silicon Valley, brothers Navid and Nadeem Nathoo came together to create a solution for what they saw as the world’s most daunting problems. Founded in 2016, The Knowledge Society (TKS) is a 10-month accelerator program for curious and ambitious teens between the ages of 13–17. Through project-based learning and real-world skill building, TKS trains young people to solve the world’s biggest problems using emerging technologies.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
Of course and thanks for interviewing us! Our background: we were raised by immigrant parents who instilled in us their entrepreneurial spirit and the importance of working hard. Our father was business-oriented while our mother focused on nonprofits and raising us. Together they fueled our ambition to create a successful business that works to maximize the impact we could have on the world.
This led us to create The Knowledge Society (TKS) in 2016, on the belief that young people are our greatest resource: they have the curiosity, knowledge and potential to solve the world’s biggest problems. We realized that if society can train Olympic-level athletes from a young age, it can also train Olympic-level CEOs, inventors and thought leaders.
Prior to TKS, Nadeem fought ultra-poverty and built education centers around the world, before joining McKinsey where he was consulting with Fortune 500 CEOs on banking, aerospace and other advanced industries. On the other hand, Navid worked in Silicon Valley and founded a cloud-security company called Airpost that was later acquired by Box. Seeing incredibly smart minds working on small trivial issues made us realize that we needed better infrastructure to tackle global problems. It inspired us both to create the next generation of innovators.
Our mission with TKS is to cultivate the next generation of global leaders. We want to find kids who have a strong sense of curiosity, ambition, and work ethic and help maximize their potential.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It’s a bittersweet story. Every year the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has an award that they give to high school students working on ground breaking technologies and sciences. When we caught wind, 4/6 awardees ended up being from TKS! We flew to Las Vegas and ended up at Tony Hsieh’s Airstream. He lived in a trailer park with a Llama, sloth, and some of his best friends. I had never met him, but of course he is widely known in the community. Tony met some of our students and probably had an hour conversation with them on everything ranging from AI, Quantum Computing, Genomics and more. By the end he said “how the hell do you know all this stuff at 16, and how did you get in here?” They explained TKS and pointed to me (Nadeem). I ended up having another hour-long conversation with him while he was in the pool talking about TKS, our goals, and the “why” behind it. He told me that he wanted TKS in Vegas immediately and was willing to fund the whole thing. This past summer, I ended up spending six weeks with Tony in Park City. Last week, he unfortunately passed away, but I’m so glad to have met him through TKS. I’ve met some pretty incredible people that I otherwise wouldn’t have if not for this path we’re on.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re excited that we just recently expanded our program globally so students around the world in places like India, South America and the Middle East, can participate and learn more during the pandemic. We were already using our proprietary TKS Life online platform that we created for students to interact and schedule “Brain Dates” to virtually meet and collaborate. This “LinkedIn meets Google Classroom” seamlessly allowed our program to shift virtually when the pandemic hit as well as open our doors to students across the world. The platform has customized learning modules, exclusive resources, personal progress trackers and student portfolios. We’re proud to be revolutionizing the traditional education system and helping students by optimizing their development, especially as the education landscape continues to shift during this pandemic.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
As we mentioned earlier, before we founded TKS, Nadeem was building education centers all around the world. Navid built the proprietary TKS digital platform for students to optimize virtual learning from scratch. If through McKinsey we can advise CEOs to maximize their impact, we thought we could apply similar frameworks to young people. We are now providing new, accessible ways for students all over the world to thrive and become the leaders of tomorrow, and have trained more than 1,000 students across North America in areas such as artificial intelligence, genomics, and quantum computing, among others. Under the TKS method, kids are building the technical/scientific knowledge and skills that they use to develop solutions to address the world’s most pressing problems. We’ve produced students who have started venture-backed companies, worked on curing disease, pioneered industries like quantum machine learning, and earned internships at top companies such as Microsoft and IBM as young as 15 years old. We’ve both served as Directors (what we call our teachers) and are dedicated to being hands on, interacting directly with students globally every day, and helping them throughout their journey. Our Directors have professional backgrounds from companies like SpaceX, McKinsey, Private Equity, YCombinator and more. Forbes has recognized our program as one “where tomorrow’s innovators will come from,” and we’re so grateful to be a catalyst for these kids’ successful futures.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
The results aren’t great. Right now, we have an education system built to mitigate risks, not optimize success, despite the fact that our greatest resource is human beings. We aren’t training our students to be their best selves, we’re training them with an outdated curriculum and often, at no fault of their own, with a system that isn’t flexible in the overall learning process. We need to instead train students with world-class instructors and lessons that include both soft and hard skills, through project-based learning and skill building. We can’t just wait around for another Elon Musk to solve all our problems for us — that isn’t a strategy.
The US education system has many faults that have been further highlighted by the stress of COVID-19.
There is a huge divide in learning right now, and much of the divide comes from a lack of motivation, understanding, and buy-in for why students need to do well. Oftentimes in underserved communities, students don’t have time given extra responsibilities and get way too much homework that causes them to get worse grades and feel demotivated. There are also other priorities not taught at school that would significantly enhance the system, like focuses on social learning, mastery, and altering evaluation methods to not cap the development of students who are growing faster or penalize students who need more help.
