Charles Leadbeater on Education Innovation

I had the pleasure of stumbling across a brilliant Ted Talk on educational innovation, from researcher Charles Leadbeater who has spent the last year studying the future of education and educational innovation around the world, from the top tier of Finland, to the booming slums of Kenya and India.

Leadbeater begins his monologue stating that innovation often comes "...from places where you have huge need, unmet latent demand, and not enough resources for traditional solutions to work."

Innovation is the catchphrase for what has become necessity for the youth of this world. Leadbeater's main focal demographic is the growing mega cities of the developing world; places that were backwaters a few short decades ago, but now are where virtually all the worldwide population growth in the next decades will occur; places such as Nairobi, Kenya, a city that I was fortunate enough to wander around a few short months ago, and places such as Pune, India, the fastest growing city in Asia.

Leadbeater questions: How do we engage these youths, with traditional educational systems that have not been designed for them or even targeted towards them? How can we innovate and enhance the opportunities in education for this crucial demographic? How can we target youths whose challenges are, " stay alive, the earn a living,and not to catch HIV/AIDS?" After extensive research into the challenges in this particular arena, Leadbeater's educational solutions looked, interestingly enough, "nothing like school." He relates the approach to a "pull, not push" model. In a traditonal educational model, knowledge and the regulated approaches of delivering this knowledge are "pushed" at the students; they often have little say in their activities, and curriculums are set on massive scales based on traditional models of learning; this "push" approach, vastly prevalant in the Western world is simply not geared for attractiing youths into compulsory forms of education, and as a result, all too many at-risk and disadvantages children simply drop out. He delivers the revolutionary line that, "the idea of a curriculum is completely irrelelvant in a setting like this...our education systems are based on the approach that there is a payoff, but you have to wait quite a long time...thats too long if you're poor...waiting 10 years for the payoff from education is too long when you need to meet daily needs, when you have siblings to look after, or a business to help with...(thus) education needs to be relevant and intrinsically motivating....imagine an educational system that started from the premise...that you had to engage students before you could teach them?"

Engagement! Radical! In my personal experience with at risk youth in one of New York City's most dangerous neighborhoods, I often questioned the approaches that were being taken with students in a comparatively advantaged situation, one with unlimited textual resources, technology, development, counseling, etc. Too often, all the resources in the world will simply be for naught if there is not the stirring of intrinsic motivation, and if there is not a valid short-term payoff in the educational process for these students. To then transplant these similar questions onto children in areas where there are serious deficiencies in educational services, one must be extremely creative in their approaches to begin to meet the needs of the impacted youth.

Leadbeater says, "learning has to be productive to make sense." In the developing world, there is often no choice to make for children living in slum factories or growing up on thje building sites that litter the megacities of the future. In one case cited by Leadbeater, in Pune, India, education is brought to these particular children on a bus; in other cases, it simply means the massive scaling seen with the NGO Prathan in India, which has turned into the largest educational NGO in the world by running preschool playgroups for over 20 million Indian children.

He finishes with the guise that "mass education started with social entrepeneurship in the 19th century, and thats desperately what we need again on a global scale." How can we incorporate the innovation and boldness of todays social entrepreneurs into a system whose very nature is heirarchical, regimentally bureaucratic, and systemically resistent to change? How do we hit the forwards targets with our at-risk youth, not just in the developed world, but in the entire world? What questions are so fundamental in the field of education that they transcend the demographic lines that so divide us? What innovation is critical to move our critical age demographics forwars instead of stagnating, as so much in the educational approach has in the 20th and 21st centuries? Is the opportunity to learn enough, or must the students, even in the most difficult of curcumstances, be given the opportunity to be drawn into their learning through interest and intrinsci investment?

We know some of the answers; yet incorporating these answers, especially in the developing world, where the resources are stretched to the breaking point and do not cover the basics, is difficult at best, impossible in most situations. This requires radical new approaches, from the ground up; the opportunity to work in regions where there has been little or no history of institutional schooling can be looked at as an advantage in this singular light. Often, the learning in these new approaches, as well as in the revanped "traditional" educaitonal models must be project-based, must tackle critical thinking, and must incorporate technology, a serious deficiency that I have seen in the schools that I have visited in the developing world. In not one school that I visited was there adequacy in technology for the students. Where there have been computers, they are often covered and in dark rooms, kept from the students out of fear that the machines will be "compromised;" in other cases, the computers are available, but there is no internet connectivity and not enough aggressive teacher training to make the machines live up to their radical potential for the students.

In "transformational" arenas, such as in the rejuvinated Central African country of Rwanda, under the radical One Child Per Laptop initiative, these questions have begun to be tackled; however, technology is too often not enough, on its own, to tackle deeply ingrained inequalities; imaginations must be stirred, payoffs must be immediate, and critical thinking must be encouraged in societies where this behavior is simply not acceptable. In short, a revolution is in the making, but the path is fragile and long, and there is much to lose...