Radical innovators are core to global success

22nd January 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Charles Leadbeater

Education is becoming a global faith. Whether in devout or secular societies, authoritarian regimes or liberal democracies, people look to education, especially when it is allied to new communications technologies, to give them hope that they will be able to acquire marketable skills and connect with a wider world.

In the next decades, hundreds of millions of young, poor families will join this faith for the first time as they migrate to cities in the developing world in search of work and opportunity. The biggest need for education will be the poorest parts of the fastest growing and often turbulent and chaotic cities in the developing world.

It is vital that the rising hopes of the poor in the developing world are not disappointed. Yet meeting those hopes will require social entrepreneurship in education on a scale that has not been seen since mid- 19th-century Europe.

Schools alone will not deliver on the timescale required even if they are improved markedly. Too much schooling in the developing world delivers too little learning as measured by high dropout rates among poorer children, pupils repeating years in large numbers, high failure rates in final exams, and low progression to further education and training.

To get relevant and engaging learning to large and young poor populations with few resources we need innovation of a kind that will not come from well-funded state systems in Europe and the US. Looking to Finland as a model for education in slums such as Kibera in Nairobi does not make much sense.

More fruitful sources are the indigenous social entrepreneurs who are radical innovators because they lack teachers and textbooks, schools and classrooms.

Transformational innovation is being pioneered by social entrepreneurs such as Sugata Mitra's Hole in the Wall and the Barefoot College in India, the Sistema in Venezuela, the Centre for Digital Inclusion (CDI) in Brazil, and many others profiled in our report, "Learning from the Extremes", published last week at the Learning and Technology World Forum in London.

These social entrepreneurs pull families and children to learning by making it attractive, productive and relevant, rather than relying on the push of compulsion. They enable children to learn even when there are no teachers by clever use of technology, reliance on peer-to-peer learning and para-professionals. They create spaces for learning wherever they are needed and easy to access, rather than using formal schools. Pratham in India runs tens of thousands of informal pre-school groups in homes, for example, while CDI takes computer-based learning into community centres in the roughest and toughest favelas in Latin America.

They design learning around the challenges people face, the issues they want to tackle, rather than imparting knowledge from a formal curriculum. The test of these approaches, exemplified by Bunker Roy's Barefoot College in India, is whether they get useful knowledge into the hands of people who need it to improve their lives.

Radical innovation rarely comes from incumbents in the mainstream. Invariably it comes from the margins and new entrants. That is why the new approaches devised by social entrepreneurs working in extremely difficult social conditions will be vital to meeting the high hopes invested in learning in the century to come.

Charles Leadbeater, Author of `Learning from the Extremes', which can be downloaded at GETideas.org.

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