- Charles Leadbeater talks innovation and creativity in education
[Charles Leadbeater stands in front of a lectern with State Library of Victoria branding. Behind Charles, and just out of view, is a large screen to display his PowerPoint presentation. The screen is not captured on this video but Charles points to it through his lecture.]
Charles Leadbeater: Thank you very much indeed for hosting this and thank you everyone for coming, and I’m going to talk a bit about this book that I wrote which came out earlier in the year called Innovation in education. Now if I were American I would actually have this book with me …
Charles: … and actually I’d have a table of books …
Charles: … which would be being sold at some vast price, but because I’m English and a bit hapless, I don’t have the book with me, except I do have it in a bootleg PDF electronic form, so if at the end of this you should feel that you want to find out more about what I’ve talked about, just come up at the end and a kind of non-monetary transaction can take place which will end up with you getting a PDF version of this very expensive book. So that’s just a commitment to open source.
So Innovation in education, is education about innovation, well I am very interested in that and have spent quite a lot of time trying to work out what the answer to that is, I’m basically … that is, the answer is that education is a deeply, deeply perplexing industry because of course it should be about liberating potential, unlocking talent, finding all sorts of new ways to do it, and actually it’s simultaneously a deeply conservative, rather in some ways authoritarian kind of industry which sorts people into successes and failures.
And so the odd thing about innovation in education is that if you look at any industry really, if an industry is, if you think about whether what you’ve got is what you need and whether how you’re doing it is the only way to do it, or whether other things are possible – well if the answer to that is, broadly speaking ‘well what we’ve got is pretty much what we need and anyway we can’t imagine a different way of doing it’ – there isn’t much scope for innovation. But if what you’ve got isn’t good enough, and it systematically fails large numbers of people, and if what it’s doing isn’t preparing people for the world that they face, and if in the process of doing it, it seems to be ignoring all sorts of new and emerging ways in which people can learn, then potentially the space for innovation should be large. And what I’m interested in is how people open up that space in education so that it seems more possible and more necessary and what the space looks like and why lots of the education system seem to ignore it, it’s like this sort of yawning opportunity which the education systems ignore.
So I went off to look for these people who I called ‘high impact social innovators’, who were changing models of learning at scale, and I’ll say a bit about each of them as I go through, but I looked in detail at 16 examples. I thought of people who were doing really interesting and effective things, so they weren’t just interesting, they were actually effective. They were departing from the standard model of education, school, teacher, classroom, lesson, blackboard, exam – they were sort of pulling some of that apart, but they were managing to do it at some scale, by which I mean the highest scale was MIT’s OpenCourseWare – 100 million people … Escuela Nueva in Columbia spread to several Latin American countries maybe – I don’t know – 9 million people. Down to much smaller scales of the Citizens Foundation in Pakistan – 100,000 people, the Cristo Rey network of schools in America – 23 schools. So the range of scale was very different, but what they’d all managed to do was get beyond just one or two, they’d reached, they created a model which could at least replicate in some sense.
And there were five things which I think that they do which I think we need to bear in mind when we think about the future of education systems and the first is that they didn’t just try and do more. They did do more in the sense that they opened access and they got more people in, but they did better and different and they were interested in doing better and because they wanted to do better, they did it differently. Because simply doing more of the same gets you this.
[Points to screen, out of view]
Charles: So this is an amazing and yet, in a way, tragic story. So this is a school in Northern Uganda funded by Save the Children, an amazing project campaign launched by Save the Children called Rewrite the Future. Really one woman and four people that she worked with, Tove Wang was her name, created this campaign Rewrite the Future to raise $450 million from donors and governments and then to invest it in improving education for millions of the most vulnerable children in conflict zones around the world. And she went to huge lengths to orchestrate this campaign, but basically it was five people at the core of it, and they improved education for 10 million children – five people, 10 million children, it’s an amazing story. And I interviewed her and went through the whole story of how they did it and at the end I said ‘well what do you think is the main lesson, what do you think you’ve really learned?’ And she said ‘what I’ve really learned is that we chose the wrong goal and the goal we had was to get more children into school and the trouble is there are too many children in school learning nothing and the goal should really be how many you’re getting into learning.’
