How entrepreneurs can help to fix education

By Saad Rizvi on December 31st, 2012

It is impossible to anticipate what changes the next fifty years will bring, but some of the elements that will drive that change can be predicted. We face some truly fundamental challenges that need to be overcome if the nine billion people living on Earth in 2050 are to lead fulfilled lives – the nature of the economy, the health of the environment and the avoidance of catastrophic conflict, to name just three.

We also know that the pace of innovation will continue to accelerate in science and technology, posing all of us the challenge: can the search for social solutions – that seize the good from science and technology and prevent the harm – keep up? All this is happening in a G-zero world in which a historic transition from Atlantic global leadership to Pacific global leadership is evidently taking place. Meanwhile, the nature of global leadership itself is changing as the problems we seek to solve become more complex and less amenable to the diplomatic means of the Cold War and before.

These features of the future raise many questions. What is clear, though, is that education – deeper, broader and more universal – has a significant part to play in enabling humanity to succeed in the next half-century. What is also clear is that public systems cannot move fast enough to meet this challenge on their own– there is an urgent need, now more than ever, for the disruptors and innovators who have reshaped the music, computing, commerce and all other walks of life to play their part in education. The future of the next generation depends on the emerging breed of education entrepreneurs and what they can deliver to society over the next few years.

The growing pace of change and increasing complexity mean that education reform will no longer be merely about summits behind closed doors. In an era of transparency, leaders will find themselves constantly in dialogue with nimble start-ups that are quickly able to adapt and provide solutions to their immediate needs. Meanwhile, innovations which transform societies can and will happen anywhere. Leadership, in short, will be not just come from seasoned education ministers, but from groups of 20-somethings working through the night in Silicon Valley, in London’s Silicon Roundabout and in Bangalore to address shortcomings in education systems that they themselves know intimately about from recent experience.

To add to that, the Pacific seems destined to become the focus of global leadership. The economic and educational achievements of the Pacific region in the past fifty years are spectacular – unprecedented, in fact. But the mix of factors that brought about those achievements will not be capable of meeting the challenge ahead. Too many education start-ups are still focused on the North American systems. Though important in their own right, education startups of the future have to tackle problems that are global in nature: on developing solutions that serve children not just in New Orleans, but in Singapore and Hong Kong as well as Cape Town and Mumbai.

Among other things, an education revolution will be required. It will need to have be grounded in the growing evidence of what works in education. But it will also have to go beyond that to challenge the boundaries of past evidence, to apply the knowledge from other fields ranging from mobile to payments onto education systems and, in some cases, go back to the drawing board and “hack” the fundamental notions of education altogether.

So, if you’re up for the challenge, where should you start? In short, your barometer should be to ensure that students everywhere leave school ready to continue to learn and adapt, ready to take responsibility for their own future learning and careers, ready to innovate with and for others, and to live in turbulent, diverse cities. The world needs your help in developing perhaps the first truly global generation: a generation of individuals rooted in their own cultures but open to the world and confident of their ability to shape it.

Saad Rizvi is executive director of efficacy at Pearson. He tweets at @saadhrizvi