Meet the Johnny Appleseed of Education Innovation

10/30/2017 10:03 am ET

Perhaps only in education is the idea of modernization a foreign concept.

The methods and manners in which communities and countries educate is, and has been, largely a local enterprise since formal learning became a thing. Worldwide, education has evolved slowly and insularly – the slow pace of advancement at least partly defined by its isolation.

But that must change.

“We live in an extremely global world. But world of education is still extremely local,” Saku Tuominen, Creative Director of HundrED, told me in an interview from Helsinki.

HundrED is a Finland based non-profit that aims to be the Johnny Appleseed of global education innovation.

It’s a solid analogy because, despite the legend of Johnny Appleseed casting seeds randomly as he traveled, he was a highly capable nurseryman who planted nurseries rather than orchards. The real Appleseed (John Chapman) worked with local farmers and settlers to plan future crops, saw to the early plantings, left the nurseries in the care of locals and returned regularly to support what he’d helped start.

HundrED is also more than that. In addition to planting seeds, they actively look for those ideas around the world – finding innovations with impressive yields that are strong enough to be transplanted. This year, they unveiled a list of 100 Global Inspiring Innovations – teaching and learning technologies, practices and insights from more than 40 countries that are working and ready to be spread.

One such idea, an example from their list of 100, is a new way to design and build playgrounds. In Australia, every item on these new playgrounds has a defined pedagogy. They use recycled materials and are funded with local crowd sourcing. This novel approach to community-driven learning at play has already grown to 8,500 playgrounds and, according to the HundrED team, is easily exportable.

Even casual education observers will tell you that finding new, hardy, proven education ideas like that one, and planting them in new communities, is desperately needed. “Education is based on innovation. Unfortunately, most of those innovations are based on the ideas and technologies of 100 years ago,” Tuominen said. “Maybe it’s time to take some innovations from this century.”

Those innovative ideas, Tuominen said, should start with central and universal questions about what we want from education. “What are the key skills one should be teaching – lifelong learning or curiosity or creativity? And would you say our current education systems around the world are about openness and curiosity and lifelong learning? I’d say not really.”

Education systems should be able to learn and adapt just as much as we expect the students in them to – maybe more. And that’s been an occasional challenge, according to Tuominen. “It’s quite easy to find people who are extremely excited about what we do – in every country. Teachers, innovators, forward-looking principals, education ministers. But we also quite often see some opposition – saying these innovations won’t work here. Or some say, ‘in our schools, we don’t have that amount of freedom – to use innovation’,” he said.

That’s exactly why organizations such as HundrED need to keep doing what they’re doing. Every education leader should be able to essentially go shopping for the best new ideas by browsing a curated catalogue of proven innovations. HundrED is that catalogue. And it’s really quite surprising that one has not existed before.

While students would be the primary beneficiaries of importuning successful education ideas, benefits will be felt regionally and nationally as well. The school structures and cultures that open their doors and minds to new ideas first and with the fewest reservations are likely to best prepare students to thrive in a world that’s increasingly connected, digital, diverse, skilled, on-demand and rapidly changing.

No current system is exempt from needing an upgrade, including those operating in United States. A promising first step in such a domestic innovation infusion would be for a connected, education-focused corporation or foundation to match HundrED’s investment and enthusiasm for sharing good ideas. What HundrED is really doing, according to Tuominen, is “connecting the unconnected” so companies such as Microsoft and Google seem like natural fits. But there are others who could take up this cause.

That global education practitioners remain unconnected and, in many places, out of date is an unacceptable state of affairs at least partly because it’s so comparatively easy to fix. When placed next to gains the world has made in mitigating extreme poverty or curing disease, getting teachers and policy leaders talking to one another and sharing their ideas and solutions should be easy and inexpensive.

The world literally and figuratively can’t afford to have schools and education systems that can’t keep up. So, to the extent that education modernization is a foreign concept, we probably all need to starting importing a few.

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