Shared Communities to Solve Wicked Problems

The goalpost for development has moved to three unique and wicked problems – climate change, better healthcare and education. Education specifically, of the kind that enables creative thinking and helps shape every child to be a responsible citizen of our shared world. These problems are wicked for the following reasons:

  1. They have slow-burn i.e. they manifest themselves over multiple political and capital spending cycles.
  2. They require social change or collective action which is hard to make happen.
  3. They need us to be active citizens which is a hard act for populations used to rousing themselves to the ballot box once in a few years before hitting ‘snooze’ again.
Wicked Problems Graphic see

Figure 1: Wicked Problems (Transition Design Seminar, Carnegie Mellon University, 2017)

Of all the problems, education is the most pressing concern, not only because a child educated well today, could help address the challenges posed by the other two tomorrow!

In an age buffeted by automation and the shift in community formation to online networks, we are being pressed to raise creative beings who can still retain empathy as societies transform. As a former teacher and student of child development, I know creativity and empathy begin at an early age; as young as 0-6 years of a child’s life. Experts know this too and that is why early child education and pre-kindergarten are creeping up on policy and philanthropy agendas.

As we have seen from decades of work in climate change, enabling impact is a question of having multiple actors take seat at a table and find a way to move the ball forward collectively. As the world’s governments have solved access to education they have been left trying to address quality and learning that enables good citizenship. We need better thinking, collectively, for early childhood education.

I started, Early Insights, in the hope that such thinking should be online and be open and accessible to the world. Since my first job working in technology for telecom 11 years ago where I worked on major programs with British Telecom, I have known how bringing together different players on one platform enables sharing insights rapidly and leads to leaps in thinking. As an entrepreneur after, I always felt I missed a step, realizing later, it was the perspective – what is shaping the world outside my world view and how do I fit in? And finally, my years as a primary school teacher and later a student of Child Development made me realize how rapidly the change in the world outside needs to be incorporated into learning whilst knowing the imperatives of how people learn.

Early Insights brings policy makers, investors, entrepreneurs and people from the field together with their shared perspective and narrative.

Early Insights homepage capture - Tarun Varma Jan 2018

Figure 2: The Early Insights homepage (TM pending)

Issue one of this contributory community features:

  • Insights on policy in early childhood from Naomi Eisensdadt. Noami, a policy advisor to the Scottish government, talks about the need to invest in high quality workforce and lead from solutions that we know, work. Rachel, the Founder & CEO of Koru Kids, is trying to enable families to share high quality child care in London. Her ideas around pedagogy of childcare compliment Naomi’s macro outlook with an understanding of the variance across the city of London.
  • As an investor representing Omidyar Network, Ashley highlights the trends that make the ECD sector more investible. Coming from the other end, Ankit, an entrepreneur in India talks about how he is putting together the nuts and bolts of his startup, Saarthi, for scale.
  • Both Kate at TalesToolkit and Stephanie at EdDESTY are entrepreneurs focused on socio emotional learning via models that work with children in person and have a scalable online training component that is enabling their businesses to expand. This juxtaposed with David’s deep reflections on quality and learning at scale from his time in the field shed light on the fundamental things to get right in a scenario of learning and interaction.
  • Finally, an author, former early childhood teacher and current Director of the Preschool of the Arts, Ann’s perspective on the art of learning, play and early childhood is a great cover for why early educators need to focus on giving the child control of the learning process and push them to engage with the medium of learning, even if it is technology.

My hope? That this community will break silos to establish a collective voice and have a common north star. When the flows of capital turn in favour of early childhood, we and the larger community will know how to deploy it for effective change. Our second issue comes out end February 2018. I’d love to know what you think.

Author Bio

headshot of Tarun VarmaTarun Varma was a 2016 1+1 MBA, MSc Child Development and Education where he was a Pershing Square Scholar. He developed a focus on better early childhood education through a career in technology, entrepreneurship and as a teacher. Tarun is currently an Initiatives Manager at the Lego Foundation where he serves on the ‘Learning through Play in Early Childhood’ team, managing their grants in early childhood centres.


Schools – The Next Domain for Technological Disruption?

Skoll Scholar 2016-17, Alex Shapland-Howes, is passionate about education. He spend several years teaching Maths and Politics in London schools before he led the major growth of UK education charity, Future First. In this blog, Alex explores the future of our education system and the classroom experience.

It is sometimes said that school classrooms look the same today as a hundred years ago.

Students often still sit in rows of desks, writing about Shakespeare on reams of paper. They practise algebra in books and teachers mark them. Blackboards are now white, but teaching is still mostly led from the front of the room.

Yet this description masks huge cultural and pedagogical changes over the last century. Corporal punishment has gone. Girls and boys are now (usually) educated together and both take subjects historically restricted to the other gender. Children with special needs are included and catered for. And whilst teachers do often stand at the front, they employ a whole range of different techniques such as student- and peer-led learning. Our classrooms are also more diverse than ever before.

Almost all would agree these are huge, positive changes. They are. But whilst this represents seismic progress over the 20th century, the change in the last 10-15 years has, perhaps surprisingly, been slower.

Schools in the UK have improved overall. Results are getting better, albeit too slowly (especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds). Much more is known about how to turn schools around. There’s been a revolution in the use of data to help students make progress. The Academies programme was born and grew.  But in the classroom itself, progress has been evolutionary not revolutionary.

This steady classroom development has taken place in the context of one of the biggest technological revolutions the world has ever seen. Smartphones. Tablets. Broadband. Netflix. Crowdfunding. Kindles. Those George Clooney coffee machines. None existed when I was a school boy.

