“Challenges with scaling are rather about the process.”

Jenny Perlman Robinson is a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, where her work focuses on improving quality education and learning for children and youth in developing countries. She is also the co-author of the book “Millions Learning: Real-Time Scaling Labs.” The Jacobs Foundation spoke with Jenny about how to design an adaptive learning process to support large-scale change in education.

We are all aware of the difficulties of scaling in education, especially in developing countries. What solutions does the Real-time Scaling Lab provide?

We designed our approach in direct response to challenges we were witnessing in many countries. Namely, while there is growing evidence around educational innovations that improve children’s learning, we still know much less about how to translate this into improved policies and practices at scale. Through our research, we found that this requires a combination of technical and political strategies to scale evidence-based interventions, mechanisms to accelerate the adoption of new practices, and strengthening local capacity for successful adaption and scale.

The Real-time Scaling Labs provides a participatory, applied research process that brings together relevant stakeholders to systematically learn from, document and support evidence-based initiatives in the process of scaling as they unfold.

Where do you see the challenges in scaling – especially in developing countries like Ivory Coast?

As our Brookings colleagues have argued in their book, Getting to Scale, challenges with scaling cannot be reduced to one binding constraint. Rather, the challenges are more about the process such as:

  • Planning for scale from the start: Attention is often more narrowly focused on establishing proof of concept or efficacy rather than considering what will be required for scale and sustainability from the very start.
  • A project mentality: A narrow focus on scaling a specific model, organization or brand rather than a focus on expanding and deepening the impact of an initiative, in whatever pathway or approach that might take.
  • Inability to reflect and adapt: Scaling rarely follows a linear path from research to action. Rather it requires experimentation and ability to make course corrections as a reform is implemented or program expands. However, in reality, there is often little opportunity to reflect and adapt.
  • And finally, financing is certainly a challenge, especially in many low-resource communities; however, we found that how resources are allocated can be as important as absolute amounts. Short-term, inflexible funding from donors or short-sighted political agendas can inadvertently undermine scaling efforts. What is often missing in terms of development assistance and government budgets is “middle phase” financing to bridge the critical stages between a pilot and broad uptake.

Are there any cases of pilot education reforms that have been successfully scaled up with your help in any of the countries that you have been working in?

The Real-time Scaling Labs have only launched this year so we don’t have any conclusive examples yet. Additionally, we must also be realistic that scaling is a marathon, not a sprint – and on average, it can 10-15 years for an initiative to achieve large scale. However, we are already starting to see progress in a number of countries, such as mindset shifts within government institutions to approach scaling as iterative and adaptive or meetings of diverse stakeholders who usually wouldn’t come together.

“I am constantly struck by the transferability of insights between low-, middle- and high-income countries.”

According to your expertise, is it possible to transfer educational programs applied by developed and rich countries like the U.S., Germany and Switzerland to Ivory Coast, Kenya, India etc.?

I am constantly struck by the transferability of insights between low-, middle- and high-income countries. Without a doubt, context matters and I would never advocate that one effective approach can be unfurled across the globe, but certainly, there are common drivers or underlying principles when it comes to scaling that are shared across countries – some of which we identified in our previous Millions Learning 2016 report. For example, these include: designing interventions based on local demand and ensuring the cost-effectiveness of programs at scale, or identifying champions, as well as potential opponents, within governments, communities and the classroom to name just a few of many.

What are your next steps regarding broadening the perspective of how to get from scaling to policies?

We look forward to continuing to learn alongside our partners—from Botswana to Jordan to Cote d’Ivoire to the Philippines to Tanzania and beyond—and gaining deeper insights into how policymakers, civil society, and the private sector can most effectively work together to bring about large-scale transformation in the quality of children’s learning and their development.

Jenny Perlman Robinson is a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, Center for Universal Education, where her work focuses on improving quality education and learning for children and youth in developing countries. She is also the co-author of the book “Millions Learning: Real-Time Scaling Labs.”

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