Innovation in Education: Learning from experience

Nicholas Burnett and Jo Bourne

A condensed version of this article originally appeared on the UNICEF Blog

Scaling up an innovation for maximum use and maximum benefit is never easy. The road to success is bumpy and good ideas inevitably stumble into barriers – especially when the purpose of the innovation is to improve children’s learning experiences.

But innovation that can be effective, scaled up and replicated is precisely what is needed to tackle the challenges of the global learning crisis.

Estimates show that only 10 percent of young people in low-income countries will gain basic secondary education skills by 2030. This lack of learning can lead to unemployment, poverty and greater inequality.

Clearly business as usual will not create the change required for all children to complete secondary education and learn essential knowledge and skills – a requirement of meeting Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals, the development road map approved by global leaders. Innovation will be essential. And just because scaling up an innovation is difficult, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue it. We must, and we must learn as we go.

Innovation in action

journeys to scale development international foreign education scale scaling impactA new report, Journeys to Scale, offers an opportunity to learn from real-life examples of innovations in education. The report, by Results for Development (R4D) and UNICEF, documents the experiences of five innovative education programmes. It explores conditions that helped the programmes succeed and describes the roadblocks they encountered. It also offers recommendations.

The innovations discussed in Journeys to Scale come from five countries on two continents: Brazil, Ethiopia, Ghana, Peru and Sudan. The innovations tackled issues as diverse as accountability in education systems, school readiness and educating hard-to-reach children.

The innovations did not necessarily involve technology. Many were innovative because they re-imagined or challenged processes, services, programmes and partnerships.

None of the innovations identified a silver bullet. In fact, some of the programmes are struggling to stay afloat. But they all offered a local solution to a local and often global problem and provided valuable lessons about how a programme can increase its reach and effectiveness – about how to scale up an innovative programme.

Can’t Wait to Learn in Sudan offers an instructive example.

The programme provides children who had never been to school and were unlikely to ever go to school with a fun and contextually appropriate opportunity to learn using the government’s alternative math curriculum.

The programme:

  • Uses solar-powered tablets to bring a self-guided math game to children aged 7 to 9, supported by communities and facilitators
  • Focuses on children living in rural areas without easy access to schools, including those who live in semi-nomadic communities or in communities for internally-displaced people
  • Has the potential, when scaled up, to address the immense unmet need for alternatives to traditional education — particularly as the global number of forcibly displaced people grows

After the first pilot, children in the Can’t Wait to Learn programme showed a 20-point increase in their math scores. Children in a control group had no increase.

A second pilot of the programme reached 655 children, more than the first. Participants in the second pilot showed a 31-point gain in math. There were also indications of positive effects on the self-esteem of the boys and girls in the programme.

Now, Can’t Wait to Learn plans to scale up its efforts in order to reach 170,000 children in marginalized Sudanese communities in the next five years.

What were the keys to success? The report identified three factors:

  1. The programme planned for growth from the very beginning. The team identified potential threats to scaling up and adopted an innovation management approach informed by continuous research that helped them adapt and shape the programme.
  2. The programme used customized and generic elements that could be easily replicated. To ensure that the intervention was contextually appropriate, a game designer used children’s drawings of their homes and communities so the game mirrored their world. Though the drawings in the game must be adapted for each new setting, the math content remain the same worldwide.
  3. The programme leaders expertly managed a variety of partners and stakeholders. The many players instrumental in the success of Can’t Wait to Learn needed to be managed with a sustained and flexible effort.

10 recommendations

journeys to scale development international foreign education scale scaling impactThe Can’t Wait to Learn programme faced challenges different than the other innovations discussed in the report. For example, EduTrac used SMS technology in rural Peru to monitor teacher and student attendance. The Lively Minds programme in Ghana trained mothers to lead play-based learning activities in Kindergarten classrooms.

Despite the differences, all three programmes also had commonalities. Journeys to Scale assesses the commonalities and outlines 10 actions that funders, policymakers, implementers and researchers can take to help programmes scale up.

For implementers:
1. Embed rapid experimentation into the program design and early phases
2. Be conscientious about listening to and designing for the users and beneficiaries
3. Don’t overlook the value of small, symbolic actions in maintaining buy-in

For funders:
4. Provide flexible, multi-year funding
5. Support peer learning
6. Discuss non-financial contributions with project teams during early planning stages

For policymakers:
7. Establish clear policy targets to galvanize efforts and energy
8. Invest in rigorous fiscal space analyses before adopting or scaling an innovation

For researchers:
9. Ensure that research on scaling can be accessed by innovators
10. Review the use of tools for assessing scalability in order to determine their predictive potential and maximize their use.

While scaling is a context-dependent process and not all of the recommendations noted above apply in all settings, we believe that the stories presented in Journeys to Scale offer inspiration for those traversing the many paths to scaling innovation. Read more at www.R4D.org/JourneysToScale.

 

Ms. Bourne became UNICEF’s Associate Director for Education in February 2013. She has worked with UNICEF’s extensive global network to put equity and learning at the heart of UNICEF’s education agenda, with particular emphasis on early learning, girls’ education, education for children with disabilities, improving learning outcomes, education in emergencies and strengthening education systems. 

Nicholas Burnett leads the global education portfolio at Results for Development (R4D). His work centers on addressing tough challenges in the field of global education that are often neglected, especially using combinations of analysis, financing, model identification and connecting key stakeholders. 

Photo Credits: Sojoud Elgarrai - UNAMID ; R4D ; Can't Wait to Learn

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