But we’ve yet to see these types of technology truly transform the classroom. Teachers now do more on computers than ever before. Students do too. Computer Science is being rolled out as a subject in schools across the country. In Higher Education, we’ve started to see the adoption of MOOCs.

Yet we’re only now at the advent of the technology that truly can transform our schools. Perhaps the greatest opportunity lies in ‘personalising’ learning.

One of the biggest challenges for teachers is supporting those students finding a topic difficult, whilst stretching the others who pick it up quickly. With so-called ‘adaptive learning’ technologies, students are able to benefit from additional (computer-led) tutoring that is personalised to them according to how they’re progressing. The most revolutionary aspect of the new technologies is that not only will the technology be able to adjust according to whether a student answers a question right or wrong, but it will be able to spot where they’re going wrong and try to fix their misconceptions.

Imagine every student being given individual support, personalised to the exact stage they are at, all the time. That’s the opportunity.

As with most technological disruption, alongside opportunity comes risk. Firstly, this technology must not be seen as a chance to replace teachers, downgrade their importance, or hire fewer of them. These technologies are an opportunity to help teachers maximise their impact on students. One day computers may become so advanced that a conversation is required about whether a robot really can replace everything a teacher does. Even with this new technology, we are absolutely nowhere near that point.

Attention must also be drawn to who is providing this technology and who therefore owns the data. As leading EdTech thinker Nick Kind has observed, Google, Facebook, Amazon et al are already positioning themselves as leaders in this field too. Each relies heavily on data. So does adaptive learning. As Kind argues, schools and their pupils will miss out on great innovation unless we make sure this data is open to start-ups as well as titans.

The technology is close and getting better year by year. The need is clear. Yet teachers are tired of new initiatives.

Early adopters in the profession will bring others on board when they see what is possible, but it is imperative that the companies leading this charge engage properly with the profession. The best innovations will be co-led by teachers, technologists and experts in learning science. The companies that act on that early will win this race.

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Back on the other side of the classroom

Alex Shapland-Howes is a 2016-17 Skoll Scholar and is leading the way for social mobility within the UK’s deprived communities.  After his early career as a teacher, he discovers what it’s like to be on the other side of the classroom again at Saïd Business School!

It’s been almost ten years since I was last a full-time student. Having worked in education ever since, it felt a bit odd to go back to the other side of the classroom in our first week.

We are working towards a day where a child’s background doesn’t limit their future options

I’ve spent the last five years leading the expansion of the education charity – Future First. We are working towards a day where a child’s background doesn’t limit their future options. In the UK, we have one of the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world. The correlation between parents’ earnings and those of their children remains stubbornly close.

Alex being interviewed on UK channel, ITV News.

Alex being interviewed on UK channel, ITV News.

The problem is incredibly complex, but one key challenge is that young people from less advantaged backgrounds are less likely to have positive role models in the world of work. Half don’t know anyone with a job they’d like to do themselves and a quarter goes as far as to say that ‘people like them’ don’t succeed in life.

By helping state secondary schools reconnect with their alumni, Future First is changing those statistics.

Having grown up in the same place and had some of the same teachers, former students can have a transformative effect on the lives of today’s young people – volunteering to deliver careers talks, act as a mentor, or support the teaching of a lesson related to their job.

Over the last five years, we’ve expanded the organisation to work with more than 10% of all secondary schools across the country. Even more excitingly, we’re starting to see the growth of alumni networks beyond our own work.

Our aim is to lead the creation of a genuinely national culture of alumni engagement. Every young person deserves a role model they can relate to, regardless of their background.

I started to look for opportunities for professional development…I wanted to learn what the textbook says about leading teams, developing long-term strategies and running efficient organisations.

Whilst we’ve had great success in growing the organisation and its impact, I started to look for opportunities for professional development about 18 months ago. Perhaps inevitably, we didn’t get everything right, but having moved straight from being a secondary school teacher myself to leading an organisation like Future First, I wanted to learn what the textbook says about leading teams, developing long-term strategies and running efficient organisations.

I came across the Skoll Scholarship by luck, but as soon as I saw it I knew I wanted to apply. I feel incredibly privileged to have the chance to spend a year learning from the world-class experts, reflecting on my own leadership journey and working with amazing people from all over the world. (And they really have been amazing and from all over the world!). There’s not a chance I’d have had been able to do this without the support of the Skoll Centre.

It’s clear from the first few weeks that it’s going to be hard work, but I feel unbelievably lucky to have this opportunity and I can’t wait to carry on making the most of it.

For more information about the Skoll Scholarship, visit



Speaker Series: Patrick McDonald of Viva

Are entrepreneurial approaches to development bringing impacts to children fast enough?

At the latest Skoll Centre Speaker Series brownbag, viagra Patrick McDonald, CEO of Viva, led an intriguing discussion on social ventures working with vulnerable children.  He shared his experience (yes, the ups and the downs!) of over 20 years in the field, and then posed the question of how we can continue to move forward, faster.  Can a funding and incubation platform supporting child-focused social ventures be the answer?

What transpired was a brainstorming session on how to scale successful models, barriers to progress, and new insights on how to collaborate.  We broke down our assumptions (what is “scale”? what is “success”?) and shared ideas for redesigning the flow of support and funding from ideation to scale.

Have any ideas? Get in touch, as the conversation will be continuing among Patrick and the students as his new venture evolves.

Don’t miss your chance to be a part of the next Skoll Speaker Series event!  Albina Ruiz, Executive Director of Ciudad Saludable, will be here on the 25th November at 12:30-1:30.  Bring your lunch and appetite for all things related to social entrepreneurship!