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Leapfrogging in Education to Narrow the Achievement Gap

Updated: Feb 12, 2022

“If we teach students the same way as yesterday, we rob them of tomorrow.” -John Dewey

One of my most significant concerns as an educator and administrator in higher education is the slowness at which change comes. It sometimes feels as though our institutions are on fire, yet bureaucratic processes prevent us from responding with the urgency required. A monumental change in our approach to education is necessary to meet the needs of the 21st century world and beyond. Further, many would argue that one of the key problems that a change in education should seek to solve is the growing inequity between socioeconomic classes. Leapfrogging, an idea that has its roots in economics, is one of the most promising ideas to come forward in this uncertain time for education. Promising to address inequality and uncertainty through innovation, leapfrogging could provide the dynamic tool necessary to drastically shift our educational paradigm.

What is leapfrogging? Leapfrogging is typically associated with technological development as it relates to economics. Traditional theories of development posit that if developing nations or businesses follow the same steps as developed nations, they will eventually reach the same success. By contrast, leapfrogging theorizes that taking the time to navigate the same steps can keep developing entities at a competitive disadvantage because they are always playing “catch-up.” Instead, leapfrogging allows a nation or business to advance directly to the most relevant technologies or to envision and develop their own innovative technologies (Yayboke, 2018). The visual below explains how a leapfrog approach to renewable energy could work.

The term is often classified into two categories: stage-skipping and path-creating. With stage-skipping, a nation or business circumvents the traditional stages of development in order to jump straight to the latest technologies (Yayboke, 2018). One of the clearest examples of stage-skipping is the rise of cellular phones throughout African countries which lacked widespread rotary phone line infrastructure. Rather than building up that outdated landline technology first, these countries skipped directly to the most relevant modern technology of wireless phone service (Winthrop, 2016). Path-creating, on the other hand is when a nation or business explore an alternative path of technological development involving innovative emerging technologies (Yayboke, 2018).

The Case for Leapfrogging in Education The ultimate goal of leapfrogging is to reap the transformative benefits of gradual technological progress, but in a much shorter timespan. So, while the term was originally coined to describe the technological development of nations and businesses, it can also be applied to the harnessing of innovation to swiftly advance educational progress. Given that education is the primary currency for social advancement, and inequality is at its highest levels in decades, leapfrogging educational progress could be a critical tool at this moment in history when global education data projects that by 2030 more than half of the world’s children will be failing to achieve basic skills at the secondary level. As the graph below indicates, these skills include literacy, problem solving and critical thinking.

Income inequality is higher than it has been since the 1980s, and the global expansion of education has taken place within this context of ever-increasing imbalance. In many ways, it could be argued that inequalities are further driven by education. Performance gaps between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds develop early and widen throughout their lives if education isn’t actively working to acknowledge and combat them. While the expansion of education from elite, to mass, to universal is a significant achievement, we can now see that access is only one part of the problem. To truly address inequality through education, we must address the inequality inherent in the current educational approach (Istance, 2019). The graph below shows that even in 2017, with greater access to education among all social classes, inequality in skills acquisition still follows along income lines.

A leapfrog approach could be used to achieve real progress in this area. Rather than students from lower socioeconomic statuses constantly playing catch up with their higher income counterparts, leapfrogging would allow them to catch up and progress at the same rate (Istance, 2019). Leapfrogging in education must take a stage-skipping and path-creating approach simultaneously in order to be effective at narrowing the ever-growning opportunity gap. The graph below, presented by the University of Phoenix, illustrates just how dire the circumstances are. We must bring our approaches up to the 21st century and beyond by trying things that have never been tried before.

Leapfrogging in Education as a Key Element of New Learning Acknowledging that current educational approaches are ineffective for our modern world, New Learning espouses a renewed mission for education based in contemporary times with an ultimate goal of providing equitable outcomes for all learners (Kalantzis, 2012). At its core, New Learning can be understood as a leapfrog initiative aimed at bringing education into the 21st century. Indeed, the concept of leapfrogging can be clearly applied to some of the foundational principles of New Learning.

