Today, people and ideas are flowing across borders faster than ever before in human history. Technology is omnipresent. The gig economy is on the rise. And while not every child today lives in a community where this is the case, the pace of change is so rapid that these new ways of life may soon be universal.
Because of this fast-paced social and economic change, it is not clear exactly what skills children will need to thrive and become constructive citizens in the future world of work. We do know that children will need to be well equipped with a range of skills to face this uncertainty. Children all face a future that will demand a wide range of abilities, from reading texts critically and solving problems collaboratively to adapting quickly to new forces affecting the economy, society, and the natural environment.
However, education systems across the globe do not effectively prepare youth for this fast-changing world. Both between and within countries, there are deep inequalities in what schools help children learn, know, and do. This inequality is visible in low-income countries, where less than one in three children are on track to achieve basic primary-level skills. It also exists in high-income countries, where predictions hold that nearly one-third of learners will reach adulthood without minimal skills at the secondary level. Worse yet, we project in our own analysis that at the current rate of progress, education for children in low-income countries won’t reach the level of education in developed countries for approximately 100 years.
Together, the twin problems of skills uncertainty in a fast-changing world and persistent skills inequality across the globe paint a bleak picture for the future of learners. Experts anticipate that if current trends continue, roughly half of the more than 1.6 billion young people in the current generation will reach adulthood without the basic literacy, numeracy, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills they need to thrive.
Confronted with these deep educational challenges, how should education systems across the globe react? Is it possible to address both skills inequality and skills uncertainty at the same time? Or must education systems tackle fundamental issues of access and quality before thinking about the relevance of the traditional schooling model in a fast-changing world?
A New Way Forward
In our new report, “Can We Leapfrog? The Potential of Education Innovations to Rapidly Accelerate Progress,” authored with former Center for Universal Education research associate Eileen McGivney, we present “leapfrogging” as one potential solution to these challenges. We define leapfrogging as any practices, new or old, that enable skills inequality to be far more quickly addressed than the current 100-year time frame would suggest. The term also describes practices that enable us to address skills uncertainty in a rapidly changing world. We argue that this progress is achievable only if we make room for new approaches in education—that is, if we innovate.
During the last two years, we compiled and analyzed a catalog of nearly 3,000 education innovations, the largest such collection to date. This catalog provides a snapshot of what we term the “education innovation community”: the constellation of global actors involved in developing, supporting, and implementing innovative educational practices. Our efforts reveal a diverse, extensive, and vibrant community of innovators working on everything from educational apps and private sector ventures to government policies and chains of nonprofit schools.
Our catalog profiles innovations from every corner of the planet; more than 85 percent of the world’s countries are represented. These include educational underperformers like India and the United States, as well as relatively high-achieving nations such as Finland and Kenya. Many are focused on the most marginalized youth populations; nearly 60 percent of the innovations in the catalog target groups such as low-income students, girls, students with disabilities, and children living through emergencies and conflict.
The innovations in our catalog vary widely in scope and scale, from tiny schools serving just 15 students to massive digital learning hubs like Duolingo, which has reached more than 150 million learners. Our findings suggest that civil society organizations are taking the lead on innovation; more than 60 percent of interventions are delivered by nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) including both the large and established such as Camfed, and small newcomers like Code.org.
Introducing the Leapfrog Pathway
Historically, in the United States and across the developing world, the mass schooling movement first focused on increasing access to schooling, starting with primary education. Much later, systems shifted to ensuring that children actually experience high-quality teaching and learning. Only after that did the focus shift to questions of the relevance of these learning experiences for work and life.
To leapfrog education across the globe, we argue that we must jettison this outmoded model of progress, and make room for entirely new mental models. The concept of leapfrogging is not regularly used in the global education community and as such, there has been limited guidance on how to think about it.
To determine which education innovations are best primed to accelerate progress, we developed a leapfrog pathway for education, based on evidence from the learning sciences and from interviews with a wide range of actors involved in the field. Our pathway is composed of four elements, which each contain two dimensions.