So what I’m interested in is how that happens. And I suppose my dilemma is that when you’re dealing with things which already have high scale – big education systems – often they’re very, very difficult to change. They’re very resistant to change for all sorts of reasons, they’ve lots of embedded practices, they’ve got industrial relations structures, they’re very risk averse, so on and so forth. And so innovation is often very small scale and I suppose my worry about myself is that I will spend my entire life down in this bottom right-hand corner and that someone will write on my tombstone ‘he was quite interesting but essentially marginal’.
Charles: And it … my kind of … I’m now getting to an age where I really don’t want to just be interesting and marginal, I would like to actually be involved something that works up here which does interesting and different and effective things but does it at scale – how do you get up there?
So these people I think got up there and they got up there because first of all they challenged convention and they were often, I thought, mavericks who created new combinations and mixtures and often emerged out of margins. Now when I say they’re mavericks, actually they’re normal people, it’s just that they wandered into education …
Charles: … and education then regarded them as deeply maverick just because actually they were normal.
Charles: And so this guy is a normal person, but actually in education he’s a maverick because … His name is Martin Burt and he was one of the founders of the first microcredit movements in Latin America. He’s a complete, in my view, inspirational revolutionary, an opponent of the dictatorship in Paraguay. He was invited to take over a farm school by some Franciscan monks who couldn’t run it anymore and he approached it from the point of view of microcredit.
So he saw it through the lens of microcredit and the ethic of microcredit is, ‘how do you save and earn your way out of poverty?’ And so he was interested in how people might earn and learn their way out of poverty and so his model at this San Francisco farm school just outside Asuncion, if you’re looking for a margin, a sort of blasted, extreme, overlooked place, the great chaco plateau plain outside Asuncion which goes on for miles of scrub land, is it. And in this tiny farm school, he created a model where the children work on the farm, they grow the food and provide the services which earns the money which pays for the teachers. So the businesses the children work in, aged 13 to 17, earns the money to pay for the education. But they also learn whilst they’re working, so you know, if you’re in the dairy business, you’re learning how to run a dairy business and you’re learning science and mathematics and teamwork, marketing, all sorts of skills, and when you emerge, you have an academic qualification and you know how to run a business.
And so that combination came about because Martin wasn’t part of education, he was an outsider and regarded as a maverick. So Martin has now created 23 or so of these farm schools himself, but there is a movement called Teach a Man to Fish which has about 2000 schools in it which are all self-sustaining, self-financing, often rural schools. And so Martin’s … the problem that Martin is trying to solve is: how do you get high quality to education to places the state isn’t interested in which are relatively poor and won’t get charitable donors?
[Points to screen, out of view]
Charles: So this is another example. This is a margin, this is an alley in Sao Paolo and into this alley a journalist – an outsider – and some artists started an arts project in Sao Paolo because they were fed up with the way that people retreated into their own homes because Sao Paolo had such a sort of reputation for violence and they wanted to reinvigorate civic space. And so they created this outdoor arts program with street artists, they invited children from all over the neighbourhood to come and at the end of the project, the children wouldn’t go away. And so they invented another project which was building mosaics on walls called 100 Walls and 100 Mosaics and then the children wouldn’t go away and so they did another project. And after about five of these projects, they sat down together and they sort of worked out what they were and they decided that they weren’t an arts project, they were a community education project which was stimulating ways that children could learn outside school in communities in structured ways. From that came a thing called Aprendiz, which is now the largest NGO in education in Brazil, which has created a model of community pedagogy and community-based learning which is used in hundreds of town across Brazil. It came from this alley. You know, this is not the kind of place … there are no beanbags or table football table, or kind of cappuccino machines in this alley. This is not kind of where you would expect innovation to start, but that is where it came from.
So these people looked at innovation in new ways. As a result they create new mixtures and often they start in overlooked places because they’re not smothered then by systems. So that made me think, ‘what if education were a coffee? What if we just looked at education in Melbourne or Victoria like it was coffee? And what if we cared about education so much that we produced books like this? And if we care so much about the quality of our flat whites, what would it be like if we got the same kind of quality into the way we chose education?’ And then I thought, ‘well, I wonder what the kind of coffee system of Melbourne looks like.’ Because at one level you can describe coffee in Melbourne, it seems to me, as a system. Because presumably at night there are huge trucks filled with coffee beans that make their way into Melbourne and then sort of disgorge these coffee beans which then get ground up and made into flat whites and lattes and long blacks, and then people between the hours of eight and sort of ten consume large quantities of coffee and then presumably between eleven and one, they flush it out through the sewerage system into the bay and then sort of all sorts of fish and rats get this huge caffeine hit.
