Tag Archives: innovation

Want to Make Education More Innovative? Let’s Invest in R&D

This week IEN shares a post from Jeff Wetzler, a co-founder of Transcend and Transcend senior fellow Sujata Bhatt. This post, originally published in EdSurge, was written for a US audience but the international parallels are clear. As Bhatt and Wetzler explain: “With the COVID-19 pandemic, education systems around the globe have awakened to the urgent need to redesign schools to become more relevant and equitable. Innovation is no longer an optional pathway; it needs to be fundamental to how schools and systems operate. We need to redesign our teaching and learning infrastructure to embrace and meet local needs. Doing so means growing local community capacity to reinvent how students experience learning, and redesigning regional and national systems to support innovation at the local level. This piece was written specifically to describe what schools in the US could do to support R&D by using funding for schools made available by the passage of American Rescue Plan Act in March, but the approaches outlined here can readily be applied in all kinds of systems in the US and around the globe. In the past the federal government of the United States has created large funding programs like the School Improvement Grants (SIG) referred to in the article, and they have had little impact because they did not focus on growing the innovation R&D capacity of systems. In this piece, we ask, How might education systems respond differently this time?”

In 2019, the United States spent 2.8 percent of its Gross Domestic Product on Research and Development (R&D). R&D is our nation’s engine of innovation. It put that smartphone in your hand, that solar panel on your roof, and that COVID-19 vaccine in your arm. R&D unquestionably makes our lives better.

“[O]ur education system needs to innovate to make it more equitable, agile, relevant and responsive.”

At a basic level, R&D is the set of activities an organization undertakes to innovate—using research techniques to solve problems or learn new things. During the crises of 2020-21, we clearly saw that our education system needs to innovate to make it more equitable, agile, relevant and responsive. We learned that education conditions are intensely local; they vary dramatically in each and every community, limiting the usefulness of one-size-fits-all solutions. We also saw many communities embracing local innovation because they had to.

The Community-Based Innovation Opportunity

Over the next few months, the Federal Government is infusing $122.8 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding into our education system. This unprecedented investment offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redesign our teaching and learning infrastructure from the ground up by empowering local school communities to innovate.

Why local communities? During the pandemic, systems, schools, teachers, families and students began innovating to make different kinds of education possible. Perea Elementary in Memphis, for example redesigned how parents, teachers, and children support each other in virtual, in-person, and hybrid settings.

Contrary to the prevalent narrative of learning pods as the province of privilege, Edgecombe County Schools in North Carolina created learning pods for students without wifi access. The Oglala District, serving indigenous Lakota families in South Dakota, designed the Lakota Oyate Homeschool Coop to meet the needs of children who were disengaged and worried about both cultural and physical safety. This inventive renaissance needs to be supported and sustained. As these examples show, we learned that families and students want greater involvement, including the opportunity to infuse cultural values and traditions into what has been a one-size-fits-all model of schooling. We also know from previous funding programs like School Improvement Grants (SIG) that large infusions of federal funds can be less than successful if states, districts and schools do not work in collaboration to grow conditions for innovation at the local level. Why not bring these learnings and agents for change together to grow capacity for school communities to lead their own innovation journeys?

What if we—each state, each regional agency, each district, each school—were to commit to spending even just 2.8 percent of our ESSER funding to catalyze deep, broad, local, community-based innovation? What if we used this tiny percentage of our massive federal windfall to reinvent our education system by building strong local conditions, particularly the capacity of each and every school to apply evidence-based approaches to reinventing teaching and learning?

It starts with a small step: take evidence-based methods and models that we know work now, and seed and sustain them in local contexts so they can take root, grow, and spread.

With this small investment, we could leapfrog our nation’s PK-12 system from our current inequitable industrial era learning model to equitable, 21st century learning—and thereby create an education sector that is prepared to be flexible, agile, and resilient when the next crisis comes along. It starts with a small step: take evidence-based methods and models that we know work now, and seed and sustain them in local contexts so they can take root, grow, and spread.

How Might States, Regions, and Districts Develop and Support Local School Communities’ Innovation Capacity?

Below are two powerful, locally empowering strategies that states, regional service centers, and districts could use to focus their 2.8 percent R&D Reinvention investments:


Invest in capacity for community-based redesign and evidence-based efforts with long-term impact.

