Can Innovations Help Leapfrog Progress in Education?

Special Focus : Imagine a Learning Environment Where…
Access and Inclusion September 19, 2018

Innovative is the new normal. Every sector, from banking to transportation is seeing rapid change as new technologies, connections, and ideas modernize and revolutionize our day-to-day lives. Education is no exception: the way we learn is changing, from collaborative multi-grade projects in elementary school to vocational training in high schools to online tutorial videos for adults. Educators worldwide are incorporating public service, playful competitions, and video games into their daily routines. But how can educators know which innovations are most valuable in classrooms and beyond?

At the Center for Universal Education at The Brookings Institution, we think worthwhile innovations will help transform both what and how children learn and ultimately help them develop the full set of competencies they need to thrive in a rapidly changing world.

Although children in low-income areas are falling behind in terms of the skills they are learning in school, this is unfortunately not the only problem. Education must not only provide students with skills to enter the current workforce but also prepare them to adapt to shifting landscapes in the future. We call this breadth of skills: the idea that children must be educated to both master academic rigor and be flexible and adaptable to a world that is constantly changing. For example, in the United States, the past 30 years have seen the fastest growing category of professions requiring both math and social skills.

Currently, the pace of change in education is slow. Studies suggest that if the education sector remains the same, the gap between high- and low-income children entering school will not be closed for another 60 to 110 years depending on the country context.

Can innovations in education help address skills inequality and skills uncertainty at the same time?

To answer this question, we recently completed a Global Catalog of Education Innovations as part of a book entitled Leapfrogging Inequality: Remaking Education to Help Young People Thrive. The catalog documents almost 3,000 education innovations from 166 countries around the world. We defined innovation as an idea or technology that broke from traditional practice and was new to the context if not new to the world. Innovations took many forms from government policies to NGO programs to educational approaches taken up by teachers. The researched innovations come from both developing and developed countries and include ideas that range from new and untested to established and evidence-backed.

<p class=”p1>What we discovered is that it is possible to address these problems. The most promising innovations are those that harness the power of leapfrogging, or achieving rapid nonlinear progress towards transforming what and how children learn. These innovations take new paths to help all students, even the most remote or marginalized, acquire the breadth of skills necessary to thrive in the future. One innovation does not have to accomplish all of this alone but can work in partnership with others as long as the collective effort helps rapidly advance what is on offer.

After reviewing existing evidence on educational transformation and interviewing 100 thought leaders, we argue that a leapfrog approach will first and foremost transform the teaching and learning experience by making space for student-centered and playful learning methods alongside more traditional lecture-based methods. Second, it will increasingly allow recognition of learning to be individualized and collaborative between education institutions and the institutions receiving educated young people from community based organizations to private sector employers. We also argue that, thirdly and fourthly, approaches that diversify people and places that contribute to children’s learning and that leverage for transformational results data and technology are especially important when thinking about how to leapfrog at scale.

There are innovations within the United States that are helping students leap forward in learning. For example, Educurious is a nonprofit that empowers teachers to use project-based learning, builds a variety of skills, and diversifies the people and places where learning occurs. Through on-line teacher training and community linkages, students choose subjects that matter to them and then embark on intensive projects that combine core academic subjects with skills such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. Educurious offers hands-on, project-based courses in relevant subjects such as infectious diseases, climate change, financial literacy, and environmental health. The Educurious expert network connects students with working professionals in relevant fields, who act as guides and resources throughout the project. This innovation includes leapfrogging elements in several categories, including people, places, teaching, and learning.

Innovations around the world are similarly using leapfrogging techniques with positive results. In South Africa, an information technology hub called RLabs is attracting attention for its innovative use of technology to tackle social problems. The organization empowers young people to become community leaders and solve problems through design thinking and technological solutions. Their goal is to reconstruct communities through innovation, technology, and education; they achieve this goal through training young people in skills such as research and development, social enterprise development, and entrepreneurship. A special youth program focuses on helping youth with start-up ideas and training, while another program focuses on providing economic opportunities for women in marginalized communities.

Not all innovations are created equal however and many of the innovations we studied did not have any potential to help leapfrog education forward. We hope as the education community imagines a learning environment where all people, no matter who they are, have the potential to develop the full suite of competencies and skills they need to thrive, that it will focus in on innovations that truly have the potential to help leapfrog educational progress.