A Roundtable Discussion on "Journeys to Scale"

Duncan McCullough

This year’s Global Education Monitoring Report made explicit what many have known for some time: maintaining the status quo will leave the world woefully behind its stated education targets.

Current efforts and commitments must be increased, but fresh approaches that transform the current calculus are also needed.

To answer the call for identifying and supporting effective innovations, CEI and UNICEF embarked on a comprehensive search and selection of promising ideas and practices in education through the Innovations in Education Global Initiative.

The resulting report, Journeys to Scale, documents these innovations’ efforts to increase their impact, and includes lessons learned on the great (and sometimes bumpy) journey to scale up programs with high disruption potential.

The report will be officially launched on October 10th 2016 at the UNICEF House in New York, but we wanted to share insights directly from our staff that worked with the five finalists and produced the report.

Q) What were some of your initial impressions upon your first site-visits?

Mark Roland, Senior Program Officer:  Across all programs that I visited, I noticed a clear commitment on the part of implementers, who, driven by the promise of improving learning, fully immersed themselves in the strategic and operational challenges inherent in achieving this aim. I was also struck by their ability to maximize existing – often scarce - resources.  Lastly, I was impressed by their desire to use new information to adapt the way their programs operate: a data-driven mindset was pervasive across programs.

Daniel Plaut, Senior Program Associate: My first impression of the Palavra de Criança team was that they were extremely passionate about their work and highly in-tune with their “beneficiaries.” They approached their work with municipal governments, teachers, parents, and others always as humble advisors and equal collaborators. They listened more than they spoke. This led to great relationship building between implementers and key stakeholders.  

Vidya Putcha, Program Officer: I definitely agree with Mark. An ability to be resourceful and maximize all resources at their disposal was something that struck me right away with the Lively Minds team. I also noted their commitment and interest in continually making improvements - for example, learning about different M&E [monitoring and evaluation] techniques to support the generation of data and evidence to help make program adjustments.

Caitlin Moss, Senior Program Associate: The Can’t Wait to Learn team was clearly committed to not only improving academic outcomes for Sudanese children, but inspiring them to dream. They didn’t create an escape for these kids in the form of a virtual world - instead, by reflecting the local context back to the children within the game world they designed, CWtL program managers helped reveal the hope and support of the local community for these children.

Kimby Josephson, Program Associate: When visiting many of the local communities in Peru that were participating in the pilot, I was struck by how isolated they really were - calling them “remote” communities was no exaggeration. We had to travel by car and boat just to reach some of them. While education technology can sometimes seem like a luxurious ‘extra’ to some, I saw how the provision and use of simple mobile phones in these communities really did bridge an enormous logistical and social gap.

Q) How did your understanding of scaling up change from this experience?

Vidya: Scaling requires careful planning and a little bit of trial and error. It’s a path that very rarely takes a straight path, and that’s ok, because it’s so important to test different models before settling on an approach and moving forward.

Mark: I agree with Vidya; an authentic learning disposition seems like a requisite for innovators who aspire to scale. In addition, this research highlighted the considerable resources and skill required to shape and then importantly, shepherd, a shared vision. This is especially the case for innovations with many partners, who may have competing visions of what constitutes success. At the same time, the five innovations profiled in the report suggest that having multiple partners, each with specific expertise, can amplify the impact of an innovation - provided that such expertise is adequately harnessed.

Caitlin: Scaling is not simply reaching more beneficiaries, but can also be thought of as the depth of engagement. Scaling can occur in how a program affects the mindsets of those involved, and this can spread new practices, ideas, or attitudes through a multiplier effect of sorts.

Daniel: Scale-up also requires flexibility and adaptation. I agree with Vidya, trial and error is important, but so is being able to tweak your model to fit a new context as you expand.

Kimby: The challenges inherent to scaling became much more real to me. The financial AND political factors necessary to make an innovation both scalable and sustainable are unavoidable.

Q) The report highlights personal leadership as an important factor in innovations’ ability to scale. Can you tell us a little about some of the leaders you met, and what made them effective in their efforts to increase their impact?

Caitlin: What makes the Can’t Wait to Learn leaders I met so wonderful is that they built relationships within their team (which, by the way, spans across multiple organizations!) based on trust, and empowered each individual to contribute to and become an owner of the program. In this sense, they avoided being too controlling about every aspect of the program and instead trusted and empowered people to apply their expertise in service of a shared goal. They also were not afraid to redirect funding and technical partner energies to best serve the needs of the program, thus jointly defining the goals of a particular engagement, rather than letting outside frameworks and ways of thinking derail them from their vision.  