The first principle of New Learning is that diversity, in its broadest sense, must constitute a core element of educational thinking. New educational designs must account for the differences in learners, borne of the differences in life experience, in order to reach all learners in an equitable way (Kalantzis, 2012). A leapfrog approach in developing these new educational designs around learner diversity could provide the desired equity among learners. With some learners behind the levels of their classmates, a leapfrog approach in educational technology would bring all learners to the same level, without the need to cover information no longer relevant.

Another principle is that a globalist approach based in knowledge, competencies and sensibilities is required to negotiate our ever-changing technology, culture and economy. The New Learning philosophy holds that successfully negotiating diversity on a local level prepares us to do the same on a global level, and vice versa (Kalantzis, 2012). In our modern global world, leapfrogging is used to keep up with quickly changing technological ideas, as well as to apply global approaches to solving problems, which aligns well with New Learning’s globalist approach and desire to keep pace with our changing world.

The Leapfrog Pathway for Education In Leapfrogging Inequality, Rebecca Winthrop outlines a Leapfrog Pathway which is intended to accelerate progress in education in order to address skills inequality, the disparity of skills between the underserved populations and their higher-income counterparts, and skills uncertainty, preparing for an ever-changing world. The pathway was designed to most effectively close the “100 year gap” in education. Winthrop explains that under the current dominant model of education, those furthest behind will take one hundred years to catch up. She goes on to note that this would only mean catching up to what we consider to be “good” education today. One hundred years from now, the skills that are needed to be successful in the world will certainly have changed. Hence, Winthrop intends to address both skills inequality and skills uncertainty with the Leapfrog Pathway (Winthrop, 2018).

The pathway is comprised of two core elements: teaching and learning and recognition of learning, and two support elements: people and places and technology and data. The teaching and learning element should be highly student-centered. Across the world, studies consistently show that innovations in teaching practice have the greatest impact on student learning than any other intervention. Studies also show that students learn more effectively and develop more skills when teachers design learning experiences around student interests and needs. The Leapfrog Pathway promotes a student- centered approach to teaching and learning in order to yield the most effective results. Recognition of learning often shapes how teachers teach in their classrooms, what schools choose to measure, and how employers and universities select applicants. Thus, the pathway’s core element of recognition of learning must be highly individualized in order to be successful (Winthrop, 2018).

The support elements of the pathway: people and places and technology and data provide assistance to the core elements in order to successfully leapfrog. Learning to leapfrog in teaching and learning depends heavily on unburdening teachers and allowing them to unleash their creativity. This will require leveraging additional non-teacher personnel to support learning. Additionally, we must look beyond the traditional classroom as the only place where skills can be developed. The Leapfrog Pathway encourages educators to consider modifying our language from “classroom” to “learning environment” in order to facilitate a change of perspective. “Learning environment” signals that learning can take place in and outside of a traditional classroom. It draws on experiences both in and outside of school (Winthrop, 2018).

Finally, technology and data can both assist education in leapfrogging to a broad range of skills for students, but they must be increasingly results-oriented. The pathway advocates for the purposeful use of data and technology over a meaningless abundant use. When it comes to data, we need to measure what matters and use the resulting data to make decisions for improvement. As for technology, the pathway warns against the inclusion of technology for technology’s sake and encourages educators to use technology to transform learning (Winthrop, 2018).

As the figure below illustrates, the potential to leapfrog is divided into three stages- hop: an initial first step that may maintain the status quo, skip: innovations that lay the groundwork for full leapfrogging, and leap: innovations that redefines education and accelerates progress. This figure provides three examples of potential innovations that could support a hop, skip, and leap (Winthrop, 2018).

Winthrop explains that the pathway is intended to build upon previous innovations, rather than replace them. Indeed, the additive nature of the pathway is what allows a wide range of strategies to coalesce to address the twin problems of skills inequality and skills uncertainty. Winthrop is clear that the pathway is not intended as an evaluative tool for assessing individual innovation efforts, but rather as a tool that can be used to understand the combined efforts of innovations.

Leapfrogging in Education in Practice South Africa’s African School for Excellence (ASE) is an affordable secondary school using a student-centered leapfrog approach to narrowing the country’s ever-widening opportunity gap. The school’s model is based on blended and experiential learning principles. They leverage their limited number of skilled teachers through the use of technology, trainee and peer teachers in an environment of high expectations and rapid feedback. The mission of the school is to transform their communities by developing disadvantaged South African citizens into the leaders of tomorrow. This is outlined well in the video below, which highlights students experiences as leaders of their own education (Istance, 2019).

