Best of 2012: Visionaries, Organizations, and Innovations Changing the Way We Learn

Here are the best educational efforts of 2012 that bring us leaps closer to realizing our full human potential.

In 2006, Sir Ken Robinson took the TED stage and delivered what is now the most viewed TED talk of all times. With wit and humor, and in less than 20 minutes, he dissected the modern educational structure, and asked a question few have dared to ask: Are schools killing our dreams? He argued that creativity needs to be instilled in education, and with that, sparked a movement. The talk sent ripples through out the world, inspired millions of people, and started a new conversation around what education ought to be.

Four years later, he returned to the TED stage, this time with a new question around human potential. It’s become very clear that creativity, imagination, and the nurturing of dreams are what education is meant to be.

As we're nearing the year's end, let us celebrate the visions, organizations, schools, and people who are on a mission to update our educational architectures. Here are the best educational efforts of 2012 that bring us leaps closer to realizing that full human potential:

1. TED-Ed: This year TED's new education platform, TED-Ed, enabled anyone to create lessons based on existing video content, tag on notes and multiple choice questions at the end, and distribute it to a group of people.

"Our goal was to give the best teachers in the world a voice and a platform" said Marc Mertens, CEO of Seso, the design firm that collaborated on the development of TED-Ed. The platform uses the model of the flipped classroom, a concept where students learn through videos outside of class, and use the classroom time to collaborate, ask questions, and develop critical thinking. While video learning is considered far removed from the project-based learning many are longing for, the advent of video learning is important in that it is accelerating the rate adoption of tech and innovation in classrooms.

2. Project Based-Learning: On the opposite side of video, project-based learning has gained more ground. Breaker is a project that invites smart young design thinkers to, well, break archaic systems and figure out how to integrate design thinking and social innovation into outdated structures. Started by Juliette LaMontagne in 2011, Breaker launched three projects—in digital literacy, urban agriculture, and tech for civic engagement.

"We're building a model of hybrid learning where offline, collaborative project work complements online learning. In an era of increasingly high-tech teaching and learning engagements, we need to hold fast to the high-touch," LaMontagne said about her vision for Breaker in 2013. Indeed, Breaker’s partnering with Stanford to launch its first multi-city challenge that will take place in the summer of 2013.

Similarly, Design for America, has kept building further on the idea that encourages young and bright design thinkers to tackle problems that matter.

3. DIY Learning: The do-it-yourself movement became a more relevant topic in 2012, both inside and outside the classroom. Code Academy allowed anyone to learn how to code through a basic and interactive step-by-step structure. Raspberry Pi's collaboration with Minecraft is a great example that puts gamification to good use. The game allows to players build and play in a virtual game world while learning code.

4. Education Technology: 2012 was a good year for ed-tech startups, something that will take on more momentum in 2013. A perfect storm is brewing for innovation to happen beyond what is currently being done with governmental dollars. A brilliant example is Imagine K-12. Founded by former Yahoo and Google executives, and similar to the likes of Y-Combinator, the organization focuses on supporting promising ed-tech startups, getting funding and their rolodexes behind it, in return for equity. The most promising ideas are then spun off into standalone companies.

5. Open Source and Data: With ed-tech startups gaining ground and bringing disruption to the classroom, there will be a massive interest in exploring open source and APIs in data—in other words, to build upon previously existing technologies and synchronize information between classrooms for easy monitoring, evaluation, and improvement. Bloomboard, the winner of SXSW LaunchEdu competition, is a tool for observation, coaching, and connecting in classrooms.

Another good example is Clever, a Y-Combinator graduate (a golden pedigree in tech startups), is a startup that makes the process around student data simple and open for other technologies to integrate with. Much like Apple allows third party developers to make software for their mobile platform, Clever opens up the process for developers to makes life easier for teachers by streamlining data. Already working with over 2,000 schools, Clever has raised $3 million in seed funding from top Silicon Valley players and ed-tech leaders.

6. Green Dot Public Schools: With rapid progress happening outside of the classroom, it's more important than ever for visionary educational institutions and schools to pave the way for others to follow. Green Dot Public Schools is an innovative charter school organization that serves 10,000 over low income minority students in California. This year, they were inducted in the Social Impact Exchange Index as one of the top 100 performing non-profits in U.S., along with making it to the finals in 2012 Race To the Top program. Propelled by a bold vision, Green Dot has sent more students to college than any other charter organization in U.S.

"Children are capable of tremendous regeneration," said Douglas Weston, Director of Development at Green Dot. "We refuse to believe that certain children are lost due to their circumstances of home or upbringing. Green Dot is the support that they need, as we strive to re-think and recreate the conversation around what's possible for them."

7. Vittra Telefonplan: When the Italian Department of Education needs inspiration for building a new 180-school project, they look towards Vittra Telefonplan. In defining what pedagogy looks and feels like in the 21st century, this school looks more like a GooglePlex for kids than a school.

"We are in the business of future." said Jannie Jeppesen, the school's principal. Based in Stockholm, Sweden, their pedagogy of creativity and 21st century problem solving is organically meshed with its architecture. "Our pedagogy is forced by our environment." Jeppesen said. In 2012, Jeppensen was honored by Rektorsakademien and Vinnova as the most innovative school principal, Vittra Telefonplan doubled in size after less than 2 years in operation, and it's currently being used as an inspiration for the other 30 schools in the Vittra network.

8. Creativity and STEAM: Caines Arcade gave birth to a bigger vision of the Imagination Foundation. RISD, one of the top design schools in U.S., with John Maeda at the helm, has been pushing forward to integrate arts and design into STEM subjects through STEMtoSTEAM. And, George Lucas donated the proceeds of the $4 billion Disney deal to education, proclaiming that education "is the key to the survival of the human race".

We are becoming aware that what has been measurable in testing so far, is not always the right thing to measure and pursue. Design thinking, creativity, and imagination are elusive concepts that need to find measurable executions.

We can also expect beautiful things to happen in 2013, when new models and hybrids of video and project-based learning will emerge, complement each others' strengths, and take the global stage to define a roadmap for how 21st century education will look like.

Illustration by Corinna Loo

Julian Meehan

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