Innovation in education: learning from experience

Scaling up an innovation for maximum use and maximum benefit is never easy. The road to success is bumpy, and good ideas inevitably stumble into barriers – especially when the purpose of the innovation is to improve children’s learning experiences.

But innovation that can be effective, scaled up and replicated is precisely what is needed to tackle the challenges of the global learning crisis.

Estimates show that only 10 per cent of young people in low-income countries will gain basic secondary education skills by 2030. This lack of learning can lead to unemployment, poverty and greater inequality.

Child with earbuds, pointing to something on a tablet screen while kneeling on a blue and green rug in a thatched building
© War Child HollandA student works on a math game using a solar-powered tablet.

Clearly, business as usual will not create the change required for all children to complete secondary education and learn essential knowledge and skills – a requirement of meeting Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals, the development road map approved by global leaders. Innovation will be essential. And just because scaling up an innovation is difficult, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue it. We must, and we must learn as we go.

Innovation in action

A new report, Journeys to Scale, offers an opportunity to learn from real-life examples of innovations in education. The report, by Results for Development (R4D) and UNICEF, documents the experiences of five innovative education programmes. It explores conditions that helped the programmes succeed and describes the roadblocks they encountered. It also offers recommendations.

The innovations discussed in Journeys to Scale came from five countries on two continents: Brazil, Ethiopia, Ghana, Peru and the Sudan. They tackled issues as diverse as accountability in education systems, school readiness and educating hard-to-reach children.

The innovations did not necessarily involve technology. Many were innovative because they re-imagined or challenged processes, services, programmes and partnerships.

None of the innovations identified a silver bullet. In fact, some of the programmes are struggling to stay afloat. But they all offered a local solution to a local and often global problem and provided valuable lessons about how a programme can increase its reach and effectiveness – about how to scale up an innovative programme.

Little girl looks and points at her tablet screen
Innovations like computer tablets are used in learning centers that serve children who do not attend regular schools.

The Can’t Wait to Learn programme in the Sudan was one instructive example.

The programme used a customized math game on solar-powered tablets and the support of facilitators to teach children aged 7 to 9 the Sudan’s math curriculum for alternative learning centres. The students who used the device lived far away from schools in rural areas, semi-nomadic communities or communities for internally displaced people. Most of them had never been to school and were unlikely to ever go to school.

From the start, the programme presented the possibility for scale up and offered the potential to meet new needs, especially the need for alternative learning opportunities for the growing number of internally displaced people.

Two pilots of Can’t Wait to Learn, the second with more participants, produced a rise in children’s math scores by 20 and 31 points. The results also included psychosocial research that showed a positive effect on the self-esteem of boys and girls. Now the programme plans to scale up its efforts in order to reach 170,000 children in marginalized Sudanese communities and in new countries in the Middle East in the next five years.


Though Can’t Wait to Learn faced distinct challenges, it also offered at least three keys to success that can be replicated. The programme:

  1. Planned for growth from the very beginning.
  2. Used customized and generic elements as it created a model that could be easily replicated.
  3. Expertly managed and tailored interactions with a variety of partners and stakeholders.

These keys to success are some of the many recommendations gleaned from the five innovative programmes examined in Journeys to Scale. Many of the innovations needed will be context-specific. But as the world works to improve learning experiences for children around the world, this report, and the experience of innovators around the world, can offer valuable lessons that will help us provide quality learning opportunities for every child.

Jo Bourne is Associate Director and Chief of Education at UNICEF, the United Nations agency that works for a world in which every child has a fair chance in life.

Nicholas Burnett leads the global education portfolio at Results for Development (R4D), a global non-profit that works with partners in more than 55 countries to find new ways to help people escape poverty and reach their full potential.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with “required.”


  1. May I invite you, Jo, Nicholas, to take a look at the Facebook page of Sekolah BISA (Jakarta, Indonesia), a school which also addresses the needs of internally migrant Indonesian children.

  2. Thanks for featuring and sharing with all the “Can’t Wait to Learn” Innovation in Sudan. With help like this we hope the initiative will attract support to sustain and scale it up to reach more of the 3.1 million out of school in Sudan.

  3. Please don’t mind my comment. I am from Pakistan and working in development sector since 2004 and has been observed and classified the humanitarian ,educational and social development efforts of INGOs very closely. With the reference to sustainability point of view i would like to comment positively but fairly to open the eyes of Policy makers of developing countries who are seriously thinking for improvement of the life living in poorest countries or regions of our planet.

    Yes, it is inspirational but not more than that for neglected people of the world in real sense. It is also good marketing tool but not reflects provision of sustained educational opportunities for the neglected world. It is part of promotion to impress others successfully.

  4. Really,wonderful technology at least to make children aware about learning and how to learn. Please scale up this experience to many poor African children.

  5. Very beautiful, but not a computer, it is only a means of education.