What Innovation Looks Like In Education

Something I believe a lot of people misunderstand, particularly those who are education-adjacent

A top down view of our play area at Streetlight Schools, built on the ground floor of a converted factory in inner-city Johannesburg that is now an affordable housing complex. Is that innovative? We’d like to think so and being the first green-star rated school in South Africa doesn’t hurt. 📸 cred Andre.

As I’ve continued to have discussions, I think it’s increasingly important to help bridge the divide between education practitioners (teachers, principals, district employees & leaders) and education-adjacent practitioners (design firms, after school programs, edtech companies, learning & development divisions and firms, politicians, school boards, entrepreneurs).

We need to speak similar language and build trust, and each side must seek to understand the other.

There is one big thing I believe would help for education-adjacent practitioners to understand about education practitioners.

What Innovation Looks Like

People believe innovation looks a certain way. For something to be ‘innovative’ it must have 3D printers, or a completely holacratic org structure, or students must be creating moonshot projects. And yes, I do believe this is what education SHOULD aspire toward for ALL students.

However, we’re all on different parts of the journey and working on different aspects of this complex, bundled thing called education. As someone reminded me recently, we’re often like the three blind mice trying to describe what an elephant looks like but only having access to one part (the trunk, the ears, the legs) in order to describe the whole.

As such, we maybe tackling different parts of the system, whether funding (https://edbuild.org/), or last mile supports (http://www.bonaikamva.org/), or unlocking creative problem solving for teachers and school leaders (https://www.trueschool.org/), or just making sure numeracy instruction is strong (https://www.numeric.org/) or just supporting teachers and schools with the basics (http://www.risingacademies.com/onair).

For some, context matters — especially what communities we work in and where students start.

For some, age matters — are we targeting early-childhood, elementary school students or adult learners?

For some, breadth (aka scale) matters.

For some, depth matters.

For some, sustainability and resource efficiency matter.

All of these things matter, yes.

But, no matter what matters most to you, I believe we need to start looking at the underlying culture, processes, systems and talent of these organizations and initiatives and use that to help diagnose and push organizations to be more innovative today than they were yesterday, more innovative next week than they were today.

A few powerful examples of new ideas geared toward measuring the culture and underlying conditions of an organization include IDEO’s Creative Difference and Frédéric Lalou’s Reinventing Organizations.

Building A Culture Of Innovation

For example, Creative Difference describes 6 key qualities IDEO believes from its decades of work and research are essential to innovation (read also: creativity / agility). From IDEO’s Creative Difference website, the summary of each quality:

  1. Purpose: A clear, inspiring reason for the company to exist — beyond making money.
  2. Looking Out: Looking beyond the company’s walls to understand customers, technologies, and cultural shifts.
  3. Experimentation: The degree to which a company is able to explore new ideas quickly and inexpensively. The degree to which a company is able to explore new ideas quickly and inexpensively.
  4. Collaboration: Working together across business functions to approach opportunities and challenges from all angles.
  5. Empowerment: Providing a clear path to create change in all corners of the company by reducing unnecessary constraints.
  6. Refinement: Elegantly bridging vision and execution.

Using these to reflect on Streetlight Schools, here are some observations and insights I had when trying to self-report how we measure up:

  1. Purpose is strong at Streetlight Schools — I believe we know and are clear on why we’re here, which is to empower students to transform their lives. Everytime we hold a culture refresh or discuss why people are here, every member of our team is able to articulate this clearly.
  2. Looking Out for us is strongest when I consider the work we do to get to know our community, especially in the South African context. Our social worker regularly engages with family and parents, does home visits and brings colleagues with her to understand the lived realities of our students.
    I consider my role as CEO to also help look at broader trends and to bring best-in-class ideas and inspiration to my team, but increasingly, we have developed and enabled others on the team to do this as well. While I believe we still have room for improvement here, this is one of the most exciting developments I have seen for our team. And it shows in big and little things, like team members who initially didn’t know how to attach files to emails now using Zoom to run virtual lessons with their students.
  3. Experimentation by nature for a school can be tough. The schedule is one of the key tools by which a school expresses its ambitions, but we are always balancing and making trade-off decisions around staffing, ambitions, values, curriculum, government requirements.
    That said, we have retained our ability to experiment by scheduling extracurricular activities. We usually use this block of time to test new ideas, whether implementing Khan Academy to build agency and advanced skills or Scratch to build digital literacy and creative computing skills.
  4. Collaboration is something the team has prioritized from day one, from Melanie to Tatenda to Heidi to myself. Unfortunately, enabling time for collaboration in a highly scheduled and structured environment can be difficult, especially when funding gets tight. So even though I think this is higly important at our organization, we have had to reduce time for collaboration due to funding and personnel constraints.
    The education system more broadly often does not allow for this even more so, because teachers in the public system have an even more regimented structure and curriculum they must follow AND a high administrative and compliance burden. I found a great example of how to change this through understanding context and shifting incentives from this TED talk by Seema Bansal from working with a school district in India. Her bottom line: shift incentives and what education department officials check up on (ensure accountability focuses around learning and curriculum). And provide right level and contextual support to teachers and principals.
  5. Empowerment is also something we’ve worked hard to do, but striking the right balance between nonnegotiables and autonomy is really critical especially when you have a lot of first time teachers and first time professionals period. From hearing our teachers talk about the opportunities and challenges, it is clear we have enabled some serious unlearning and relearning, some powerful mindset shifts (see below). That said, we still have work to do especially when it comes to aligning on salary and having a clear performance management system that is aligned with personal development plans for every staff member.
  6. Refinement is going from ideation to implementation to iteration. I’ve seen huge growth in this area over the last year for myself and also for my schol principal, both of us who took over leadership positions for an existing (albeit very young) organization. And yet, I know that while we have gotten much better and being creative, leading trainings, communicating shifts and implementing ideas, we still have a long way to go toward defining and achieving our KPIs and Big Rocks through a product development lens (ongoing, continuous improvement) rather than through a project management lens (hitting milestones and getting things done). Though again, I’d argue this is a big shift that needs to happen across the education sector.

