Education is a very long-standing, well-established part of human culture. You’d think we might have worked out the best ways to do it by now—and yet it remains ripe for innovation. Technology certainly offers new possibilities, but a recent competition to “re-invent learning” showed that reclaiming timeless principles of playfulness and creativity, and mixing them up with ideas from diverse other fields, may offer the greatest promise for improving education.

What’s wrong with education?

The factory system for producing like-minded worker bees is no longer what employers are looking for—if ever they were—and this is compounded by the widespread growth of tests and testing over the past 20 years. Of course, both governments and parents want reliable and regular data on how schools and children are doing, but ironically, data collection sometimes means spoiling children’s learning experiences with over-frequent tests and fostering a school culture where test results are paramount. Teachers typically like the idea of cultivating children’s passion for creatively exploring the world, but ultimately, their performance is not judged on that basis.

Recently, I was a judge for the Ashoka-LEGO Foundation Re-Imagine Learning Challenge, a competition that sought to recognize innovation in education with a particular emphasis on playful learning. It was an unusual initiative: All entrants gain access to benefits such as feedback, support, and networking opportunities, with additional levels of support and networking available for higher-ranked projects. The top ten enterprises received $20,000 prizes, as well as mentoring and support.

Many entries brought schooling to places where it did not previously exist, or where there was little organization or few resources. But the truly innovative cases—the ones that really met the challenge to re-imagine learning—reinvigorated how learning happens by combining it with an activity or concept that didn’t look like conventional education at all. Here are three examples:

Learning + skateboarding

Skateistan, which began in Afghanistan in 2007, comes with the memorable tagline, “They come for skateboarding—they stay for education.” Interestingly, at least 40 percent of Skateistan students are young women—in a culture where female literacy is just 13 percent. Skateboarding in this case is not merely a bit of fun used to lure students into school; teachers use the activity to help students develop qualities of leadership, problem-solving skills, and confidence, and build self-respect and an identity beyond their socio-economic status. For example, one young woman joined Skateistan at age 12 while working in the street. She went on to become a youth leader, teaching her peers, and has since spoken at TEDxKabul and United Nations events.

Learning + making

Perhaps more well known is the Global Cardboard Challenge, an annual event run by the Imagination Foundation that’s based in the United States. The challenge, and the foundation itself, grew out of the huge response to a 2012 viral video, “Caine’s Arcade,” that documents the story of a 9-year-old boy who made a large and complex arcade out of spare cardboard and everyday objects from his father’s auto parts store. So far, the challenge has engaged more than 100,000 children in more than 50 countries, opening up a simple but surprisingly unfamiliar world of playful, hands-on learning—not at school, but at an international event fueled by both online and old-fashioned technologies.

Learning + designing

Design for Change began in India in 2009 and expanded rapidly to 35 countries. It now describes itself as “a global movement to give children an opportunity to express their own ideas for a better world and put them into action.” The initiative offers a memorable four-step process of design-thinking principles for children, encouraging them to playfully prototype solutions to real-world problems: 1) “feel,” where children empathize and engage with a problem, 2) “imagine,” where they conceive solutions, 3) “do,” where they implement this solution, and 4) “share,” where they exchange ideas and results with others, leading to inspiration and further creative cycles. In one remarkable case, a class of five year olds in Cameroon decided to create alternate playthings using recycled materials after seeing classmates injured by playing football with bottles. By teaching children how to become change-makers in their own communities, the program gives them a platform for confident innovation.

These and other inventive learning projects show that proper, change-making innovation comes not from doing more of the same but by transforming how we think—mixing one practice with another quite different one, and seeing what happens. Inspiration from sport and physical play, hands-on creativity, online networks, and design thinking are enabling radical rethinking of learning experiences. Leaders in the education field—and others—need to look way beyond their own sphere to bring about sustainable, exciting change.

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