Recollections from 2016: A roundtable discussion

December 19, 2016The CEI Team

This year has brought record-breaking numbers of refugees, tragic acts of violence, and disruptive political events that have dominated headlines. Yet 2016 has also brought its own advancements and moments of triumph that deserve recognition, and will serve as the foundation for progress next year and beyond.

Recently, Results for Development and its Center for Education Innovations staff met for a free-flowing discussion around their most vibrant recollections from 2016. The conversation serves as a reflection of 2016 as we transition into the new year: Clear-eyed about the challenges facing the world’s poor, but hopeful and inspired by the hard-won progress seen in our own work, as well as the impact of those with whom we have the privilege of collaborating. Below are highlights from our conversation, edited for clarity.

Q1: Innovation is an increasingly common term throughout the development landscape. Which implementers did you meet this year that were truly innovative, and why?

Luke Heinkel: Among implementers that impressed me the most this year, are those from Rising Academy Network and Worldreader. Both are taking innovative approaches to tackling illiteracy and are both showing promising results. Rising Academy Network is expanding low-fee private schools into Sierra Leone and Liberia, and leveraging new approaches to do so, such as extending the school day and giving students more time dedicated for reading. Worldreader is making advancements in cross-sectoral modeling by collaborating with like-minded partners in India to promote literacy. They are working through health clinics, schools, and community organizations who might not otherwise be as focused on reading, but who share their values.

Vidya Putcha: I had the opportunity to visit TREE South Africa, which is making exciting progress in the area of playful learning. TREE takes an innovative approach to training and supporting early childhood practitioners, infusing their training with playful learning techniques and supporting individuals with minimal education and experience to become early childhood practitioners. This helps to increase the quality of ECD service provision while also empowering practitioners with improved skills and better pay.

Q2: Are there any students or beneficiaries you were able to meet this year that left an especially strong impression?

Luke Heinkel: Definitely. Grace is a Grade 8 student at one of Rising Academies’ schools in Sierra Leone. As Dr. Steph Dobrowski noted in a recent blog feature, “She wears a bow in her hair and speaks in a quiet, gravelly voice. When she gets nervous she laughs and runs her hand down her face like she’s trying to wipe away the nerves.”

What has left such an impression on me is not only is Grace making the most out of her new education opportunities with significant academic achievement, but her growth as a leader is equally remarkable. She is meeting every Monday and Wednesday for Community Meetings and is making an impact not just on her own future, but on that of her school and community as well.

Duncan McCullough: In April, I met Santosh Kumar Gupta, Magic Bus’ Training and Monitoring Officer, about an hour north of New Delhi’s city center. As we walked to Kachi Park, where that day’s learning activities were being held, Santosh told me about his “long journey” with Magic Bus; a journey which has seen the program expand from reaching about 30,000 children 5 years ago, to now helping over 400,000 youth develop holistic skills. As the children broke for refreshments, Santosh introduced me to Puja, a Youth Mentor leading that day’s activities.

Puja, which means prayer or holy worship in Hindi, is from the same Bhalswa Resettlement Colony that nearly all the children at the park that day call home. Several years ago, a friend of Puja’s brought her along to one of Magic Bus’ community events. The emphasis on educational advancement and female independence resonated with Puja, and soon she was not only attending Magic Bus activities, but also their trainings. By investing in community events and trainings, Magic Bus was able to develop Puja from community member to participant, from participant to volunteer, and eventually from volunteer to Youth Mentor. 

Q3: Innovations in education are expanding farther than ever into more remote and challenging environments. What do you remember most about visiting some of these intrepid innovations?

Luke Heinkel: Tablets are everywhere now! Schools without internet access can still load tablets with videos when brought to a location with connectivity and then share those videos with students. Science experiments that are not possible in the village are brought to life. One innovator pointed out to me, “It seems reasonable to assume there will be more tablets and mobile phones in the future rather than fewer. Schools making that bet will be ahead of the game.” This underscores the importance, now more than ever, of growing the evidence base around education technology.

Mark Roland: Our site visits for the Journeys to Scale report underscored the notion that you can’t simply copy and paste an innovation from one site to another.  The Palavra de Crianca literacy program in the semi-arid state in Brazil has to undergo an overhaul in order to function in the more remote Amazon region in Brazil. Innovators adapted the program to respond to transportation challenges, cultural differences, and level of preparedness of teachers. Such adaptation is highly resource-intensive, but absolutely essential if the innovation is to flourish.

Arjun Upadhyay: Proprietors of low-fee private schools (LFPS) in Ghana gave us some really interesting insight. Our research found that despite the lack of readily available finance and the low tuition fees they charge, LFPS are surprisingly resilient. On average, the schools we visited had been in operation for around 14 years! A remarkable feat and a testament to their constant search for flexible financial models given the tough conditions they operate under. Only 33 percent of schools reported a profit the last academic year!