The inquiry-based approach is manifested in the classroom in three parts: (1) peer-learning, (2) independent work, and (3) class discussion. Under this model, students become knowledge creators, rather than passive recipients of knowledge transmitted from the teacher. Though the cost of attendance is only $800 annually, compared to the average annual national tuition range of $1400-$16,500, students at ASE regularly outperform the wealthiest students in the country by 2.3 times in Math and 1.4 times in English (Istance, 2019).

In 2016 and 2017, a study was conducted in Madrid, Spain to determine how leapfrogging can be used to address lack of access to technology in developing computational skills. In the study, seventy-three 5th and 6th grade students from Spanish public schools were introduced to unplugged activities intended to develop the students’ problem-solving abilities and computational skills without the use of computers. As the table below illustrates, the students were introduced to activities that were intended to enhance their computational skills in algorithms, pattern recognition, decomposition and abstraction (Brackman, 2017).

The results of the study determined that unplugged activities are effective at developing students’ computational skills without computers. Students who participated in the unplugged activities significantly enhanced their computational thinking skills in comparison to students who did not participate. However, the study also found that the approach has its limitations and more research is necessary to determine at what point the unplugged activities lose their effectiveness (Brackman, 2017).

Concerns and Gaps Perhaps one of the most obvious concerns for leapfrogging in higher education is making the fundamental shift in thinking from long drawn out changes to leapfrog changes that aim to make significant progress swiftly. This would be a huge paradigm shift for institutions that are used to the slow pace of change in higher education. While it is common to hear concerns about the slow nature of change, garnering buy in for leapfrogging would still require a great deal of evidence-based persuasion. While the research group that wrote Leapfrogging Education catalogued nearly 3,000 innovative interventions, these interventions were not assessed in terms of efficacy. Clear evidence for the efficacy of a leapfrog approach in education is lacking.

Another potential concern for leapfrogging in education is that if not done properly, it could impede the deep acquisition of knowledge, as outlined in the second principle of New Learning (Kalantzis, 2012). If taken too literally, a leapfrog approach could deprive students of important content needed to fully understand concepts. In The Silenced Dialogue, Lisa Delpit warns against a “simplistic” education of students outside of the culture of power. Rather than separating these students through teaching that views them as incapable of the same thinking and reasoning as students who exist within the culture of power, Delpit advocates for using appropriate teaching strategies that reach all students in the classroom (Delpit, 1988).

If critical context is missed and students from underserved populations are rendered further separated from their fellow students through the leapfrog approach, then it has not only failed in its attempt to narrow the opportunity gap, but it has, in effect, increased it.

Conclusions In Learning to Leapfrog, the authors make a compelling argument for moving forward with leapfrogging in education even though the evidence isn’t entirely conclusive. They argue that evidence borne of educational research takes a significant time to amass, and that although the evidence isn’t watertight, the current educational crisis is so urgent that the lack of solid evidence cannot be used to defend inaction (Istance, 2019). While evidence may be lacking to support the efficacy of a specific application, there is clear evidence available to more broadly support the use of leapfrogging in education to narrow the opportunity gap.

References Brackmann, C., et al. (November 2017). Development of Computational Thinking Skills through Unplugged Activities in Primary School.

Delpit, L. (1988). Delpit, Lisa D. 1988. The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children. Harvard Educational Review 58:280–298. pp. 286, 296

Istance, D. & Paniagua, A. (September 2019). Learning to Leapfrog: Innovative Pedagogies to Transform Education. Center for Universal Education at Brookings.

Kalantzis, M. & Cope, B. (2012). New Learning: Elements of a Science of Education. Cambridge University Press.

Winthrop, R., (2018). Leapfrogging Inequality. The Brookings Institution.

Winthrop, R., (2016, November 7). How Can We “Leapfrog” Educational Outcomes?. Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Yayboke, E. & William, C.A., (2020, April 10). The Need for a Leapfrog Strategy. Center for Strategic & International Studies.

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