On the surface Cameron Zeluck might look like a poster boy for the traditional education system. The 15-year-old spends six hours daily on his homework, doesn't flop into bed until midnight and tops his class at Chinese International School. That may be why he finds Leap Studio's extracurricular activities a refreshing change from formal classes. 'We recently completed a personality test to find out what we are good at and what we can improve on,' Cameron says. 'This allowed me to learn more about myself. I found out I'm logical but I need to become more involved with other people - more extroverted and not just think about myself.' Anxious parents often tie up their children in tuition and academic programmes to bolster their chances of success. Instead of helping youngsters cram for exams, however, a host of courses now offer to nurture independent learning and self-confidence. These include creative writing workshops organised by Faust International Youth Theatre group and lessons in critical thinking with the Kelly Yang Project. An alternative education centre, Leap Studio organises after-school activities that, among other things, give youngsters a basic understanding of the skills required for various professions, from architects to photographers, and how these jobs contribute to society. Designed for youngsters aged between six and 16, the programmes also help them relate the knowledge to real-life situations. For instance, they might try designing their own lamps after meeting a product designer, or work with an animal trainer following a visit to Hong Kong Dog Rescue's kennels. With Hong Kong's emphasis on exam results, students may leave school with a string of As but find themselves ill-prepared to cope with society where negotiation and teamwork are often as important as their number-crunching skills or technical knowledge. It was recognition of a yawning gap in general education - or 'multiple intelligences' as some experts call it - that prompted former investment bankers, Agnes Kong and Yvonne Chu, to give up their jobs to set Leap Studio in 2009. The two, who have been friends since they attended Diocesan Girls School as children, were also at a crossroads in their lives. 'We were working at Goldman Sachs and realised we shared a passion for education,' says Kong. 'But we were not really motivated or passionate about finance so we decided to quit our jobs and do something completely different.' Although she was a straight-A student and won a scholarship to Yale, Kong says her Hong Kong education failed to equip her with balanced life skills. 'It wasn't until I got to college that I was exposed to pressing social issues and other possibilities for careers,' she says. 'For instance, other than traditional professions such as a doctor or lawyer, I had no idea that other careers existed. And when I entered the workforce, what I really needed was critical thinking skills, innovative solutions to problems, as well as the ability to present my ideas in a convincing manner.' In a rapidly changing world, what is learned in school today may well be irrelevant by the time a youngster starts looking for a job, Kong says, citing former US Secretary of Education Richard Riley's comment in 2004 that 'we are preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist, using technology that hasn't been invented to solve problems that we don't even know are problems yet'. Kong and Chu concede competition is intense and there's enormous pressure on youngsters to perform, but they reject the cram school approach favoured by many tutorial centres. Success is not just about achieving straight As, Kong says. 'People who do well at school don't always do well in the workforce and are not necessarily happy in life.' Nurturing a child's independent problem-solving skills, she says, is just as important as coming to grips with maths or economics principles. Programmes also feature topics designed to foster social awareness and an appreciation of global issues such as climate change and inter-generational poverty. Some modules may deal with instruments such as microfinance, which provides small loans for income-generating ventures to poor people who typically lack access to banking services. Children begin by exploring the structure of loans and poverty cycles, and then learn to develop a case proposal and figure out who to finance. So there are field trips to observe the work of charities such as the Changing Young Lives Foundation, which works with underprivileged children. Students get to meet less fortunate youngsters and undertake projects and conduct simulations to get an idea of what it is like to be overworked and underpaid. Cameron, for instance, began volunteering as a writer for the Kids for Kids' newsletter after learning about the charity through Leap. 'It has given me a lot more knowledge about the world and it has also helped my presentation and English skills,' he says. Parents such as Sonia Li Sing-ching reckon the experiences have been very useful in taking her children, Carol, 15 and Hugo, 10, out of their cocoon of privilege. Both have matured since joining Leap programmes for the past two years, she says. 'The curriculum is diversified and children learn things that they don't learn at school,' Li says. 'They appreciate things a lot better. My children and many kids in Hong Kong are sheltered, so this is eye-opening for them and teaches them more about the world.' For 12-year-old Vicky Fong Wai-ki, the activities have been a confidence booster. 'The topics are relevant and fun and you get to do things you normally wouldn't,' she says, citing her visits to Hong Kong Dog Rescue and Crossroads charity, where she learned about fair trade, as highlights. Marty Schmidt, a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School who advises Kong and Chu, says students often feel powerless in the world and building emotional links is important to keeping them engaged with the community. 'Socialising and realising they can make a difference makes them gain confidence and develop a growing sense of relatedness with the world they are living in,' he says. The idea is to nurture self-awareness, Kong says. 'Kids can ask themselves, 'What kind of person do I aspire to be so that I'm successful and happy?' There are so many different ways to do that. So in this programme we are trying to get kids to reflect on themselves - look at their interests, strengths, weaknesses and relate that to what they want to do.' At the age of 10, Justin Chen Chun-Yu may already be showing where his talents lie. 'I really enjoyed the module Meet the Banker because we learned about how to use investments and the stock market,' Justin says. 'I don't have any money. But if I had, I'd buy bonds and utilities shares since they are more stable.'