Leading Change in Education: the Role of Social Enterprise

Special Focus : Can Social Enterprise Lead Innovation in Education?
Higher Education March 07, 2016

Education may often be thought of as the last and most stubborn bastion of bureaucracy and factory mentality in this fast-changing era. Many people have a mixed emotion about education. On one hand, they believe access to high-quality education is essential for their future; on the other hand, they are distrustful of the education they receive. As a mentor and investor of education startups, I have had the privilege of knowing and supporting many social entrepreneurs, who are taking audacious initiatives to lead change in education. Their actions range from helping kids in remote areas cross the digital divide to providing teacher development program.

Educational inequality is one of the major problems many social entrepreneurs are dealing with. As China’s urbanization quickens its pace, a growing number of village couples head to the cities in search of work and are thus forced to leave their children behind. The number of left-behind children living in rural boarding schools is estimated to be over 30 million nationwide. These children are vulnerable and often suffer from severe psychological and emotional problems.

Growing Home, an innovative social enterprise, has developed a simple but effective solution: bedtime story. These stories are carefully selected and broadcast in the dorm every evening for 15 minutes. The change is amazing. The kids feel less home-sick and become able to fit in. They discuss the stories, share their feelings, and even make fan stories of their own. Teachers and headmasters benefit as well, as the stories make their jobs much easier. So far, the stories have reached over one thousand rural boarding schools in 25 provinces and the number is growing rapidly. Based on their deep understanding of the kids’ needs and keen insights into rural education, Growing Home is currently developing more comprehensive solutions, aiming to provide the rural kids customized contents by various means to satisfy their growth needs and a better time after class. And due to Growing Home’s persistent advocacy, the issue of left-behind children in rural boarding school is gaining more attention and resources. 

Besides their social awareness, social entrepreneurs in the education sector are usually more comfortable in adopting unconventional learning methods. A young man believes in the power of educational games and has launched a program called “Play School”, where kids learn how to build, code, work together, and even how to write a science fiction. There’s another young social entrepreneur and his team, passionate about adopting problem-based learning methods to help village kids be “net smart” and empowering them to apply their digital expertise to solve the problems of their own and the community. In addition, this team has developed tool-kits and distributed as open sources in the hope of more people starting similar programs. That’s why they call their social enterprise Beehive. 

Social entrepreneurs are very often pioneers in exploring the knowledge and capabilities that are widely acknowledged as future-wise, which schools should teach their students and they don’t or have no confidence to do. One of my friends is testing her idea of opening a “field school” for urban kids to have an intercultural learning experience. During the 10-day camp happening in places of both cultural and biological diversity, participants develop their imagination, a love for nature, and culture-sensitivity through field activities and tasks. What’s more, local kids are invited to join their peers from cities to share local knowledge and wisdom. In this way, the local kids improve confidence and self-belief. Another friend of mine, after visiting dozens of innovative educators during her work in an educational research institute, is developing interactive online courses on critical thinking, a capability which many educators believe the biggest missing part of our education. What these two ladies both hope for is that by their demonstration, the must-have will eventually be embedded into the curriculum of school, rather than seen as just an add-on or nice-to-have.

Besides those innovative practices away from school, there are also many social entrepreneurs who find more than enough room for change within schools and more traditional educational experiences. One of the social enterprises I’ve coached, named BEAM, supports rural teachers who attempt micro-innovations in their classroom by offering them teaching materials they need as well as small grant. Also, BEAM is trying to connect these teachers, collect and distribute their successful practices, and encourage them to be change champions in their schools.

Another example is Ai Ka De Mi (the Chinese Pinyin for Academy), a newly-founded social enterprise that provides rich teaching resources online for secondary school teachers. The founder, Mr. Zhang Liang, a former new media veteran and one of the leading practitioners in education innovation in China, realized that the conventional school teaching is totally subject-based, highly siloed, disconnected with the real world, and disengaging the students. He led his team to have a thorough study of the textbooks, listed all the knowledge points, and then reorganized the knowledge points in a more integrated and natural-to-learn way, with all kinds of reference materials generated from various resources, including webpages, documentary clips, articles, etc. With the aid of Ai Ka De Mi, Mr. Zhang hopes that teachers will be relieved of the heavy burden of preparing their classes, and therefore have more time to spend with each of their students. Currently, the team is testing their online platform with a secondary school which is renowned for its passion for innovation. 

In a nutshell, social entrepreneurs in the education sector are leading the change in education in two major ways: challenging the assumptions of education and trying new practices, and offering schools something they are unlikely to be able to produce internally. To see more change led by social entrepreneurs, two things must happen. For one thing, social entrepreneurs must clearly demonstrate their social impact, and for another thing, there must be intermediaries and social investors who are willing to invest to accelerate the proven business models and help these promising education innovations achieve scale.