Charles: And so you could describe it as a system and you could think, well we’ll organise it as a system, a sort of big system. But actually of course it’s like this and that looks more like a sort of epidemic to me, or a rash and you know, there’s even a dot on the ‘o’ of Cook’s Cottage. But this, this is a way of meeting an apparent collective need through lots of distributed producers who have intense and close relationship with knowledgeable consumers and are themselves capable producers – lots of competition but also lots of collaboration, it seems to me, in a dense area. And the really interesting thing, I think, is that there is no national curriculum is there, for coffee. And yet they all serve a flat white, you know, you don’t walk into any of those shops and say ‘Could I have a flat white?’ and they say, ‘Oh sorry. We’ve stopped doing flat whites’. So there is a certain standardisation which has emerged out of a distributed system and yet it allows for great variation. So if we can do that with coffee, could we do it with education?
So the next thing that these people do, I think, is that they think like movements. What they think they’re doing is mobilising people as part of a movement – they’re not just running organisations, though many of them are – those organisations are at the heart of movements. And the reason they need to lead movements is they don’t have any resources, so they have to persuade people to give them or to contribute resources, and to do that they have to make people feel that they are part of something that really counts.
So Mushtaq Chhapra, the founder of The Citizens Foundation … they started in 1994 and they simply, a group of businessmen got together and, frustrated with the state of the country, decided they should do something about it and set off with the goal of building a thousand schools. And these are fantastic light, airy, co-educational schools and in Pakistan, to create co-educational secondary schools is a real innovation. The first people they talk to, they decided they didn’t know anything about education so they went to talk to the best professors of education they could find in Pakistan. All of them told [them] it was completely stupid and they shouldn’t do it and it was wrong and it wouldn’t work. And so by and large, all these people, their first point of call was educationalists and by and large they were the most pessimistic and sceptical people about their innovation. And so because they had to work outside systems, they have to think like movements.
So this guy thinks like a movement, this guy Madhay Chavan is the founder-director of Pratham, which is the largest NGO in education probably in the world, it educates 21 million people. And when Pratham got to a certain level in its development – it develops preschool playgroups and preschool groups that people can create in their own houses, just in very local groups – when they got to a certain level, Madhav talked to McKinsey and McKinsey said, ‘Well, what you should do, Madhav, is kind of treat this like McDonald’s, you should turn it into a format and we’ll roll it out.’ And Madhav said, ‘What if we turned it into a Chinese restaurant model?’ There are Chinese restaurants all over the world, there are as many Chinese restaurants as there are McDonald’s outlets, probably more, and you don’t walk into a Chinese restaurant and say, ‘I never realised this was a Chinese restaurant’. I mean you don’t need a big brand up, and they do very similar things but essentially Chinese restaurants are sort of built on similar principles but applied in slightly different ways in different settings. And that, for me, is thinking like a movement. And so one of the challenges of these people is, can systems which have rules and, you know, regulations and procedures, think more like movements and act more like movements. And if you wanted to create a Victorian learning movement or a learning community, what would you have to do – well you’d have to think like them.
So another thing that interests me is what happened to the iceberg lettuce. There was a time in supermarkets in the UK when you could only buy iceberg lettuces, and iceberg lettuces are extremely bland things, aren’t they? They are kind of bland and reliable, you sort of chop them through and they’re tasteless but crunchy. And then along came the bag of organic leaves, so if you go in a supermarket in the UK now, you cannot buy an iceberg lettuce, you can only buy bags of organic leaves. Where did the bag of organic leaves come from? I mean who thought, ‘Let’s get some organic leaves and put it in a plastic bag?’ Where did that idea emerge from?
