How can innovation, networks, and experimentation create system-level change in education?

Schoolgirls stand in a queue at a school
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), guest authors from the education innovations community will contribute their unique insights to this blog series on the topic. Access all of our content on innovations here.

It has become cliché to assert that there is no silver bullet to improve education outcomes at scale (is anyone actually arguing that there is a silver bullet solution?). But education innovations are consistently being surfaced—and some do show evidence of producing quick results.

How thus should we reconcile the promise of new approaches with the more sobering understanding that each alone is unlikely to dramatically alter macro-learning trends? This is what we’ve been asking ourselves as we enter our fifth year of running the Center for Education Innovations (CEI).

We’ve built a global network of over 750 education innovators in over 100 countries and provided a platform for them to share their work and connect with each other. But we are increasingly focused on thinking about how those innovators can play a role in changing the broader education systems to which they belong. We fundamentally believe that education systems that incentivize, seek out, and support innovation will see those macro-level trends changing before others. To us, “innovation” doesn’t mean technology (but it can), it doesn’t mean contracting to the private sector (but it can), it simply means altering the status quo and trying something new—so it shouldn’t be a terribly provocative statement that innovation is needed to strengthen education systems.

But what does that look like? It is no easy task, given that education systems are dynamic entities, made up of a complicated web of financial, human, pedagogical, governance, and operational inputs. Creating pathways for innovation within such an ecosystem requires a combination of careful planning and strong leadership; even then, shifting priorities of education ministries, lack of financing, and other roadblocks can derail the best intentions. But it’s not all bad news. Our engagement with policymakers, donors, and members of the CEI community who have either nurtured innovations within government education systems or partnered with government as a pathway to scale have revealed three key lessons:

1. For systems-level change, innovators should design programs with government systems and structures in mind.

In order for innovations to succeed within education systems, they must be designed with an understanding of local and national government structures and processes (e.g., how resource allocation decisions are made or how sub-national education bodies function). By designing innovations with this perspective, innovators avoid creating parallel structures, and instead lay the groundwork for productive partnerships with government—partnerships that can help scale the program. For example, Lively Minds, a program in Ghana and Uganda in which volunteer mothers in resource-poor villages facilitate play-based learning with pre-school students, leverages local government to deliver training to the mothers and monitor the quality of the program. The partnership between the government and Lively Minds is a win-win: government officials are eager to support a program that has been shown to improve cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes and Lively Minds is able to extend its reach by leveraging existing governmental personnel and infrastructure.

2. There is a need for spaces that give government decision-makers and innovators opportunities to communicate.

In order for innovators and government decision-makers to work together, they need spaces for dialogue. Otherwise, they risk working in silos and missing potentially mutually reinforcing partnerships. And while such dialogue can happen organically, the truth is it often does not. This is why multi-stakeholder networks and communities of practice, both within and across countries, can be helpful. Such fora can produce multiple benefits: they can help ensure alignment of priorities, allow for tacit knowledge from innovators and policymakers to be shared and documented, and produce new solutions that reflect a diversity of perspectives. In some instances, governments are best-positioned to lead networks; in others, the facilitator role is best played by neutral external actors. The importance of such networks was emphasized by the Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity (the Education Commission), which called for more investment in the global education ecosystem, including channels for exchanges between policymakers and practitioners.

One example is Jamaica’s Early Childhood Commission, which is composed of representatives from not only the state and non-state sectors but from several ministries and has led to enhanced coordination among a myriad of actors supporting early childhood development policies and programs. This improved coordination has overlapped with impressive gains in childhood and adult outcomes in Jamaica. Other examples like the Joint Learning Network for Universal Health Coverage (JLN) fall outside the education sector and bring multiple countries together. The JLN has 30 country members (each of which is represented by a mix of practitioners and policymakers) and has led to the creation and sharing of dozens of new knowledge products and contributed to country members’ progress towards achieving and sustaining universal health coverage.

3. Policymakers should encourage experimentation, but also demand evidence for why new programs are likely to work.

It comes as no surprise that the effectiveness of education systems is closely tied to the effectiveness of its leaders. The best education ministers possess clear visions, but are not so rigid that they don’t encourage innovation. They see experimentation as a key principle for maximizing learning outcomes, and therefore create incentives to encourage new models. As noted in the World Bank’s 2018 World Development Report, “Open systems that pay more attention to overall outcomes and reward progress in raising outcomes are more likely to see greater innovation and the diffusion of new approaches across the education system.”

However, while effective policymakers encourage innovation and testing, they also demand evidence for why they should support new programs. It is therefore important that innovators demonstrate evidence of why something is likely to have impact (even if it’s from another country). In other words, just because a program is innovative does not mean that policymakers should adopt it into their systems.

One promising example of a government both encouraging innovation and making evidence-based decisions is MineduLAB, an innovation lab housed within Peru’s Ministry of Education. While relatively new, the lab has tested a range of programmatic and policy innovations, from motivational text messages to teachers to anti-bullying informational campaigns, with the aim of using evidence from these pilots to drive improvements in learning. While not all ministries need create labs to encourage innovation, a culture of experimentation, coupled with a commitment to using evidence, creates the possibility of substantial systems-level improvements.

While innovation in and of itself cannot promise better outcomes, systems leaders who are willing to pursue new approaches that have evidence of success, and innovators who are willing to work creatively within the constraints of large systems, may be the key to seeing a sustainable shift in educational outcomes and paradigms—and it’s ok that it won’t happen overnight.