Progression along each dimension entails complementing traditional educational practices with evidence-based approaches. The first two elements—learning and teaching, and recognizing learning—are “core” elements. They are essential for enabling leapfrogging in education.
1. Improving learning and teaching by making use of pedagogical practices that encourage student agency over the learning process, foster their natural inquisitiveness, and expose them to important topics that will shape their lives. The learning dimension of this element asks students to adapt, transform, and create knowledge. The teaching dimension incorporates playful pedagogies that encourage students to become active agents in their own exploration and discovery.
For example, the Núcleo Avançado em Educação (NAVE), a system of government-run secondary technical schools in Brazil, taps into learners’ creativity to prepare them for work in a digital world. NAVE integrates innovation, inquiry, and entrepreneurship into every facet of learning, requiring students to unite digital literacy skills with academic knowledge by regularly designing and publishing applications and other digital products. Students in a social studies class might research and draft a debate between prominent historical figures, which they would then animate and share online.
This creative learning model is a good example of helping address skills uncertainty and skills inequality at the same time: NAVE schools equip students with important interpersonal and digital skills, but do not neglect traditional academic competencies. In the states of Pernambuco and Rio de Janeiro, the NAVE network achieved the highest averages on the national secondary leaving exam among all public schools.
2. Flexibly recognizing learning by seeking novel ways to verify students’ skills and allowing them to progress according to need and ability. Progression, the first dimension of this element, entails addressing individual differences by allowing learners to progress through content as they demonstrate mastery, regardless of how long it takes them. Verification, the second dimension, requires collaboration with employers and postsecondary institutions to determine what skills and competencies youth need, and how best to determine when students reach these goals.
A South African project, Go for Gold, connects disadvantaged high schoolers with construction industry professionals to ensure that these young people have desirable job skills. In South Africa, construction companies struggle to hire engineers, architects, and project managers. The NGO-led youth development program begins in the last year of high school, when students interview with partner companies to secure an internship between secondary and post-secondary education. During these yearlong internships, participants take industry-designed professional and life skills classes. Employers get a chance to verify and support the development of student skills through on-the-job performance assessments, measuring how well the students demonstrate workplace competencies. Employers who are satisfied with interns’ skills then sponsor them through post-secondary education and guarantee job placement upon graduation. To date, more than 80 percent of Go for Gold’s 330 participants have successfully completed post-secondary programs.
The second two elements—people and places, and technology and data—are supports that offer helpful but non-essential tools for transforming what and how children learn.
1. Incorporating people and places: Employing diverse actors and contexts to unburden teachers and contextualize learning. People, the first dimension, encourages programming that relies upon a range of actors to assist teachers and support students’ learning. It could involve learning projects facilitated by outside experts or parent volunteers taking charge of classroom administrative tasks. Places, the second dimension, promotes diverse and authentic learning environments, such as community spaces, workplaces, and online, to complement classroom learning.
In rural African schools, the Learner Guide Program trains young women to serve as mentors and peer teachers. These women, known as Learner Guides, deliver a curriculum focused on wellbeing, creative expression, and self-knowledge. They support classroom teachers by serving as informal mentors and tutors, modeling academic and interpersonal skills. More than 250,000 students have benefitted from this program, developed by Camfed. Academic outcomes in Learner Guide schools improved with an equivalent of 0.5 effect size for English studies and of an effect size of 1.0 in mathematics, analyses show.
2. Making better use of technology and data by unleashing their potential to transform learning. The first dimension in this element entails using new technologies, such as augmented reality or adaptive online games, to redefine and reimagine learning and teaching. The second calls for the frequent collection, analysis, and use of data to improve programs, transparency, and student learning.
Mindspark Centres successfully leverage educational technology and data to transform math and literacy learning for disadvantaged students in India. The technology-based remedial centers, run by the Indian NGO Educational Initiatives, host students daily for 90-minute learning sessions. Students spend half their time doing homework in small groups and the other half playing Mindspark, a computer-based adaptive learning game used in more than 100 elite Indian private schools. The platform automates differentiated instruction, using each student’s responses to tailor academic content to his or her knowledge level. Gamification and real-time content adaptation ensure that students learn what they need to learn, and that they have fun while they do it. This program has served more than 3,700 students. The centers produce gains in student learning equivalent to a 1.04 effect size in math and 1.23 in Hindi over a period of six months.