It came from a couple of people called Drew and Myra Goldman. They were graduate students in Carmel, California and in their year between undergraduate and graduate, they rented 25 acres of land and on that land they started growing raspberries and lettuces. And when the restaurant that was taking the lettuces decided to change their chef and the chef, new chef, didn’t want the lettuces – they were left with all these lettuces. And Myra had been putting them in plastic bags and wrapping them up and putting them in the fridge, and they found that they kept for several days and so Myra said, ‘Why don’t we just do that with the other lettuces and we’ll sell them to supermarkets in Carmel?’ And they sold out. And so they started putting more lettuces in bags and eventually one thing lead to another and Costco came in and said, ‘We want more of your bagged lettuces’. Well, now Earthbound – their farm – has 25,000 acres under cultivation. They run 137 farms. The reason that the organic lettuce is grown is that organic food is both a consumer activity and a social movement. And so part of what we need in education it seems to me are social movements that reframe the industry and reframe the market, just as those movements are reframing energy, food, travel, consumption in other ways. We need people who don’t just provide new solutions, but create new ways of seeing the entire field, think like a movement.
The next thing they do, I think, is that they don’t build new infrastructure generally. Citizens Foundation in Pakistan did, but what they tend to do is they tend to reprogram or repurpose or reuse existing infrastructures very cleverly and so they piggyback on things that are already there.
[Points to screen, out of view]
Charles: So this is one way of thinking what they do – do you want to make a big investment or a low investment, and do you want to have a big impact or a small impact? And often we live life down here, where you don’t really want to change your life that much and you don’t really want to make a big investment. If you go up here, that is the Large Hadron Collider, that is big science, big investment, big impact. This is where most corporate IT programs live …
Charles: … huge investment, absolutely no impact and this is where these people are, they’re down here. Big impact, very little investment, and the reason they’re able to do that is that they are frugal innovators, they repurpose, reuse, recycle, reprogram existing resources and infiltrate existing infrastructures. So Pratham, this NGO in India, has set up hundreds of thousands of preschool groups by piggybacking on people’s homes basically, that’s the distribution network, it’s so people can create these businesses in their homes.
In Jordan there is a reading program launched called We Love Reading and the woman who launched it, who had absolutely no resources, wanted to create a way for more children to enjoy reading so she arranged an agreement to get books from publishers at low price, she then started training mothers to create reading groups and they run them in mosques. And so the mosque is the infrastructure, it’s already there, the mothers already want to do it but they need some training and the books come in as the extra ingredient, and suddenly you’ve got a new infrastructure created because you’ve changed your behaviour.
So often we think that – and, you know, it’s understandable that you need new buildings and all the rest of it. I completely buy that. But what these people do, because they’ve got no resources, is that they reprogram and reuse existing infrastructures. Most impressive example is a woman called Vicky Colbert who created Escuela Nueva, this learning program in Columbia, and all that Vicky has done is create a way for children to learn collaboratively in groups in a structured way, so that one teacher can cope with 60 children because they’ll all be in groups of six learning together and so the teacher is working with them. Seventeen thousand schools in Columbia now use that. It’s just a new kind of software, a new operating system which has allowed it all to be reorganised.
And the final thing is that they create relational systems, or systems of relationships if you like. And the really interesting thing about them is that as they scale, they try not to lose the relational intensity which is at the core of what learning is. So learning is deeply relational, it’s very interactive, it’s very social and often as you scale, you can lose that because it becomes over-structured, too methodical, so on and so forth. So this is a way of thinking about that.
[Points to screen, out of view]
Charles: So this just divides experiences up into high-system, so that’s quite – Starbucks, McDonald’s – quite ordered, quantifiable, repeatable, measurable, and there’s a way of doing it, it looks the same wherever you go. And low-system which is sort of bespoke, tailored, different every time, there’s no particular way of doing it, so it might be a bit hit and miss. And then there’s low-empathy experiences – sort of just a transaction, dealing with a computer, a telephone call, you know, helpline; and a high-empathy experience which is a real connection, and actually the best learning involves high empathy. It involves some sort of sense in which the teacher is trying to get inside the head of the children, the children are feeding back, the children are sharing with one another.
