Is the Canadian education system properly equipping the next generation of social innovators?

How non-profit organizations are supporting educators to foster social innovation in students, even in a pandemic

Why It Matters

In the face of a global pandemic that has upended the education system and equal access to it, specialized tools and strategies are needed now more than ever to nurture a new generation of social innovators. This is our third story in partnership with the Rideau Hall Foundation in celebration of #CanadianInnovationWeek.

Photo: The Learning Partnership

The classroom of 2020 doesn’t only look different — much of it takes place in a completely different domain. In the wake of the pandemic, educators have been faced with the enormous task of transferring learning environments that value hands-on, collaborative work into the virtual world — or at least the physically-distant world. 

One big problem: experts say that hands-on, collaborative learning is key to fostering future social innovators. 

The good news? Teachers today may be better equipped than ever to meet these challenges. The Rideau Hall Foundation’s 2020 Canada’s Culture of Innovation Report found that while just 25 percent of parents felt that their teachers empowered them to think in innovative ways, 46 percent of students today say they do feel empowered. And 51 percent of students, compared to just 33 percent of their parents, say they feel more encouraged by educators to use innovation to make a positive contribution to the world and to their communities — in other words, to become social innovators.

This stark contrast between generations is representative of an effort within the education system and supporting non-profit organizations to develop and foster a culture of innovation in the public curriculum

As COVID-19 has forced the school system to pivot, educators across the country are working quickly to learn how remote, virtual, and blended learning are changing the tools they can use to foster future social innovators — and the new world those innovators will graduate into. 

 

What tools do educators need for nurturing social innovation?

Since the onset of the pandemic, students, teachers, and caretakers have grappled with the challenges that online learning, remote learning, and blended learning present. An advantage is that students today are better equipped than ever to negotiate online learning – young Canadians (including Gen Z) feel more comfortable with the digital world than Boomers, with 68 percent reporting digital literacy.

Still, says Debra Kerby, CEO of The Learning Partnership, a Canadian charity that partners educators and the business sector to cultivate innovation skills in the workforce, there’s “a need for greater experiential learning” to build the skills needed in future social innovators.

Pre-COVID, experiential learning meant using tools in the classroom to encourage hands-on, creative learning or, as Kerby identifies more precisely, foster the six Global Competencies of learning as defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: citizenship, character, communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity. “The research shows that these are the competencies that students are going to need to be successful in the innovation economy ahead,” explains Kerby. “And two of the ‘C’s are around creativity and problem-solving,” which she identifies as two key skills for adapting in the pandemic and post-pandemic economy. 

In June of 2020 The Learning Partnership launched its virtual Coding Quest, a formerly in-person program. With the arrival of COVID-19, the Learning Partnership amended the program to a flexible, modular model that can be taught in-person or be completely online. “Students work collaboratively to create and code their own video games or stories so it’s a great way to exercise their creativity in team based projects,” explains Kerby. At the end of the program, The Learning Partnership also hosted an online event where students presented their projects, receiving feedback from mentors in the field. 

An adjustment Kerby points to in adapting to the new virtual learning environment is The Learning Partnership’s Bring Our Children to Work Day, which this year was done completely virtually. In addition to a cornerstone event for all educators and businesses to participate in, The Learning Partnership also developed four specific virtual breakout sessions and student-led panels to provide access to new occupations — such as IT, finance and innovative entrepreneurship. “That is really opening up the space for students to go where they want to go and pursue their interests,” says Kerby. This kind of experience follows transformational learning theory — defined as “discovery, both of humanity and of the world, and this sort of ‘self-awareness’ is vital for helping students reach their full potential” — and research shows this type of learning is key to fostering social innovation in students. It encourages agency, self-empowerment and an openness to new perspectives, all key traits of future social changemakers, the research shows.

 
Preparation for the new innovation economy

Photo: The Learning Partnership

Even before the pandemic, educators were struggling with how to best prepare students to enter an ever-evolving workforce. “I think we’re seeing a lot of change and progress around educating young people to be innovators and how to develop the skills required,” says Karen Gallant, Vice President, Programs and Charter Services at JA Canada, Canada’s largest youth business association. “Across the country we’re seeing more collaborative kinds of approaches to teaching students.” Gallant says hands-on, experiential learning is key here. 

She defines this kind of learning as, “any time you can get a group of students together to solve a problem,” she says. “It could be anything from a social improvement, a product improvement, or solving a challenge in any way where they could create a prototype, mock-up or some kind of solution in a visual and or hands-on way.” 

That’s what happens in Iceland, where innovation education has formally been part of the national curriculum since 1999. In innovation-based lessons, students work together to brainstorm and build solutions to problems, both small-scale and in their own lives, and in broader society.

Translating this kind of experiential learning in the digital classroom, or even the blended classroom is possible, Gallant says, but it means approaching even everyday problems with creativity and innovation — an extra push for students to become innovators. She says developing skill sets for younger students to remain disciplined and complete projects in an online environment will be an important tool, as well as the ability to be able to troubleshoot and work around technical difficulties with online platforms. 

These fundamental skills also can help students identify unclear pathways to solutions that carry over to the larger, more complex issues that require social innovation. “We have so many different social issues that students and young people are passionate about – the environment, social justice, wellness related issues – so, I think we are seeing young people looking at those complex societal issues and seeing how they can tackle a piece of it,” says Gallant. “Sometimes, it feels very overwhelming when you think of environmental issues or social justice issues, so finding a niche so they can really start to tackle issues, I think, is a great way for them to approach it.”

 

Equitable access is key

Including a diversity of students’ perspectives in that collaboration process, however, presents its own challenges. The disruptions that COVID-19 has presented in the education system have disproportionately impacted students from low-income communities. Without equal access to education, the future of social impact is incomplete — it won’t include the voices and perspectives of the people who need it. As low-income students fall through the cracks of the online and distanced education model, they’re also being denied the opportunity to learn the skills they need to improve their communities.

“While we can innovate, and we [can] talk about innovation in education, one of the parts to consider is that most education is now delivered online and without the connectivity piece being addressed, the innovation part is further away,” explains Jason Shim, director of digital strategy and transformation at Pathways to Education Canada, a Canadian non-profit providing resources to students to help them graduate and break the cycle of poverty. 

Photo: The Learning Partnership

It’s difficult for the education system to prioritize fostering future social innovators when the fundamentals of access are not being addressed, Shim says. Increased financial pressures, unequal access to the internet, and a lack of quiet and monitored learning environments at home have led to further inequalities in delivering education. 

Shim emphasizes the importance of not only thinking about the large, structural changes that need to happen in order to address this inequality, but also, the importance of collaborating with students in identifying solutions — and says this helps foster future social innovators, too. “The process of co-creation invites students to really take part in what is happening in their lives right now,” says Shim. “It sounds very simple, but it’s really important. I think part of what we do, as well as helping students recognize their agency and building the world that they need moving forward, [is] recognizing our role and inviting them in to build the platforms they will be using moving forward.” That is social innovation and ideation in action.