From the “Must Read 2010 Department” comes this most excellent report I just came across (released a few months ago) from Charles Leadbetter and Annika Wong writing for Cisco about “Learning from the Extremes” (.pdf warning.) It’s an instructive look (at least to me) at what options we face when it comes to the new story we are building about learning. In a nutshell, the authors suggest four strategies: Improve the schools we already have, supplement the learning our kids already do, reinvent schools to make education more relevant, or transform “learning by making it available in radically new ways.” Here’s a graphic that sums it up pretty neatly.

While the first three efforts can have a positive effect, the authors make the compelling case that the bottom right is where the most of our efforts should be spent. Obviously, I’m suggesting you read the whole thing (about 40 pages), but here’s the gist of the argument:

• Improvement in our current schools, on its own, will not be enough to meet the growing and changing demands of governments, parents, and children.
• That is true in the established school systems of the developed world and in the much more recently created mass school systems in the developing world.
• Strategies that supplement and support learning at school by working with families and in communities—to change habits, culture, values and aspirations —will become increasingly important.
• However, in addition, education needs more powerful sources of disruptive innovation, to create different kinds of schools and to create alternatives to school—in other words, to create entirely new ways to learn.
• Disruptive innovation in education is too weak because state regulation, teacher union power, parental conservatism, and political micromanagement create high barriers to new entry. Creating diverse new ways for people to learn is still too difficult. Disruptive innovation needs more support and encouragement.
• A band of disruptive innovators is emerging from within school systems in many parts of the developing world. Yet radical innovation rarely comes from the mainstream. Most often it comes from renegades, mavericks, and outsiders working in the margins. This report focuses on a potent source of such innovation: social entrepreneurs promoting learning in the slums of the fast-growing cities of the developing world.
• These disruptive innovators are creating a new logic to learning that often does without traditional teachers, schools, classes, timetables, and exams.
• These approaches may emerge from the developing world, and may apply just as much in the developed world, especially where schools seem to be failing to crack ingrained cultures of low aspiration, ambition, and achievement, which are main causes of the underperformance of whole education systems.

Certainly, there are echoes of Clayton Christensen in terms of the disruptive innovation piece, and Jay Cross’s great thinking about informal learning, but Leadbetter and Wong take it all a step or ten further by suggesting that at the end of the day, transformation is more, a lot more, than having students take coursework online or pursue their own passions. They say that “transformational learning” will require “transformational innovation” to create “new ways to learn, new skills, in new ways, outside formal school.” I know what you’re thinking; that “transformation” word is way overused and watered down at this point. But I have to say, I don’t think they use the word lightly.

According to the authors, we face two huge challenges right now, one very few of us have a real context for, the other most of us can relate to.

Our biggest challenge is how to provide learning at scale to millions of poor people in places that are ill-served by traditional public services, including schools.

Perhaps the most intractable challenge is the failure of mass schooling to deliver on its promise of social mobility and economic improvement for significant numbers of children. After investing huge hopes in schools in the first half of the 20th century, educational under performance has become a perpetual source of anxiety in many advanced societies.

What I love about this piece is that they wade through a bevy of examples as they walk readers through each of the quadrants above, giving a clear vision of what improvement, reinvention, supplementing and transformation look like already in the world. And for me at least, the diversity of the examples, coming from third world as well as developed countries, is an eye opener. But I have to admit that I am most drawn to the discussion of how disruptive innovation can reinvent informal learning. They go into great depth about “social entrepreneurs” who are looking at ways to reframe learning, as in “learning as problem solving” (like real life problems) or “many places for learning,” “learning without teachers,” and “learning as production. This “new logic for learning” that these social entrepreneurs are compelling, for instance, making learning compelling and attractive instead of compulsory, promoting learning outside of schools, getting relevant information to learners so they can tackle the real problems in their lives instead of imparting a set curriculum, and using play as an organizational tool for learning instead of a respite from it. Really interesting stuff.

And here is the upshot: while much of this radical innovation is happening in the third world, the authors clearly suggest that transformation in the developed world with most likely stem from these efforts. Personally, I love the creativity, the flexibility, the passion and the relevance of many of the examples included. And while technology isn’t found in every example, it is an important piece.

To bring to life technology’s potential to enable learning, however, we will need a massive wave of social entrepreneurship, in both the developed and developing world. Without that, new technologies will remain trapped inside old institutions, the learning potentially untapped.

Definitely worth the read. As always, would love to hear your thoughts.