Interview with Irina Hotz and Ross Hall, Co-Leads for Learning Societies, Jacobs Foundation

The Jacobs Foundation is one of the world’s leading foundations dedicated to the learning and development of children and youth. The Foundation supports initiatives that advance evidence and understanding of learning and development; that help  schools in delivering  quality education and sharing good practices; and that transform education systems around the world. The Jacobs Foundation’s ultimate aim is to provide children with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, tools, and equitable opportunities to reach their full learning potential and thrive together.

The Foundation works through three main portfolios: Learning Minds, Learning Schools, and Learning Societies. They have pledged to invest half a billion Swiss francs over the next 10 years to realise their Strategy 2030.

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Congratulations on your recent conference, which was hosted this year by MIT Solve, and used a human-centred design thinking process to work on solutions to four global education challenges. Can you share some highlights from the event?

Irina Hotz (IH): We have been hosting the annual conference for years now. While it has traditionally been a closed, in-person conference for research fellows and researchers to interact, the conference this year went online and global. It was a great learning experience to work with MIT Solve in bringing practitioners and researchers together to create solutions to real-world problems. Everyone at the Foundation was pleased with the result, as it allowed us to explore further the interplay between research and practice, which we believe is essential to transforming education systems.

The Jacobs Foundation’s new strategy places a strong focus on creating learning ecosystems that solve education challenges. Why does the Jacobs Foundation think that cultivating ecosystems is important?

Ross Hall (RH): For the Jacobs Foundation, a learning ecosystem is a diverse group of actors, from different points in the system, working, learning, and adapting together, with evidence,  to provide a wide range of learning experiences and environments within which every child can learn to thrive together.

A young person will never develop all of the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values they need to thrive only in classrooms, behind desks, using textbooks. While this pedagogical approach might be suitable for the development of certain things, the reality is that children need to experience a wider range of learning experiences and environments, inside and outside of school. So a learning ecosystem includes schools but also involves families and the wider community.

For us, the idea of the learning ecosystem is a different way of thinking about an education system.  In contrast with a traditional education system (a rather inert, ‘one size fits all’ model), a learning ecosystem is very alive and is constantly adapting to the specific learning needs and preferences of those who are in it (it adapts to variability in learning).

Whereas traditional education systems are often fragmented and lacking in trust, a learning ecosystem is highly connected and collaborative; with key actors sharing a clear purpose; with measures that support the realisation of that purpose; and with adaptability, diversity and trust being fostered intentionally throughout.

A learning ecosystem is best thought of as a verb as opposed to a noun. It is more of an organism than a machine, which is how traditional education systems are often perceived. To create a thriving learning ecosystem, you have to catalyze a living process through which it comes to life.

Speaking of adaptability and collaboration – at least two of the key positions within the Jacobs Foundation are shared – was this a conscious decision by the Foundation, and if so, how is it working?

IH: The co-leadership model was put in place in April last year at the Foundation. The decision came out of an understanding that as a Foundation our key asset is that we are a knowledge broker, learning institution, and relationship maker. It was a conscious decision to promote diversity and share decision-making across the Foundation, while also serving as a risk management strategy. We challenge each other in ways of working and teaching. This interaction requires a lot of maturity, openness, and trust.

RH: It’s a model that brings richness to everything we do, particularly as our work is complex as we are trying to find and fund deeply systemic interventions (which can be really difficult to do alone). To make it work, we have invested a lot of time in sharing our values and building trustful relationships among all of the co-leads within the Foundation.

And the model also helps co-leads support each other in developing our core competences, which we define as:

Evidence Generator and Translator: Funding research excellence to promote the generation and practical use of evidence on human learning and development with impact on policy and practice.

Partnership Innovator: Igniting multi-stakeholder coalitions between governments, industry, schools, and social purpose organizations in an effort to leverage resources and increase the capacity to jointly scale up effective education policies and practices.

Policy Entrepreneur: Supporting policy innovation by facilitating access to knowledge, data, and tools, to promote learning and practice improvement, instigate change processes, and inspire leadership approaches to strengthen the entire system.

Catalytic Investor: Using innovative financial instruments to create positive impact at scale and enable third-party investments that otherwise would not be possible.

It seems like trust is an important part of the Jacobs Foundation’s internal way of working. What is the Foundation’s position on the importance of trust and adaptive programming for their grantees?

IH: We definitely see ourselves as a partner to the organisations and researchers we work with, but we’ve also always been traditionally focused on quantitative outputs and outcomes. While we will continue to be outcome-focused, we also want to take a more mindful and trusting approach.

RH: It’s important to unpick the idea of trust. When the Jacobs Foundation gives money to providers, we have always been able to trust them sufficiently to give them money. There is already a strong degree of trust. The question we are now asking ourselves is to what extent the Jacobs Foundation wants to be involved in decision-making in regard to programming. We see ourselves as a grant-making organization, but we also have a significant international network of experts that can be leveraged, we have robust ideas and evidence on what works, and we have systems change strategies that we think can help maximise impact. In other words, we want to share something more than money, and we are still learning what exactly this should be.

What is your vision for the Jacobs Foundation’s work for 2021 and beyond?

RH: It feels to me that the Jacobs Foundation is in a position to model a way of working for philanthropic organisations in transforming education systems. With our Societies Portfolio, we are focused on supporting the creation of learning ecosystems in which everyone is learning to thrive, and in investing in systemic infrastructure and capacity so that these ecosystems are sustainable and constantly evolving for the better. We are looking to invest smartly: we put money, strategic thinking, knowledge, and expertise into what we think is important. We want to shifting mechanisms and mindsets in a highly collaborative way, forging partnerships in target countries as well as with international organisations. And we want to partner with co-funders (so that we are leveraging and pooling funds for maximum impact).

IH: It is the first time we have a 10-year strategy. The ambition is to be able to support learning ecosystems and create sustainable positive change for and with the children within our reach. It is crucial to understand as a foundation that we are only as strong as our partners are. We have the potential to enter where others can’t, to push innovation, to leverage funding from other players, and to promote partnerships between players who don’t currently work together – which we see as the essence of a thriving learning ecosystem.

Photo: Jacobs Foundation

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