12/11/2013 04:54 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2014

What If the Greatest Innovations in Education Exist Where You Least Expect Them?

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

As a kid, I was obsessed with learning new things. I knew that education was the one thing that lifted my family out of poverty over several generations, and when I read Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, in high school I began pondering my own personal "Why?" My friend Simon Sinek has carried that message even further through his widely watched "Start with why" TEDTalk, which advocates for companies and organizations identifying their own "Why?" as well. It was only through traveling that I found my sense of purpose in the social entrepreneur space, specifically working on access to quality education for children.

For millions of Americans, the decisions they make about their child's education are consistently top of mind. Will they go to public or private school? How are they performing in the classroom and at home? How will I ever be able to afford college?

As these questions become more pressing, the search for new and innovative solutions has never been more important to the future of the American family. It's no longer a secret that we are falling behind peer countries, in particular in math and science rankings, and if something doesn't change we may be looking at others outpacing us in the future global economy.

For almost a decade, I've been traveling to the most rural, impoverished parts of the world as someone deeply interested in leveling the playing field for all children. Like many of my generation, I believe that where you are live should not govern how well you live. And I also believe that in my lifetime every single child on Earth will be born with access to quality education. This set of beliefs forced me to evaluate how my life could serve the greatest benefit to others, which led me to create Pencils of Promise five years ago in the hopes that it could help enable inter-generational change for families like those I met during my travels.

Throughout this period, I always assumed that working in the developing world meant I had very little to offer to the domestic debate. Yet as our organization expanded, I became interested in education at home, and was utterly amazed when I learned how combative the various entrenched interests were in the space.

Labor unions, teacher's unions, restricted government funding programs, testing bodies and others all seemed to speak of one another with far more vitriol than I'd ever once heard any NGO speak about another in the rural countrysides of Ghana or Guatemala. The further I probed, the more blown away I was by the tremendous amount of money being deployed that gets held up in bureaucratic red tape and political turmoil without producing clear, demonstrated results.

What can the U.S. education system learn from the developing world? -- Adam Braun

I suddenly felt so relieved to be working in the developing world, because my end goal is the same as those in the domestic space (quality education for all), but when our local staff enters a rural village we have the opportunity to produce maximized impact with very few hurdles for far fewer dollars than our counterparts at home. And it was in that recognition, that I recently had my "eureka" moment.

What if the answers we're looking for to better educate kids in U.S. schools actually exist within the best methods being deployed for those at the absolute base of the pyramid -- the underserved children living in bamboo and mud huts across the developing world?

What if the answer to the solutions we're seeking at home lie within this simple question: What can the U.S. education system learn from the developing world?

The traditional way of thinking is that the wealthy will produce innovations at home that can then trickle down to the poorer masses. But there's a massive revolution occurring within the education space around the globe, and I genuinely believe there are sweeping innovations just waiting to be unlocked in the environments where bold ideas meet the fewest barriers (in this case, in rural parts of the developing world) that will lead to better educational outcomes for our children at home as well.

It will require audacious leadership from individuals and organizations to build better learning environments, train stronger teachers and test the innovations I'm describing. We'll have to invest time, energy and resources into the places that are usually the last to be seen as hubs for innovation but are now the most fertile grounds for widespread adoption of innovative practices. We'll have to invert the traditional approach, but the bold and beautiful world I envision will move forward through the ability to challenge the existing lines of thought and spark a new debate about how we can best develop the strongest education for future generations yet unborn.

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