Are We Ready for Change?
With this framework, we can evaluate whether the education innovations community can help educational systems make rapid progress in the here and now. To advance along our pathway, innovators must complement traditional educational practices with the evidence-based approaches we have identified. Only by aligning learning experiences with the end of the core pathway will educational programming be able to solve both skills inequality and uncertainty at the same time.
We find that the global education community has reason to be optimistic about the potential for innovations to enable leapfrogging. As seen in the above cases, the education innovations community already provides many strong examples of a leapfrog mindset. In both rich and poor settings, education innovations are simultaneously tackling the twin burdens and showing that that it is, indeed, possible to break from dominant paradigms and chart new paths for educational progress.
In particular, we note that 70 percent of the innovations in our catalog make use of playful learning approaches, which are necessary for developing a broad set of student skills. Most of these playful innovations focus on developing academic competencies alongside crucial 21st-century skills like problem solving and empathy. These powerful and tangible examples provide excellent case material for teacher trainers, school leaders, and educators to use in transforming their practice.
Additionally, a robust collection of innovations—almost 40 percent of our catalog—are unburdening teachers by streamlining administrative tasks, facilitating peer teacher training, or leveraging the expertise and support of parents, community leaders, employers, youth, and peers. Some of the most effective approaches, such as the Camfed Learner Guide program and Go for Gold, harness new people and places to support teachers and improve students’ skills. Education leaders, educators, and investors would do well to take note of these approaches and find ways to support and expand them.
Four Lessons Learned
For all the strong work occurring in the education innovations community, glaring gaps in practice exist.
First, less than 20 percent of innovations included in our catalog describe transformative ways of recognizing student learning. Of course, any focus on improving learning and teaching is incomplete without corresponding shifts in recognition. Indeed, we often hear that outmoded assessment models prevent educators from improving learning experiences. In line with our pathway, innovators will need to look to the learning sciences and adopt new models for gauging and verifying student skills.
Second, despite the substantial focus on lightening the load for teachers, there is surprisingly little attention—less than 25 percent of our catalog—devoted to helping teachers develop their own skills and capacity. Leapfrogging education will require that teachers play an essential if not necessarily traditional role in coaching, guiding, curating, and facilitating the learning experience. As such, innovators must be sure to include teacher professional development in future interventions and find creative ways to incorporate it into existing models.
Third, while half the innovations in our catalog use technology, nearly 80 percent of those do so in ways that either substitute or augment analog education practices. Digital worksheets are one example; shifting the content directly from paper-and-pencil to the virtual domain might reduce the cost of access or expedite grading, but it does little to change the nature of teaching and learning. Innovators and investors should focus time and attention on the ways technology can help modify and redefine what is possible in education, such as the creative use of gaming or adaptive learning experiences for children who have little access to the help they need.
Finally, we note that leapfrogging involves more than scaling up one particular innovation versus another. It demands that we overhaul our approach to progress in education. To contribute to this significant change, the education innovations community must address the gaps mentioned above and be more disciplined in public sharing of data. In our catalog, nearly 1,000 innovations make information available on the effectiveness of their work. Nevertheless, this leaves almost 2,000 innovations that provide no information. Additionally, only 2 percent of the innovations in our catalog share cost-effectiveness data. Yet this is exactly the type of information governments and other agents need in order to determine which new approaches they might encourage and scale up.
In addition to this need for public data, leapfrogging will require new mechanisms so that policymakers can evaluate, adopt, and scale innovations according to their particular contexts. As part of the Millions Learning series, our colleagues at the Center for Universal Education are currently contributing to this effort by developing a network of real-time scaling labs. These labs will explore new models of documenting, supporting, and sharing innovative practices to inform the work of educational decision makers.
Ultimately, actors around the world will need to rally around a leapfrog vision of educational progress, and push key players in the education innovation community to close the gaps identified above, if we are to ensure that we do not leave a generation of young people behind.