Posts Tagged Education

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)

eBooks in the Classroom

23 April 2010

I’ve been reading through the past few months of the blog at, a project that is experimenting with using e-books (specifically, Amazon Kindles) to deliver textbooks and other reading materials to students.  They’ve undertaken two trials, one in Barcelona, Spain and another in Accra, Ghana. The blog is a very thoughtful and honest reflection on the project, and if this is a topic that interests you, it’s worth spending some time browsing through the archives.

Kindles in AccraThey started on this project because of the potential upside of replacing paper texbooks with a high-tech solution. Primarily, that upside is the relatively cheap, high-speed delivery of books.  In Accra, texbooks are only replaced about every five years, and donated books are often irrelevant and of patchy quality (“All About Utah!” isn’t even something that I’d be interested in reading). With the Kindle’s connection to the local GSM wireless network, just about any book can be downloaded in less than a minute, at a fraction of the cost of buying a paper copy and having it shipped to hard-to-reach places.

In the blog, the authors also wrestle with the challenges that present themselves– the high initial cost of the eBooks that could make the program difficult to replicate (though they got subsidized Kindles from Amazon), keeping the eBooks charged up, and the relative fragility of an electronic device. They also wrestle with some of the bigger questions around a project like this: Is this addressing a problem the market would eventually solve on its own? Is this just another form of cultural imperialism? How much of the early success of the Kindles is because of the novelty factor?

All these problems have solutions, at least in the longer term. Costs will drop, batteries will improve, and durable eBooks will find their way into schools. For me, reading an eBook will probably never completely replace the tactile experience of reading an old fashioned paper book. But it’s hard to imagine a school of the future in which students are still lugging around massive, decade-old textbooks. That will be even more true in places like Accra, where schools and students stand to gain so much from the low-cost, instant delivery of the world’s best and most up-to-date learning materials.