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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A World Summit on Education Innovation -- Who Knew?

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

I recently returned from the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), in Doha, Qatar. The 20-hour flight provided me with plenty of time to reflect on my journey. I was asked to attend because of my blog posts on Edutopia.org and because of Envision Schools's innovative school model.

Courtesy of Bob Lenz

Before I received the invitation, I knew little about Qatar, so I'd like to give some background information first:

Qatar is located on the Persian Gulf that borders Saudi Arabia. It is a small country with a population of about one million; however, only 20 percent of its inhabitants are actually Qatari citizens.

Qatar has the second-largest percentage of natural gas reserves in the world; consequently, it has an immense amount of wealth as a country and per capita. With the establishment of the Qatar Foundation in 1995, the Qatari leadership is positioning the country as a world leader in progressive education, science, and community development in the Middle East and around the world.

In what is promised to be an annual event, the Qatar Foundation hopes to initiate a meaningful global conversation on the future direction of education. I was one of 1,000 multidisciplinary global leaders and decision makers from 120 countries. At this year's inaugural summit, WISE addressed the issues of pluralism, sustainability, and innovation under the umbrella theme of "Global Education: Working Together for Sustainable Achievements."

Here are my reflections on the event:

Going Global

I met people from every continent and many countries. Almost all the participants speak English, and the main language of the conference was English -- not Arabic. For the few who needed it, there were translation headsets available at every session where the content was translated into Arabic, English, French, and Chinese.

This aspect of the event was an important reminder that the United States is an isolated member of the world community. We are one of the few countries where most people speak only one language, rather than two or more, as in many other countries. (Fortunately, we speak the language that most other countries teach as a second language.)

I had the stark revelation that we -- and especially our children -- are at a great disadvantage because of our predominant monolingualism as a nation. We need to begin taking foreign language instruction -- in grades K-16 -- more seriously in this country.

Embracing Innovation

I discovered that I held a limited understanding of innovation in education. Previously, my definition was simply about creating new practices and systems within schools and school systems. But this statistic woke me up: 75 million children worldwide do not attend school or have access to a teacher -- most of these children are girls.

Consequently, the conference focused on innovations to increase access to learning for the poorest and most disenfranchised students. Other focuses were on new outcomes for learners, and the technologies to attain these new outcomes.

Sidney Burrus, who leads Rice University's Connexions project, described innovation as two phases: First, do the old job better -- same task, just better. Second, the innovation redefines the problem and creates solutions we cannot imagine yet.

For example, the original cell phone is a first-phase innovation, and the iPhone is a second-phase innovation. This discussion really resonated for me: I have been telling people that Envision Schools is not just an example of a better school; it is better because it is different.

Common Themes

At WISE, nearly every speaker called for new outcomes for learners, reminding me very much of the tenets held by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

In a session on the globalization of education, B.V.R. Chowdari, a professor at the National University of Singapore, called for students to be prepared for, as he said, a "lifetime of careers" as opposed to a "career for life." Chowdari said it was critical that students have opportunities for diverse interactions and have access to learn and use digital technologies in order to be successful in the 21st century.

He, like many other presenters, urged us to teach students to, as he puts it, "learn how to learn." I was excited to discover that around the world, other people also agree that in order for our children to thrive in our world, they need to be effective collaborators, critical thinkers, problem solvers, and systems thinkers, and to hold strong ethical values.

I left believing that we are on the right track at Envision Schools. In addition, our college-success assessment system (see my blog post on this subject) seems to be more in line with how countries that outperform the United States assess students learning.

Promising Practices

Technology -- especially mobile devices -- holds great promise for creating access for children and adults who do not have schools or teachers available, and for transforming learning itself. Stanford University professor Paul Kim shared his creation and research of Pocket School, a low-cost ($50), low-power mobile device that uses the Linux operating system and Adobe Flash to deliver academic and trade content to poor children and adults.

In these communities, students learn to read, write, and do math while their parents can learn more advanced agricultural techniques. He has even arranged it so stories created by the children in these countries can be sold on Amazon.com to earn revenue to provide more mobile devices.

Another exciting technology solution is an organization called Hole-in-the-Wall Education, created by professor and scientist Sugata Mitra. (Read this Edutopia.org article about Mitra and his initiative.) Something they did, for example, was to put a PC with an Internet connection in a very poor region -- a hole in the wall, so to speak -- in New Delhi that sparked incredible learning for students who previously had no access to technology. (Read more about his project.)

Some common themes emerge from these solutions: Technology can be a great tool for access and does not have to be expensive. Also, counterintuitively, the technology actually inspired collaboration, and collaboration improved learning. Finally, we cannot imagine what we and our children will be learning using mobile devices -- the iPhone, for instance, is just the beginning of new devices that will transform learning.

Final Reflections

In spite of the many challenges we face in improving living conditions and creating peaceful and just communities, countries, and regions, I left WISE and Qatar with more hope than when I arrived. I met inspiring and smart people from around the globe -- all committed to improving lives through innovations in education. How can one not be hopeful?

What innovation in education gives you hope? Share with us ways learning is evolving at your school.

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA
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