  1. A Local Reinvention Team in Every School: Invest in teachers, families, parents and students to form teams that can design and prototype learning experiences that are customized to create equitable, responsive, 21st century schools. When schools reopen, they face inimitable challenges in redesigning learning for students who return from a year of crises with varying strengths, skills, knowledge and needs. The focus, pace and sequence of learning, as well as the resources and supports provided, need to be tailored to each learner’s identity, prior knowledge, development, way of learning and life experiences—which requires designing new types of learning experiences collectively and coherently—not classroom by individual classroom. This is deep, creative, team-based innovation requiring listening, passion and energy while driving collaboratively towards a defined mission. Districts and states could resource (via Title I or II funds, or a separate Innovation fund) participation in these reinvention teams, which would develop innovation capacity for educators, families and students.
  2. Access to an Innovation Specialist: Invest in giving school reinvention teams temporary (2-3 years) access to innovation specialists explicitly tasked with growing local capacity to own and carry on the work. Innovation is not a haphazard process; R&D entails methods rigor, and expertise. These methods and mindsets are not widespread in the pre-K-12 sector, and they need to be. Innovation specialists who have expertise in these methods could be explicitly tasked with growing reinvention teams’ capacity to design and run rigorous R&D pilots so that over time the school community has the skills, methods and confidence to develop a transformational school design unsupported by coaches.
  3. Create system-level Innovation Funds that enable schools to access and adapt innovative models: Support school communities in investing in and implementing high-quality, evidence-based learning models that are equitable and responsive to the demands and opportunities of the 21st century.

“Every school needs to reinvent itself to support diverse learners survive and thrive in complex environments. However, the experiences need not be created and recreated by scratch in each and every school.

Every school needs to reinvent itself to support diverse learners survive and thrive in complex environments. However, the experiences need not be created and recreated by scratch in each and every school. School reinvention teams and communities should be able to adapt and adopt models developed elsewhere, particularly ones that are equitable, rigorous and evidence-based (and codified in the model libraries described below). To do so requires funding to pay for the models and for the innovation specialists who support the initial adaption process.


  1. Invest in regional and state-wide reinvention capacity-building structures.Innovation Connectivity: Invest in leadership relationships and development by convening groups of school and systems leaders who are actively engaged in reinvention so that leadership capacity grows and knowledge may be shared across those networked groups. Innovation requires a different type of leadership; one that builds opportunities and guardrails rather than managing top-down compliance. Systems leaders need support in growing their capacity to lead innovation this way, and they need to be connected to others because innovation spreads through networks. These networks of innovative leaders need to be resourced and built. Launching, supporting and sustaining innovation networks across schools within districts and across districts within a region and state would be a valuable use of funds.
  2. Model Libraries: Invest in documenting innovative learning experiences and models via video and design blueprints, as well as funding regional and national “libraries” and platforms that allow systems and schools to borrow from each others’ experiences and models, thereby accelerating the spread of reinvention.

There are inspiring bright spots across the country that can supply others with inspiration and tangible approaches to implement. These innovative models are centered on equity, effective learning and human flourishing, so that all young people not only maximize their own potential but also see, confront and tackle society’s greatest challenges. Documenting evidence-based models that other communities can borrow and adapt, rather than reinventing the wheel each time, saves time and money.

It is impossible to forecast all of the crises, ruptures, and even opportunities that lie ahead. Imagine if each school, each district, each state chose to spend a mere 2.8 percent of their ESSER funds to proactively build capacity and infrastructure for this unknown future. These proven strategies have the power to yield an unprecedented return on investment for our children.

— Jeff Wetzler & Sujata Bhatt

What Type of Education Do We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict? The Getting Unstuck Podcast Episodes #149/150

This week, IEN features an episode of the Getting Unstuck podcast in which hosts Jeff Ikler and Kirsten Richert talk with Thomas Hatch about his new book with Jordan Corson and Sarah Gerth van den Berg, The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict (Corwin, 2021). The wide-ranging conversation addressed a number of topics from the book including why reform efforts so often fail and what we can do to create the conditions to make real improvements in schools right now and to build the foundation for transforming schooling over the long term. As Ikler and Richert put it in their own book, Shifting: How School Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change (Corwin, 2021), these are steps that can help to get education “unstuck.”  Audio is available for both the full interview and an abridged version.

