Educators as social innovators

A trilogy of articles; a quest for educators to apprehend their role as a social innovator. This is an introductory article where the concept of social innovation will be disclosed. 


Ever since I embarked on this journey as an educator, I recurrently witness issues that warrant my attention. I have always had the urge to intervene but the way to go about it was uncertain to me. Recently, I undertook an online course about social innovation from the University of Cape Town and it has illuminated my mind to think in multi-layers on how to deal with issues surrounding me. Assuredly, there is not a one-size fit all remedy but there are some recommendations I would like to share in my series of articles to help educators develop their own approach to social innovation and evolve as a changemaker. 

What is social innovation?

We often think that we need extravagant and grandiose ideas to solve problems but what matters most is the effectiveness of the innovation. The term ‘innovation’ on its own has a broader sense of target which is to ‘make something better’. At times, there are also elements of competitiveness when it is associated with market reach. ‘Social innovation’ however has a more focused goal which is to address social needs. It requires deep ruminations on a society that is multiplex and the innovation is highly personalised. Even as problems are novel in nature, social innovation requires a creative response to the situation. 

In the course I took, I came across a South-African award-winning social movement called Reconstructed Living Labs (RLabs). Marlon Parker, the founder of RLabs initiated this to address the needs in his community which revolved around addiction, gang violence and discrimination. RLabs was able to empower youths through technology by teaching them vital skills and providing them support that aided their social reintegration. RLabs began as an innocuous conversation and progressively made a widespread transformative impact because they capitalized on experts who actually came from the community and leveraged on the things which they knew. This leads to the question, how can educators alike contribute to social innovation?


Educators as social innovators

We are living in unprecedented times with significantly exigent challenges which include illiteracy, school dropouts, bullying, baby dumping, child abuse, substance abuse and even urban poverty. Educators who are closely allied with the community be it in school or outside of school, often come across individuals who are confronted with these problems. When these issues involve the younger generation, the effect is not only seen in their academic performance but also in their personal development. 

I strongly believe that educators as influential individuals ought to take the role of a social innovator, crafting new ideas to address these problems so that as a community we can forge ahead with an unfettered growth. Innovations could be architectural or incremental, taking many forms like projects, a short-term program, products or services.

I would like to put a spotlight on two educators who have contributed greatly to social innovation in education, beginning with Andria Zafirakou, the winner of the 2018 Global Teacher Prize. She learnt the basics of 35 different languages in order to form better relationships with her students who come from an area of poverty, deprivation and domestic violence. 

She even introduced a boxing club in school to address the issue of gang violence so that students can channel their feelings and emotions in a safe and controlled environment. Starting something up or learning a new language can be quite a challenge and I can testify to an extent of its arduousness as I have recently committed myself to learn an Asian language to address the social situations in my school community. It requires persistent effort and a lot of sacrifice. 

However, passion is what drives most social innovators to do what they do and I see this in our very own Malaysian teacher, Samuel Isaiah who believes in the pedagogy of the heart. He was sent to teach in a rural indigenious school in Pahang where the social issues faced by the Orang Asli community left a negative perception and stigma, marking them as incapable individuals. 

Samuel however, has an exceptional love for the Orang Asli children and he turned things around through his interventions which nucleate meaningful and fun learning through love, technology, nature, music and collaboration with the community. ‘Sekolah Pokok’, ukulele classes and a crowdfunding project to create an equipped 21st-century English classroom are among some commendable contributions Samuel has made to social innovation, creating a new narrative of what the Orang Asli children are really capable of. Samuel Isaiah is one of the top 50 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize award 2020. 

Let their journeys be an inspiration and awakening for all educators to step up and become pioneers of change as we are indeed in the right position to do so. In my next article, other aspects of social innovation will be explored. I will delve into the nature of problems and how to discover resources for innovation.  


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