Education innovations are taking root around the world. What do they have in common?

Boys attend a computer programming lesson using robots connected with an application as part of Kcoderz social initiative
Editor's note:

In the lead up to the Center for Universal Education’s annual research and policy symposium “Citizens of the Future: Innovations to Leapfrog Global Education” May 21, 2018 (livestream available), authors from the education innovations community have contributed their unique insights to this blog series on the topic. Access all of our content on innovations here.

When you think of education systems, what sorts of words come to mind? If you are anything like the many education practitioners, policymakers, and leaders who we meet every year throughout the world, you might be thinking of words and phrases like “political” or “resistant to change.” But we would wager that one word almost certainly did not cross your mind: “innovative.”

If a common educational narrative exists across the globe, it seems to be one of stagnation. In academic journals and on TV, in boardrooms and in statehouses, concerned citizens consistently and urgently call for “reinventing” and “reimagining” education. Education systems, they argue, are both outmoded and slow to change.

However, findings in our forthcoming book, Leapfrogging Inequality: Remaking Education to Help Young People Thrive, call this narrative into question. We spent the last three years studying education innovations, which we define as any tools, policies, programs, or ideas that break from previous practice. To be innovative, these diverse practices need not be new to the world, though they are often new in a particular context.

With this broad definition in mind, we found a flourishing group of teachers, school leaders, students, companies, community organizations, non-profits, parents, researchers, administrators, ministers, and politicians who are actively innovating in education. We call these actors engaged in supporting innovative education practices worldwide the “education innovations community.” Compiling a global catalog of almost 3,000 education innovations, the largest such collection to date, we discovered new practices in some 166 countries. These include some from the most remote and resource-strapped parts of the globe, as well as the wealthy urban centers of industrialized nations. Innovation in education, it seems, is alive and well.

However, it appears that many of these actors do not yet feel part of a global education innovations community. They often innovate on the margins of formal education systems, in isolation and with little connection to or support from peers. Visibility is an additional challenge for innovators, as many struggle to showcase their work for actors who could make systems-wide changes.

This is why the organizations that we call “Innovation Spotters” play such an important role in creating and sustaining an education innovations community. We define Innovation Spotters as those groups that are searching the globe to find, highlight, and sometimes support education innovations. These Spotters vary widely in mission and mandate: some seek innovation across the globe, while others look only to the developing world; some prioritize specific types of innovation implementers, such as government actors, and still others consider only innovations with particular pedagogical features, such as those that teach 21st century skills, or those that use technology.

In our efforts to map the state of the global education innovations community, we studied the work of 16 Innovation Spotters:

  • Ashoka
  • Results for Development’s Center for Education Innovations
  • EdSurge
  • WISE
  • OECD’s Innovative Learning Environments project
  • Graduate XXI
  • HundrED
  • InnoveEdu
  • UNICEF Innovation Fund
  • Harvard’s Global Education Innovations Initiative
  • Teach for All’s Alumni Incubator
  • the mEducation Alliance
  • All Children Reading: Grand Challenge for Development
  • Development Innovation Ventures
  • Humanitarian Education Accelerator
  • Global Innovation Fund.

We relied heavily on lists and databases of innovations compiled by each of these Spotters to develop our global catalog of innovations. A relatively coherent picture of global spotting efforts emerged from our analysis of these Spotters’ activities. We found that, collectively, the Spotter community is heavily focused on new practices emerging from non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Indeed, NGOs implement over 60 percent of innovations in our global catalog. In contrast, for-profit organizations implement only 26 percent of cataloged innovations, and government actors fall farthest behind, leading only 12 percent. We also found that Spotters focused heavily on innovations serving the most marginalized children, such as low-income learners, out-of-school children, and orphans. Fifty-seven percent of all innovations serve such communities.

These Spotters seem keen to highlight innovations that are relatively young, with half of all cataloged interventions created or founded in the past 10 years, and one-quarter in or after 2012. In terms of pedagogy, we are pleased to see that nearly half of the spotted innovations aim to teach both academic competencies and 21st century skills at the same time. In doing so, nearly 70 percent make use of the playful, hands-on learning approaches needed to effectively develop a full range of learners’ abilities.

Still, we note that the Innovation Spotters have carved out quite specific niches for themselves. Indeed, only 10 percent of cataloged innovations appeared on the lists of more than one Spotter. This diversity of spotting practice aids in the effort to build an enduring education innovations community—one that can share learnings, inspire ideation, and support implementation within and between contexts around the world. While there are plenty of discussions to be had on the prospect of building this community and strengthening the networks within it, perhaps the most pressing question is around next steps: how can we translate this spotting effort into educational transformation on the ground?

This is a question we will explore at our May 21 symposium, Citizens of the future: Innovations to leapfrog global education (webcast available), co-hosted with the Inter-American Development Bank. Grappling with the role of teaching and learning in educational transformation, we hope to map what comes next for the global education innovations community—and, in so doing, chart an accelerated path toward equitable and quality learning for all.