In a blog post on the conversation, Ikler highlighted several key ideas from the conversation:

What kind of education do we need?

 “We have to recognize that there are going to be aspects of the future that are unpredictable; we’re just not going to know exactly what’s expected or required. And so the idea that we could somehow agree now on what we think the world is going to be like 20 or 30 or 50 years from now is not realistic or adequate to guide our education system. So my point in the book is, let’s recognize that fact and prepare our students to be flexible and adaptable, so that they can adjust to the circumstances.”

“We have to improve the schools we have, but at the same time, we have to transform the education system so that we’re supporting the development of all students.”

Should we improve the schools we have now or transform the system?

 “We can and we have to improve the schools that we have right now. But that can’t be at the expense of doing the hard, long-term work on transforming the education system over time. And I think too often, we’re caught between choosing one or the other. It’s like either we can improve the schools we have, or we can start over and have this disruptive new education system. And the reality is, we have to do both. We have to improve the schools we have, but at the same time, we have to transform the education system so that we’re supporting the development of all those students, particularly those who’ve been disadvantaged by the system for so long.”

What can we do to improve schools and transform the system?

 “Find those environments where more powerful approaches to teaching and learning can take root find to take advantage of those conditions there rather than trying to power over the entire school and the entire school system and make everything different and changed in a short period of time.”

Education Innovations Around the World: The HundrED Global Collection for 2021

This week IEN follows up on HundrED’s Innovation Summit by providing a brief overview of some of the 100 innovations featured in their new Global Collection for 2021. The HundrED summit included presentations from Mitchell Resnick on creativity in education, Kiran Bir Sethi Solutions for Inclusion & Equity, Fred Swaniker on the Future of Africa, Vicki Colbert on quality education in challenging environments, and a special tribute from Kate Robinson to her father Sir Ken Robinson. At the summit, along with the launch of the latest Global Collection, HundrED also released a Spotlight Report on Creativity in Education in partnership with the LEGO Foundation and then  shared highlights of the summit along with a full recording on YouTube.

HundrED has been curating these collections of 100 innovations every year since 2016 as part of their effort to support the spread of “pedagogically sound, ambitious innovations” in multiple contexts. To create the collection, 150 academics, educators, innovators, funders and HundrED staff reviewed nominated programs based on each program’s impact and scalability.

In their report on the 2021 Global Collection, Christopher Petrie, head of global research and  Katija Aladin a researcher at HundrED described the latest collection as including many innovations in “areas where there is often a lack of—or a gap—in traditional school education; for example, empathy, social skills etc.” Notably:

  • 63% of the innovations focus on holistic skills like empathy, mindfulness, etc.
  • 55% target the development of 21st century skills
  • 47% develop traditional academic skills
  • 41% Require digital devices to augment learning
  • 35% Use pedagogical approaches that involve playful learning
  • 20% develop vocational skills
Hundred Global Collection 2021 Report

Many of the innovations were created within the last five years, but five were created before 1999.  Among the 2021 collection are organizations from many different parts of the world including:

Genius Lab, China

Genius Lab is a for-profit organization founded in 2013. It has designed more than 600 STEAM and maker education courses in use in over 800 kindergartens, primary and secondary schools with branches in 30 cities around China. It’s “Genius Hour” provides a 21-day online camp consisting of course modules focusing on science, engineering, and design.


Educate Girls, India

Educate Girls has identified 5% of villages that hold 40% of India’s out-of-school girl population. They work in partnership with the government and community volunteers to empower these girls to go back to school. Since its establishment in 2007, Educate Girls has enrolled 750,000+ girls in school.


NaTakallam Lebanon

NaTakallam builds on the expertise of refugees in several different contexts to connect them with opportunities to provide language instruction and translation services to users worldwide.  Currently, NaTakallam’s conversation partners offer language sessions in multiple Arabic dialects, French, Persian and Spanish.


Metis Collective, Kenya

The Metis Collective offers a fellowship program for local innovators with ideas for reimagining teaching and learning. The fellowship provides access to a design thinking approach to innovation, a learning community, and coaching.  The program has supported 63 Fellows who have created learning experiences for over 1.3 million learners across Kenya.


