Social Innovators Changing the Education Landscape Around the World: A Force for Good in Education

First some background:  I recently returned to the university after working internationally for four years with education-related NGOs. I had been a professor and dean of a school of leadership and education at the University of San Diego and I’ve moved across the street to another school – the Kroc School of Peace Studies. I’m teaching in the new Masters in Social Innovation (MASI) program.  And you ask—”What is that?” or “Are social innovation and social enterprises just another fad?”  

While working with NGOs’ internationally over the last four years I’ve met hundreds of people who consider themselves to be social innovators, with some working in social enterprises.  First, let’s define each of these terms. 

The UK’s Young Foundation (2012) defines social innovations as new solutions (products, services, models, processes, etc.) that simultaneously meet a social need (more effective than existing solutions) and lead to new or improved capabilities and relationships and better use of assets and resources.  In other words, social innovations are both good for society and enhance society’s capacity to act.  Some people would argue that charter schools are social innovations; however one defines it, social innovation is increasingly considered to be a key way to address the grand challenges facing societies. 

A social enterprise is often defined as an organization that uses commercial strategies to maximize improvements in financial, social and environmental well-being.  The concept is hard to define partially because there’s a blurring of the lines between nonprofits, for-profits and government.  Basically, a social enterprise addresses an unmet need or solves a social problem using a market driven approach.   I’ve been working with two social enterprises the last few years. Both Edify and Opportunity International are nonprofit organizations that provide micro-loans to affordable non-state schools in low and middle-income nations.  The unmet need is the loan the school needs that commercial banks won’t provide, either because the loan request is too small, the enterprise has no credit history or the collateral available is insufficient. The social problem being addressed is the demand for more schools since governments are having difficulty finding the resources to provide enough.

Another example of a social enterprise found in Pk-12 education is the Cristo Rey School model.  Inner-city Cristo Rey schools are in cities in over twenty US states and serve more than 12,000 students from low-income families. They are high schools that integrate four years of college prep academics with four years of work experience through what they call a Corporate Work Study Program.  In a nutshell, the model works as follows:

  • A team of four students (one student from grades 9-12) shares one entry level position at a professional organization.  
  • A student works one day per week and approximately one extra day per month so that the four students, as a team, are equivalent to one full time person. 
  • This allows students to earn most of their high school tuition and at the same time gain work experience. These teams might work at professional organizations such as Accenture, United Airlines, the Red Cross or American Express, to name but a few. 

Why I’m excited about the MASI program is that it follows what we teach at the Kroc School–that students think beyond the status quo (i.e., the current structure, delivery and programs in schools) about social problems; instead, we try to teach students to look at problems in fresh ways and transform ideas into successful projects with scalable impact.  Some of the skills they learn include how to frame problemsuse design thinking, and work in teams to collaboratively solve problems.  They are also learning how to do gap mappingdesign business models and use impact assessment tools. The school has an annual international Global Social Innovation Challenge that rigorously helps students over several months to develop their ideas and then present those ideas to judges and live audiences.

Recently I spoke at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. I noticed that the School’s motto is—Social Impact. Down to a Science. I’m intrigued by this.  Measuring impact is key and we need to ensure the programs and interventions we offer students and their teachers are evidenced-based.  We need skilled evaluation staff in education-related organizations, foundations and government ministries, and the students at the Harris Policy School are being prepared to do that work.  We also need people who can take the research and build it into policy.   At the same time, we have to have people who can think beyond the status quo—who can think creatively– about social problems. We need people who are ready to take on challenges that seem unsolvable.  

Graduate degrees offered by schools like Harris and Kroc will support students from schools of education; since education students have the content expertise and are being trained to effectively implement evidence-based instructional strategies and programs in education. Imagine if students could be prepared across these disciplines to collaborate on projects that explore the intersections of evidence-based programs, policy and innovation.

If we are going to improve existing elementary and secondary schools and provide access and quality education to the over 600 million out of school students, then we need graduates of our programs who are prepared to take a deep dive into real social challenges.  Pairing this type of university training with critical thinking, inventiveness, leadership and sustainable business design are crucial to enhancing Pk-12 school effectiveness.

The Sustainable Develop Goals and the targets for each goal identify challenges that cannot be addressed by people with a perspective from only one discipline.  Educators do not own education. Educators have vital roles to play and their preparation needs to be grounded in proven evidence-based practices along with skills to collaborate with others who think creatively about social problems.  Current education policies and practices reward thinking inwardly and avoid risk taking and ideas from outside the four walls of schools.  

In future blogs, I’ll describe some of the pedagogy used in the field of social innovation as well as the projects related to K-12 and higher education that students are exploring.

meet Paula Cordeiro:

2 thoughts on “Social Innovators Changing the Education Landscape Around the World: A Force for Good in Education”

  1. Thank you, Paula, very interesting, and best of luck in the new position. Maureen

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