How Do We Get The Educational Innovation We Need To Bridge The Learning Gap?

27/09/2017 11:54 BST | Updated 27/09/2017 11:54 BST
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Last month, 180 young people from every corner of the planet gathered in two folk high schools in Denmark to spend five intense days coming up with new ways to tackle some of the planet's biggest education problems.

They were brought together as one strand of the UNLEASH Global Innovation Lab, which recruited 1000 young people from 129 countries to work together on key challenges in global health, education, sustainable consumption, water, food and other priority areas. This year's edition is intended to be the first in a series which will run until 2030, the deadline for meeting the global Sustainable Development Goals - the targets for development agreed by all 193 UN member states two years ago.

The premise behind the initiative is that investment alone will not be enough for the world to achieve the 2030 Goals. New ways of doing things, that challenge current approaches and traditional business models, will be required. UNLEASH sought to bring together top young talent from around the world - including, crucially, participants with lived experience of the challenges being tackled - in the hope of catalysing some fresh thinking.

In the education world, it is now blindingly obvious that innovation is required. Analysis by UNESCO predicts that if we continue on current trajectories, 30% of children in low income countries will still not complete primary school when we reach 2030 - an unacceptable outcome when the world pledged to get every child into school by 2015. Simply continuing with current approaches will not be enough. The International Commission on Education Financing led by Gordon Brown listed innovation as one of four necessary transformations for the education sector, and argued that it needed to move to the "centre of the education agenda".

For UNLEASH, the experience and outputs of Year 1 are certainly encouraging. Some teams, such as Hear-oes on Demand, the eventual winners of the education strand, managed to create fully-fledged and financially sustainable ideas for edu-enterprises in just a few days.

I'm just as excited however about many of the other ideas that didn't get as far, having had the opportunity to glimpse the seeds of some of the thinking and insights that are now being developed further by many of the 200 teams taking part. My own team, as just one example, is actively looking for groups of schools open to piloting new approaches to tackling teacher absenteeism.

For those interested in educational innovation, a new report "Can we leapfrog?" published last week by the Center for Universal Education at Brookings is essential yet challenging reading. The report provides a fascinating snapshot of innovations being developed around the world, but highlights some key gaps where more effort and attention is be needed.

One key take-away is that innovation has been focussed on unburdening teachers and freeing up their time - perhaps at the expense of finding better ways to develop teachers' skills. The authors also argue there has been too little investment in developing how learning is recognised and accredited, with the little that is being done too often being divorced from actual provision of learning by formal institutions.

In the area of technology and data-powered solutions, the space that receives the most hype, Brookings argues that many approaches are simply not innovative enough. It finds that tech is mostly being used to augment or substitute existing approaches, and concludes that just 1 in 5 technology-based innovations can considered to be genuinely transformative.

Can we leapfrog? serves as a compelling reminder of how far we still have to go to foster the innovation that will be needed to bridge the learning gap. All good starting points perhaps for the next generation of education innovators?

Joel Mullan was a participant in the first UNLEASH Global Innovation Lab.