[Points to screen, out of view]
Charles: So if you want a sort of classic example of a high-system, low-empathy experience, go on Ryanair, the airline, that’s the sort of template for a high-system low-empathy experience. So Ryanair; you buy a very cheap ticket and then the airline declares war on you …
Charles: … and then the sort of journey from the kind of arriving at the airport, to getting on the plane is a sort of series of ambushes where they try and take money from you in different kinds of ways. And if you … you know, the sort of dilemma of going on a Ryanair flight is: do you stop and have a cup of coffee? It’s high risk because as you’re getting the coffee you see your flight being called and then you wonder whether you can get the coffee and get to the gate in time and whether it’s actually possible for you to run with a coffee, is it a done thing even, to run through an airport. Can you body-charge another passenger out of the way so you get ahead of them to the queue and then you arrive at the priority boarding queue where there are 50 other people who’ve got priority. And so there you wait anxiously, hoping to get on your Ryanair flight and something really strange happens – the incoming flight arrives, people get off it and they seem to be shaking themselves down as if they’ve escaped from some sort of torture, and that’s the experience you want to have?
Charles: And so the thing about Ryanair, and the reason why low-empathy high-system experiences are so, sort of, upsetting, is that not just what they do to us, but what they encourage us to do to one another almost.
[Points to screen, out of view]
Charles: And so I think that because we live so much of our lives up in that top left-hand box, we often end up trying to go down to this bottom-right box which is high-empathy but low-system, so that’s sort of farmers’ market where my wife and I go every Saturday and buy incredibly expensive tomatoes, because it’s sort of high-empathy and it’s got lots of connection.
So if you apply that to education, this is where I went to school.
[Points to screen, out of view]
Charles: The Vyne Comprehensive School, 1972 to ’76, about 200 boys running riot around a teacher workforce who modelled their strategy on Custer’s last stand at the Little Bighorn because they retreated to the staffroom as quickly as possible and just hoped they wouldn’t get caught. And I don’t think I learned anything at the Vyne Comprehensive School other than how to run really fast when I needed to. And so if you grow up and are taught in a place like that, or you teach at a place like that, then the tendency is that you might want to go up there.
So if you look at the Knowledge is Power charter network in the United States – KIPP – that Mike Feinberg founded, they taught in places like this and they were so frustrated at being in that bottom right-hand corner they thought, ‘We’ve got to create a method, a way of doing things that guarantees good learning,’ and so they went up there.
The danger with that is you get systems which are efficient but cold, so you could go down here where you could have all sorts of experiences like perhaps some aspects of home-schooling, or I think lots of us could imagine places which feel warm and welcoming and they’re great on the social but they’re not really demanding, they’re not stretching, they’re not really kind of propelling children forward. And these places, the experiences that these people created that I looked at, they’re up there.
[Points to screen, out of view]
Charles: They’re both quite systematic, so they care about how they do things, they care about data, they care about feedback, they worry about how they’re teaching and learning, but they’re very, very relational. So they are constantly in contact with the children, they know who they are, they know what their lives are like, very collaborative.
I mean, in ways, the most inspiring day that I spent was a day at something called the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Cape Town, which was like a community of collaboration in pursuit of mathematics. And there was underlying structure and people cared about learning, but it was very underlying, it wasn't at the forefront and what really was driving it was this highly collaborative, very, very dynamic set of relationships.
So I think those are the four things really that they do, they create high-intensity experiences at high scale. They do intimacy at scale if you like and often scale and intimacy don’t seem to go together, but if you want really good education, I think you have to have very intense, very intimate experiences also delivered with scale.
So four things. Challenge convention, which means education needs to be opened up to outsiders who will bring in new ways of thinking that will often seem completely irreverent and kind of un-sort-of-politically correct, but education needs that to open itself out to different possibilities. Think like a movement, not like a system. Think that you’ve got virtually no resources, so you’ve just got to mobilise people around a cause and to draw them in. Re-use and repurpose wherever possible, rather than building from scratch, so you can reprogram and create systems built on relationships which have this kind of intensity.
Where would you go, finally, to see an education system or an educational institution that was a movement and built a culture and did that kind of thing, well, you would go to Barcelona it seems to me. Has anyone here been to Barcelona? [Raises his hand] Half the audience has been to Barcelona. Who here owns an Apple product? [Raises his hand] Oh, the entire audience owns an Apple product.