Trade Offs and Priorities

Implicit in everything I described above that I want to make explicit is that we have to make trade offs.

And here especially is where all those variables I described above really come into play. Where your students start. Where your teachers start. How much in resources can you bring to bear on the organization and challenge.

At Streetlight Schools, we are constantly calibrating between high ambitions and practical constraints (talent, finance, time). This manifests in how we strategically and tactically balance between helping students a) engage positively with themselves & their peers and process their lived experiences & traumas; b) develop core academic skills like numeracy and literacy; and c) develop broader life skills like character, confidence, 21st century skills, self-awareness. This extends to everything from staffing to professional development to the subjects chosen to the schedule (or time tables as it’s called in South Africa, not to be confused with these).

We also know how to shift gears rapidly. For example, when the COVID pandemic hit and South Africa implemented a full lockdown, we prioritized the basic necessities for our students and their families: food. Because we have such tremendously dedicated teachers and we’ve been able to continue paying them (as well as all our contractors), they were able to be innovative and resourceful in supporting continued learning despite the fact that very few of our families have access to laptops or consistent WiFi. Our team put together resource packs they could send to parents via Whatsapp.

We shifted into emergency fundraising mode because we realized that by week four, the lockdown had made is so we not only had to support 25 families, but over 170 families (of our 315 students) who have seen their incomes and livelihoods impacted by the lockdown.

We’re not alone. We’ve seen many US school districts priortize nutrition, and many organizations in South Africa (like PfP) and around the world shift first into being able to support the most basic needs. Then, those that can have also been innovative and resourceful in implementing learning at home in various contexts.

Some COVID Resources

Rising Academies in Liberia is building lesson scripts that can be used for radio and modified to different contexts.

There’s never been a better time to use online courses for your teachers as professional development. We’re looking at things like Stanford’s Code In Place (unfortunately now full), MIT’s Learning Creative Learning (from the same team that built Scratch).

UNESCO COVID Response database is one of the best databases of collected resources. Included there are incredibly helpful databases like this UNHCR list of 600+ Digital Learning Resources, which we plan to use as things stabilize.

This Save the Children review on EdTech for learning in Emergencies and Displaced Settings very helpful.

A friend and employee at ALX has turned his substack newsletter to focus on sharing lessons from homeschooling, including these two powerful posts on structure and lessons thusfar. Add to that a poignant, funny and all-to-real one act play if homeschool were actual school.

This WHO guideline on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings is also excellent for social workers and those involved in socio-emotional support and health in schools and communities. Although very in-depth, just skimming the first few pages will give great insights, including the graphic below and the accompanying action sheet (pp 12–15). Those alone should help the social work and school teams a great deal in trying to decide how to cope. This is becoming a crucial topic as many schools and organizations are now shifting from discussing how to keep learning happening to what to do to help process trauma and heal when schools reopen. Hat tip to Melanie from Streetlight for a number of these resources which she shared with our team.


Hence, I hope this post starts to target assumptions various stakeholders hold about what innovation looks like, and how schools must balance careful trade-off decisions. It comes back to a point I made previously: education systems and educators are asked to do so much , often with so little. If that’s the case, while we may care about innovation deeply and have wildly ambitious plans, we must often balance those with the most pressing and urgent needs of our students, parents, teachers, and communities. This does not mean we are not innovative, nor that we don’t care about innovation. It’s just a practical reality all of us face.

PS For the next post, I plan to write about what education gets wrong about most people.

PPS We’re organizing a virtual education unconference for end of May / early June. If you’re interested in joining, get in touch!

davidfu.co | Ever-evolving, global ed & innovation entrepreneur | CEO Streetlight Schools | expansion lead 4.0 Schools | ex-i-banker | Joburg Global Shaper @WEF

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