Agora, The Netherlands

Agora replaces the courses, tests, schedules and homework of conventional secondary schools with challenges, collaboration and coaching in order to give 12-18 year-old students control over their own education. As one article described it, Agora is a school with no classes, no classrooms, and no curriculum. Founded in 2014 in Roermond, there are now 12 Agora’s in the Netherlands and beyond.


Self-Sustaining Agricultural School Model, Paraguay

Fundación Paraguaya’s Self-Sustaining Agricultural School Model combines classroom learning in agricultural methods and business practices with hands-on training in the schools’ enterprises.  Those enterprises include organic vegetable gardening, dairy processing, beekeeping, tending to goats and chickens, and managing a tree nursery, a rural hotel, and roadside stores. Fundación Paraguaya is now responsible for four self-sustaining schools in Paraguay.


#JourneystoScale: Documenting efforts to scale up education innovations

screen-shot-2016-10-16-at-3-34-26-pmOn October 10th, the Center for Education Innovations (CEI) and UNICEF published Journeys to Scale, a report that documents the innovative efforts of five organizations as they aim to increase their impact. The organizations profiled in the report include Accelerated School Readiness, Can’t Wait to Learn, EduTrac Peru, Lively Minds, and Palavra de Criança. These are organizations that have been identified as having “high disruption potential,” and the report describes the journey each has taken to scale up their programs.
As CEI and UNICEF explain, in May 2014 they began designing and testing strategies to systematically select and support innovative education models. They received over 150 nominations but selected only 5 finalists. The finalists received funding from UNICEF and support from CEI as they tested and strengthened their scale-up models while collecting evidence on effectivenes. The report, Journeys to Scale, describes the challenges and strategies of these innovations from Brazil, Ehtiopia, Ghana, Peru, and Sudan, and lays out clear recommendations for implementers, donors, policymakers and researchers who want to support innovation.
One category of key findings from the report points to the importance of defining what is meant by both “innovation” and “scaling up.”  As the report explains,
The five innovations challenged ideas about what it means to scale an innovation, highlighting the reality that scaling does not happen in a straightforward manner and that progress is often accompanied by setbacks. They revealed that the conventional idea of scaling as simply the process of reaching more beneficiaries does not account for steps like the inclusion of new services to an existing package of interventions, the formation of new alliances with government and donor partners, and team capacity building.
Therefore, the authors find that scaling is about more than simply increasing the numbers of beneficiaries, and innovation is about more than the intervention itself. Innovation is about a broader and deeper spread of new norms and beliefs.
In addition to the publication of this report, CEI and UNICEF hosted a Twitter chat (#JourneystoScale) to keep the conversation going. See below for a Storify recap of the conversation.


Global Learning Alliance Conference 2014

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 9.21.08 AMA recent meeting of the Global Learning Alliance (GLA) included a series of presentations from educators around the world responding to the question: “What in the world are schools doing to cultivate 21st century capacities, and why does this matter?” The GLA was established to to share ideas for moving schools and educational systems towards supporting the development of 21st century skills and brings together scholars, researchers, teachers and school leaders from China, Canada, Singapore, Finland, and the US among others.

Presentations at the conference included discussions of recent developments in countries like Singapore and Finland as well as considerations of broader issues of change and innovation. A symposium of educators from Singapore, for example, described innovative school level programs designed to support the development of engineering and design skills amongst high school students. At the same time, Dr. Suzanne Choo, of Singapore’s National Institute of Education, also cautioned that while students there are excelling in many areas like English language and mathematics, fewer and fewer students are taking traditional liberal arts subjects like English Literature. Dr. Jari Lavonen, of the University of Helsinki, suggested that many of the conditions for innovation in schools are in place in Finland. These include a long-term policy vision rather than “ad hoc” ideas from multiple policymakers; decentralized decision-making and assessment at a local level instead of standardization, inspections, and national testing; trust-based responsibility instead of test-based accountability; and collaboration, networks, and partnerships vs. competition and rankings.

Dennis Shirley, Professor of Education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College and author of The Global Fourth Way, also focused on the possibilities for cross-cultural learning in education. Shirley, who began his career as an education historian, discussed how examples of cross-cultural learning through history, including the way kindergarten permeated the rest of the world, could be vehicles for innovation or for maintaining the status quo.

At issue throughout were fundamental questions, however, about what constitutes “innovation”: When is a program or a practice actually “new” and when and to what extent do “innovations” lead to better schools and educational systems?