Charles: So Barcelona … the key cultural institution at the heart of Barcelona as a city, it seems to me, is Barcelona Football Club. And Barcelona Football Club somehow symbolises what Barcelona stands for, it seems to me. And that’s because during the period of the dictatorship, the football club stood for culture, independence and democracy. And the really amazing thing, I think, about Barcelona is that as a football club they embody a way of playing football which stands for a bigger idea. And I think that bigger idea is systems and relationships – let me just briefly explain it.
Where Sue and I come from, Lancashire – except Sue speaks Lancastrian and I speak sort of London – where we come from, football, in the early days when it was invented in England, it was sort of built on a sort of class system and there were people at the back, defenders, who were really big and they tackled and then they got the ball and then they booted it upfield to attackers who were really creative, they were sort of Richard Florida’s creative class but on a football field, and they had sort of white boots and nice hair and they could control the ball and dribble and they were very talented, but as soon as they lost the ball, they would just sort of stand there and do nothing and then the ball would go back and the defenders would boot it up to them again.
And the defenders, under no circumstances, were to cross the halfway line – that was like going into enemy territory. And so English football was played in straight lines like this [demonstrates parallel lines with arms], it was sort of up, down, long ball, and then occasionally it would go sideways and it was very sort of symmetrical, so there were sort of various unstated conventions, like if you were right back, number two, you marked the left wing, number eleven, and if you were left back number three, you marked the right wing number seven. And they lined up against one another, a bit like armies in trench warfare.
When the Hungarians came to Wembley in 1953, they played a different kind of football and the BBC commentator at the time said, ‘This is incredible – the number eleven has moved to the right wing,’ as if it was sort of unheard of that someone would do that and break the rules, it’s sort of, ‘Good lord, what are they doing, they’re sort of confounding us with their clever tactics.’ And really that Hungarian way of playing football then passed on through British coaches, ironically, to this amazing side, came from the margins – Amsterdam Ajax in the 1970s. And in the 1970s this guy Johan Cruyff was a sort of hacker in football terms, invented a completely new way to play football and it was called total football. And the idea of total football is that every single player on the field can play football, not just the people at the front, but everyone can play football. And they can all pass and move and dribble and exchange spaces and football is a sort of dynamic interaction of all eleven players.
Cruyff goes from Ajax to Barcelona, becomes its coach, now its president, and the Barcelona football side that you see now is the culmination of total football. And what you see when they play, it’s completely systematic, there are ways of doing things, they are highly efficient and yet they’re incredibly creative and it’s a sort of collective creativity. And they never, ever play in straight lines. They always play at different angles, so they’re always playing to try sort of new combinations or new ways of bringing one another together. And the Barcelona philosophy is ‘always pass’. Always pass and always look for people in space, always be connected.
So if we had an education system that was a total education system, everyone can play, everyone’s connected all of the time, you’re constantly passing, you’re constantly connected and it’s a collective exploration of possibility. Rather than the Eng– I think the education system now is basically like English football, it’s kind of up, down, straight lines, forwards and backs. And actually what we need to think is that education can be more like Barcelona, it can be this total, immersive, creative, collaborative activity.
Barcelona Football Club is at the heart of Barcelona as a city. What’s at the heart of Barcelona Football Club, it is an amazing school called La Masia where they learn this practice and this philosophy. That is a way of learning which is simultaneously at the heart of a culture and a movement which embraces an entire community. And that is what we need, it seems to me. We need to think about learning, not as a system and a service, but as part of a culture and as the start of a movement. And that I think is how education could eventually take on board innovation. And I’ll leave it there.
'We need people who don’t just provide new solutions, but create new ways of seeing the entire field and think like a movement.'
- Charles Leadbeater
About this video
Listen and learn as innovation and creativity expert Charles Leadbeater turns his attention to education and the question of access and quality.
Charles introduces us to social innovators who have changed accepted models of learning, and are doing interesting and effective things to improve the learning experience around the globe.
Be inspired by his tips for successful collective creativity, including the mantras think like a movement, not like a system, and reuse and repurpose wherever possible.
Charles Leadbeater is a British author. Charles Leadbeater is a leading authority on innovation and creativity.
He has advised companies, cities and governments around the world on innovation strategy. In 2005 Charles was ranked by Accenture, the management consultancy, as one of the top management thinkers in the world.