Schools should actively be marketing and promoting third-party organizations to assist their learning. Organizations like TKS, who host speakers from Apple, Netflix, Google etc., help give kids insight into the world’s biggest companies as well as what skills are important to work there. Class time should be used for discussion and help vs. lectures. We would also limit homework during the week and provide a few, but challenging, works that students can really master. Then class time should be used for question asking by students who don’t understand, and an opportunity for others to get ahead through self-directed and social learning.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
Honestly, not really. We know it’s easy to talk about the things that are wrong and since we’re teaching kids to be problem solvers, not problem spotters, we want to practice what we preach. Please know we’ve provided solutions to the problems we see below! Unfortunately it’s hard to find five solid areas that we think are going “really great,” but we can say that we admire how it’s inclusive and every child has the right to attend.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
Knowledge is now a commodity, but problem-solving is the timeless skill that people will always need and employers will always want. STEM education is the foundation of problem-solving every step of the way. It also allows us to unlock the mysteries of the world and create new opportunities for an exciting future to improve lives around the world. Today, six of the seven most valuable publicly traded companies are tech companies, most of which are based in the US. Although the US does a great job stressing the importance of science and technology, here are three ways we could increase students’ engagement in STEM:
- Focus on projects where the outcome is exciting vs. the tool itself. For example, at TKS, we have close to 46% females who are working in areas like Quantum Computing, Nanotech, AI, etc. This is because they deeply understand the impact the tools can have vs. just learning the tools themselves.
- Provide exposure to top leaders in the field to inspire young people to take the next step. This is what we do with TKS Talks, where we bring in leaders from Google, Uber, Netflix, Apple, SpaceX Tesla and more, to speak to thousands of students around the world.
- Encourage the use of tools that are specialized for STEM learning. There are certain courses on sites like Udacity, Coursera and alike that guide young people through the process from learning how to code to building complicated AI algorithms. YouTube is also an awesome resource but it’s very unstructured, so a more structured approach would be compelling for young people who are just getting started.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
As the world becomes more globalized, leaders are thinking about how to build scalable solutions to serve our community and customers. Science and technology are the backbones for scalability, and it’s one of the highest priority tools we should equip our young people with to maximize the impact they can have on the world. Almost exactly half the world are women, yet only about 34% of the US tech workforce are female (and often not working in the technical roles). It is more important now, more than ever, to engage everyone in this industry so we can tap into the potential of more incredibly bright young people — this is why TKS is 46% female and it’s a high priority for us to get more girls involved.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
The United States is just starting to see the value in prioritizing women and girls for STEM education. But to be clear, in 2018, only 1 in 6 undergrad students studying computer and information sciences were female. The value of representation cannot be understated, and the opportunity for girls to see women in positions of power in business, politics and technology makes the possibility real. We must continue to impart the value of these subjects to our young people, especially young girls, and provide them with the tools and support they need to strive for success in these areas. Women are able to create, invent, run and lead initiatives that improve the world as a whole, and the world will be better off with more of them able to do so.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design, and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
It’s easy to see that there will be a spike in demand for STEM careers 5–10 years from now and we need to start preparing young people now for this future of work so they can meaningfully contribute to society.
It’s also crucial to allow for the study of arts to create well-rounded, fulfilled human beings. To do our best, we have to be our best, and devoting time to creative projects like music and art help us to grow in different ways. They teach us different skills and help to equip us to better communicate with others, relate to others and work together. There are also plenty of ways to integrate technology and sciences. For example, the first ever fully AI produced music album was released not too long ago and we’re using technologies like Virtual & Augmented Reality to be more immersive when it comes to art and film.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- More options — Education is not a one size fits all system. There are 56.4 million students in the K-12 education system, and of those students, 90% attend public school. These students are taught in similar classes in similar ways, despite having different learning styles, interests, and life goals. We need other equitable, evolved options outside of traditional, outdated public school. To be clear, education is a government owned monopoly and I’ve rarely seen that be the right answer for anything. This also prevents innovation from occurring.
- How kids learn in school — Instead of teachers teaching content to the students, students could be learning from the ‘best’ teachers in different content areas at home. Then, go to school to perform activities, experiments, and have discussions that can help them internalize the knowledge. For students who are struggling, there are online platforms like Khan Academy, Coursera, edX, and Outlier, as well as tons of free, high-quality YouTube channels.
- Time at school — The majority of time spent at school is in a classroom. There isn’t much time for exploration and self-directed activities. What if there was a model that successfully designed their daily structure differently than the current school model and showed many high results in long-term success and happiness? People need time to discover their interests, personalities, and strengths. Sitting in a classroom doing the same thing as everyone else and being evaluated the same way is likely not how people will understand who they are and what they want to do.
- Grade advancement — In the public school system, students are unable to accelerate learning based on how hard they work. This is essential for improvement. They can still be in the same group of students (to develop soft skills, build friendships, and community), but the content they’re all learning should be personalized to them and not dictated by their age or grade.
- Evaluation and filtering systems — One of the most important ways to best help students is to find a new way to evaluate strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to identify people’s competencies more effectively than traditional test-taking, which is based on rewarding memorization and regurgitation.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The only way to achieve unconventional success is to follow an unconventional path. You can’t expect to do the same thing as everyone else and achieve a different result.” Similar to Einstein’s quote on the definition of insanity. But there was a guiding mantra that helped us make decisions and have the courage to not just follow paths less traveled by, but create new ones that have opened up novel experiences and opportunities.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Definitely Vinod Khosla. He is an incredible visionary with a strong desire to positively impact billions through the use of emerging tech. For us, our north star is maximizing the positive impact on the world and we believe the three areas we need more smart people focusing on are Health, Education, and Energy. Vinod also believes that tech is the primary vehicle to bring all developing countries to be Health, Education, and Energy rich levels.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Check out our website, https://tks.world/, for more information on our programs and our work with kids that are changing the world. We are also on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter (all handles are @theksociety) sharing and celebrating the success of many of our students.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!