Mark: While the the program leaders who I met during site visits were varied in their approach and temperament, they demonstrated several common characteristics. Four seem particularly salient:

• Vision: All possessed a clear understanding of how their innovation might grow; they showed a remarkable capacity for “big picture” thinking.
• Communication: Each of the three programs had individuals at the helm who were able cogently articulate the appeal of the innovation to internal and external innovations.
• Adaptability:   All showed an impressive capacity to quickly yet strategically adapt to unanticipated, exogenous events.
• Partner management skills – At the risk of repeating myself, I was impressed by their ability to coordinate and cultivate a shared vision among partners with sometimes disparate ideas of what should come next.

Daniel: The leaders I met from Palavra de Criança were much more interested in actively listening to their stakeholders, than promoting their own brand or agenda. They led by example. They were also pragmatic about their program implementation, and always sought for ways to adapt their initiative so it was more effective in each context.

Vidya: The leaders I met from Lively Minds had a clear vision. Not only that, but they showed a persistence in making that vision a reality that was, and continues to be, quite effective.

Kimby: The program leaders were dedicated, knowledgeable, and well-connected - but I was particularly impressed by the community leaders or the promotores recruited by the program. These were individuals from local communities who were hired to be the bridge between those designing or implementing the program and beneficiary communities. They conduct trainings, help facilitate local decision-making meetings, and overall ensure the program is running. These individuals were essential to reflecting back the actual wants and needs of the community, and making sure the program was effectively communicated and made relevant to them.

Q) The report includes case studies based on your experiences with each innovative program. What information was important for you to capture in these case-studies, and how do you hope other innovators will use them?

Mark: When we were writing Journeys to Scale, we were conscious to not make this an overly normative publication: this is not meant be a “how to manual” of scaling.  Each innovation/program is unique, with its own set of challenges and enabling factors. It was important that we recognized this heterogeneity in the report.  Instead, we hope that other innovators will draw their own insights by reading the stories of other programs, some of whom may have confronted shared challenges. It’s also important to note that we hope that other constituencies, including donors, researchers, and policymakers will also find value in this report. Our researcher underscored the need for multiple groups to be involved in the scaling process -- innovators can’t do it on their own!

Daniel: Completely agree with Mark. I think the report provides 5 very different stories about scaling innovations, which I hope other innovators will take as a sign of how varied this process can be. There’s no “right way” to scale, instead there are lessons that can be derived from these 5 stories for innovators to consider as they expand their own initiatives.

Kimby: I hope others who read this (not just innovators, but funders and policymakers) will look just as closely at the challenges these programs have experienced as well as the components which made them particularly successful or impressive. These 5 case studies are all so different, in nearly every way, but there are certain obstacles that will resonate with many innovations, obstacles that should be considered from the outset.

Q) If there is one insight from the Journeys to Scale report that you could share with an implementer, donor, policy-maker, or researcher, what would it be?

Mark: It’s hard to pick just one. If forced to choose, I’d highlight the lesson that scaling is necessarily an iterative process.  This insight, or mentality shift, has implications for all of these groups: it implies that funding modalities be long-term, that results frameworks be realistic, and that monitoring data be used to drive learning, not just accountability.

Caitlin: Since in many cases, the concept of scaling implies taking a model from one location and context to another, whether within a country or across them, one of the most important insights to emphasize to stakeholders is the importance of thinking carefully about adaptation. When moving from one context to another, the baseline assumptions change -- and this means that a program model will need to be tweaked to reflect these new assumptions. As Mark said, this has implications for all stakeholder groups.

Kimby: Definitely agree with the comments on iteration and adaptation. Another key takeaway is that you shouldn’t expect wonderful results immediately. Getting an innovation “right” and scaling it in a sustainable, consistent way is not easy. Things will go wrong, and that’s okay as you can learn a lot from challenges and setbacks.

The insights previewed here, and much more, will be expanded upon in the full Journeys to Scale report, which will be officially launched Monday, October 10th.  Subscribe here to be among the first to receive the latest information on scaling up education programs. 

Also, don't forget to join us on Twitter on Wednesday, 5 October at 9am EST. We'll be hosting a Twitter chat about programs' challenges, successes and lessons learned around scale.

Photo Credits: Mark Roland ; WorldFish, Georgina Smith

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