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Dr. Alan Cabello of Sparkademy: 5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator

An Interview With Penny Bauder

As a part of my interview series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator”, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Alan Cabello.

Dr. Alan Cabello is the CEO and Co-Founder of Sparkademy, a digital-first institution, bringing scalable and measurable learning to the corporate world. Alan holds a Ph.D. from the Swiss Institute of Technology on Strategic Innovation, including a position as a Visiting Researcher at Stanford’s He also holds an M.Sc. in Management and a Dip. Eng. in Mechatronics. His previous professional experience includes positions as General Manager at Adjoint, a blockchain fintech, and as Innovation Manager for Allianz corporate insurance. Currently, Alan is also a partner and co-founder of Spark Works, is an associate and lecturer at ETH Zürich, a business angel and sits on the board of different start-ups.

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?

I started my career as an engineer, but have been teaching since I was 15 years old, either English to adults and children or how to read to adults as social work. One of the main incentives for me in doing a PhD was the possibilities it offered me to teach in the future. Nevertheless, I was never very good with school and did not feel the regular educational path fit me.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your teaching career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was 18 years old I was asked to teach English to 5th and 6th graders an hour a day each. I thought it was a nice job and it helped me fund trips I wanted to do, but nothing had prepared me to deal with groups of 20 almost teenage kids.

The first six months were hell… The peak of that came one day, my 5th grade group decided to stage a strike! They all sat on their desks and started singing. I was obviously totally unprepared to manage this and almost broke down. But I identified the leader of the rebellion, listened to their complaints and negotiated a ceasefire. Now I laugh… but I was terrified.

The school I was teaching at followed a Montessori type system and my class was the only one that had a regular book and program, so obviously did not fit these children’s expectations nor were they accustomed to just doing what they were told. Looking back, I realize these children were exceptional and had not been forced to fit into the mold of our current education system. Yet, that is the world we live in and maybe my class prepared them a bit for what was to come. But generally, I find it sad that we strip children of all creativity, originality and decision making to fit into an industrial revolution type system where we treat people like parts of a factory process and if they don’t fit into that process we push them out.

As an innovation consultant many years later I found myself undoing the damage done by that system to try and push people to be, again, those rebellious children and push for new ways of making an impact.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Every part of our work today is in and of itself an experiment. Whenever we change something or add anything new, we think of it as an experiment and define a clear hypothesis on what we hope to achieve. I find this incredibly exciting as it is getting us closer to truly understanding the underpinnings of learning, and with that we might some day change the entire system.

Something specifically interesting we are working on today is the impact of community in learning. We know that people learn more from their peers and their interaction and work with them than they do from the instructor. But how do we replicate this social classroom experience in a digital environment? We are experimenting with different ways to do so.

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 US education system is too large, diverse and complex to give a rating. I believe teachers are extraordinary, but lack the time and tools to support their students. I know schools are working round the clock to create the best learning environment for their students, but often struggle with plugging short term holes that prevent them from working towards long term strategies. I see a highly fragmented and too many political rather than an inclusive and student motivated debate. But my area of focus is on lifelong learning and I think working our way from the back might actually help the front. I feel better qualified to offer an opinion in this area.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

For lifelong learning it is corporates that are leading the system, as they are the ones directly impacted by its results. This offers strong incentives for further development, measurable progress, new content development and growth.

The diversity and quality of learning opportunities available in the US compared to anywhere else are staggering. Additionally, most of the leading digital learning and educational technology advancements in the past few years came from the US.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

Diversity and inclusion is a big topic these days and it is important to consider diversity both in the areas of content and the way technologies work and are made available to everyone.

An area the US could see a great opportunity is in its public rather than only private lifelong learning investment. Apprenticeship programs or technical advanced education degrees could help open new opportunities for older industries’ workers as well as increase the speed of growth and development of new industries. I believe the better opportunities people have to develop in the fields they have an affinity or talent towards, the stronger focus our economies will have towards sustainable economic growth.

Super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator?” Please share a story or example for each.

I’m going to go with the rule of three for this question. Collaboration, Empathy, and Agility. These three things as separate values are a big component of how an individual can approach a single job task optimally. However, them working together is the basis of what I consider to be the most effective way of teaching.

To break it down, I’ll start with collaboration. You need to be able to collaborate with your students, as well as other educators, peers, and people in the industry to learn from their experiences and needs. A good educator needs to be open and reactive to their environment and learn from everyday tasks and activities. Experience comes with practice, and being able to effectively collaborate with more experienced coworkers is one of the best ways to learn and improve as an educator.

Empathy is another incredibly important aspect, you need to have empathy for your students, to question how do they learn best. In the end, what might work for some might now work for others. Looking at every student as an individual with specific needs and challenges makes for a better learning experience. Remembering what it was like when we were students and dealing with our educators is also a great exercise for empathy that helps focus on what the best thing for the students is.

And finally agility, you have to have the agility to innovate, first of all, to continue learning yourself, to evolve, and quickly adapt to different scenarios. It’ll help you to examine problems more flexibly and find the best solutions.

So how do they connect? Well, when being empathetic to those around you, you try to find the best solution for them and when you’re agile and open to collaboration, you will not only be able to find the quickest solution but also the one that will help your students the most. With this, I believe you will have a bigger and longer-lasting impact on your students.

As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?

Two very simple things:

  1. Pay them properly… period. Truly believe teaching is a vocation, but it does not need to be one with vows of poverty.
  2. Develop a system that allows retired or semi retired people to become teachers.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There’s this quote I like a lot and that is: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it comes dressed in overalls looking like hard work.” I think in general what you do you must consider that opportunities don’t happen just because, and it is not all good luck, you need to work hard, consider that you will to spend time, effort and resources to become a better problem-solver, innovator, educator, and to have the best opportunities throughout your life.

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 :-)

I would love to meet Sal Khan, what he has created with Khan Academy is truly inspiring. I really like his approach to learning, and how his videos are so digestible and easy, yet effective and educational.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter — @AlanSKbyo

LinkedIn — Alan Cabello

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!



In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Penny Bauder

Environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur, Founder of Green Kid Crafts