TED Talk: Education Innovation in Slums (Or McDonald’s vs Chinese Restaurants)

 Charles Leadbeater, an “Innovation Consultant,” considers how technology is by some of the poorest people in the world. Leadbeater’s idea that technology can lead to the “schoolification of the world,” with information and opportunity available to everyone. He suggests that instead of looking at Finland as the example to use as a model–Finland has optimal circumstances which can’t be duplicated that contribute to its success– we should be looking at places where education is thriving and innovating despite serious problems. One major difference, according to Leadbeater, is that schools in those situations attract students by pull, not push. Students are pulled into schools (or self learning) because of their desire; that’s not common here. Instead, we require students to come, and push them into not only being in school, but exactly what and when they learn. Pushing students into school is a natural side effect of presuming a factory model of education, with students essentially on an assembly line. Is there another way to deal with the quantities of students we deal with? Not as we define education now, certainly. But can technology lead to a redefinition of how we educate, leading to more pull and less push? Leadbeater thinks so. That completely changes our concept of curriculum, and it relies on intrinsic motivation, something that American education neither needs or expects.

Leadbeater also discusses Madhav Chavan, who created a non-profit system, Pratham, for getting educational opportunities to poor children in India. At one point, Chavan was offered the chance to create franchises of his method. Leadbeater explains Chavan’s reaction:

When they got to a certain stage, Pratham got big enough to attract some pro bono support from McKinsey. McKinsey came along and looked at his model and said, “You know what you should do with this, Madhav? You should turn it into McDonald’s. And what you do when you go to any new site is you kind of roll out a franchise. And it’s the same wherever you go. It’s reliable and people know exactly where they are. And there will be no mistakes.” And Madhav said, “Why do we have to do it that way?Why can’t we do it more like the Chinese restaurants?”

There are Chinese restaurants everywhere, but there is no Chinese restaurant chain. Yet, everyone knows what is a Chinese restaurant. They know what to expect, even though it’ll be subtly different and the colors will be different and the name will be different. You know a Chinese restaurant when you see it.These people work with the Chinese restaurant model — same principles, different applications and different settings — not the McDonald’s model. The McDonald’s model scales. The Chinese restaurant model spreads.

Currently, America seems determined to create a McDonald’s version of education, pushing students into an increasingly codified educational experience. And technology can be used to scale curriculum and assessment to sizes we couldn’t have dreamed of a generation ago. Technology does standardization well.

But it is only a tool, and it can be used for individualization, connection, and  creativity, as well. If we continue on the path we are currently on, the McDonald’s model of education will win. Leadbeater’s TED Talks offers us some alternative visions of the future. The decision is ours.

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