Q4: International conferences can sometimes involve more smoke than fire, so to speak, and we’ve made it a priority to maximize our impact from these kinds of events. What was the most impactful experience you had at a convening this year?

Kimby Josephson: The Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) conference is a respected annual gathering of top scholars in the international education community. Earlier this year in Vancouver, CEI, the LEGO Foundation, and Care for Education (an innovative ECD program based in South Africa) convened a panel for the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) conference, where the furniture had to be removed from our presenting room to make space for such an audience! We spent a lively 90 minutes discussing the constraints of traditional education approaches, the benefits of learning through play, and how Care for Education is transforming low-resource classrooms in South Africa through play. It was exciting to see how 40 scholarly professionals - some seated on the floor to squeeze into the small space - played with LEGO bricks, laughed with strangers beside them, and engaged openly in the discussion. It was a clear demonstration that both adults and children can benefit from learning through play!

Arjun Upadhyay: Facilitating a workshop around the costs of delivering digital reading programs with Aileen Palmer at the mEducation Alliance symposium was definitely a highlight! We presented R4D’s research on costing digital programs for the Global Book Alliance feasibility study and used the model we developed as a launching point for broader discussions around the cost-effectiveness of digital reading programs. The discussion touched on various issues such as the infrastructure challenges programs currently face and how technology might evolve to better integrate with specific education needs in the future. It was great to hear the thoughts and opinions of so many experts in the room!

Tara Hill: The opportunity to attend and present at the UNESCO Asia Education Summit on Innovation for Out-of-School children this year was highly memorable. We were incredibly impressed by the diversity of programs, researchers, and policymakers who came together from the region to maintain a strong focus on the intractable problem of out-of-school children. CEI was able to contribute our global and regional perspectives on the types of innovative models we have seen emerge to tackle this problem, and their common factors for success. It was really energizing to connect such impactful policymakers and implementers with concrete examples of the innovative approaches we’ve identified and evaluated through our database and work in the field. I left the conference confident not only in the impactful insights CEI has found through its work, but in our ability to share such insights in an actionable way with stakeholders in a position to influence.

Q5: At CEI we strive to put the voices of implementers at the heart of what we do. What was the most important lesson you took away from an implementer you met this year?

Sonaly Patel: During our visits with ECD programs in Tanzania, we were impressed by the strong focus on holistic development and providing opportunities for beneficiaries to be part of the solution.  For instance, we saw that Amani Girls Home, MHOLA, Tumaini Letu, and TAHEA developed microfinance programs to support parents and community members in increasing their income.  While on the surface these microfinance programs do not seem to relate to ECD, they in fact address an issue of poverty that affects families at a foundational level.  Providing parents and the community the support needed to grow financial assets in turn also makes it possible for them to contribute towards filling the resource gaps in ECD provision.

Mark Roland: We need to be better about responding to the constraints innovative educators face in accessing information and the ways in which they learn. Simply publishing an analysis about best practices in innovation is not sufficient. Awareness of “global public goods,” some of which may be relevant to their own innovation, is quite low. Instead, we need to think creatively about ways to engage innovators in ways that actually promote learning and that are reflective of resource and time constraints. Experiential and joint learning activities may be the next step in this journey, as they allow innovators to shape their learning agenda and to dynamically interact with other implementers. We are excited to be pioneering some work in this area through CEI – stay tuned for more in 2017!

Kimby Josephson: Especially during my time with pilot and early-stage programs, I’ve seen how implementers need time and resources to experiment with their model, especially if they’re adapting to a new and challenging setting. Short pilot periods and strict funding arrangements can make it hard for innovations to figure out what works best for local communities. We need to give implementers the space to figure out their optimal design and scaling plan, rather than pre-determining what success should look like. This is another area in which CEI will be actively providing support, especially through our Learning Lab, in 2017 and beyond.

The wild swings of 2016, from painful tragedies to inspiring achievements, further support Marie Curie’s maxim that “the way of progress [is] neither swift nor easy”. Nevertheless, the team at CEI and Results for Development is galvanized by the positive impact we have seen this year, often in the midst of some of the most challenging contexts imaginable. 2017 will be a pivotal year for millions of people across the globe, and we are inspired to support and work with those who will continue pushing for progress in every classroom, home, community, and nation, whether it is easy or not. 

Photo Credits (top to bottom): Rob Thom/Crown Copyright ; Nhaka Foundation ; Magic Bus ; R4D ; UNESCO South-Asia ; McCourtie/Worldbank

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