Innovation in Learning: Lessons from the Slums

24 June 2010

Charles Leadbeater is a researcher at British think tank Demos who focuses his work on innovation. He recently delivered a TED talk about innovation in education, and he challenges his audience to think beyond the places we typically look for new ideas in education– places like Finland, where prosperity and homogeneity contribute to success that is difficult to replicate.

Leadbeater knocks the “19th century Bismarckian school system” that still prevails in most of the world as increasingly irrelevant to students and to the world they live in.  And he encourages people to look for innovation in the places where that system is least relevant: the favelas of Rio, the slums of Patna, or Kibera in Nairobi.  In these places, where a teacher in a traditional classroom delivers lessons based on a tight curriculum, forcing students to memorize the kings and queens of England, the education system couldn’t more more irrelevant for children. 

For these students, more relevant learning would cover topics like “how not to contract HIV,” or “carpentry 101,” that would help them stay alive and find a job.  But even this “extrinsic” motivation for going to school, based on a long-term payoff, is not enough for the slum-dwelling poor– the “long-term” is just too long.  And so the most successful innovations in education have also included some intrinsic motivation, making learning relevant, fun and accessible.  Put another way, if the Bismarckian education system was based on a “push” of knowledge to students, a new model needs to be based on a “pull” toward learning.

Not surprisingly, many of the most successful innovations in education have introduced technology to technology-poor regions.  Leadbeater talks about programs that have brought computer labs into Rio’s favelas, or installed single computers at the entrances to the slums in India’s megacities. These projects have gone a long way toward pulling children and adults alike toward learning by making it relevant and accessible. 

Why is this important here in the US? Because here, also, students are increasingly finding the schools they visit everyday disconnected and unrelated to the world they live in.  This is particularly true with regards to technology. More and more students have cell phones, and they’re texting up a storm.  Increasingly, they won’t find a job after graduation if they’re not computer-literate. So when they go into a classroom in which a 19th century schoolhouse teacher would feel at home, it’s a bad disconnect from the outside world.

Innovation in EducationLeadbeater broke down innovation in education into a two-by two box, which I’ve replicated at right.  Most of the innovation we see today occurs in the top-left box: sustaining innovation based in formal classroom settings that, at best, improves what we have.  He argues that we need a lot more innovation in the other three boxes– particularly in the bottom right, where disruptive innovation in informal, non-classroom settings will lead to a transformation of learning.

It’s a really interesting talk, and now that you’ve spent half an hour reading me gush about it, you might as well spend the 20 minutes to watch it yourself. 

(h/t Jason)

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