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The Lab’s Summit Shapes Our Work in 2018

Lab News

At the time of the Early Learning Lab’s first Summit in 2016, opportunities to gather and talk across sectors about how to catalyze innovations in early childhood were few and far between. Out of that first Summit, the Lab deepened its work in co-designing professional development models for teachers and created a parent engagement initiative called the Parent Innovation Institute. Today, more and more early childhood programs, institutions, and new funders are pursuing their own innovation strategies and a vibrant innovation ecosystem is emerging.

At the end of 2017, we hosted our second Summit to harness that energy. The Summit convened early childhood program implementers, researchers, tech developers, parents, and funders to reflect on progress, commit to new partnerships, and generate insights on how we can work together to propel innovation forward to support children’s learning and development. 

From the panels to the tech expo to the informal lunchtime conversations, the Summit was brimming with high-level engagement and knowledge sharing. Here are the major takeaways from the day and next steps.

Co-Design is Critical

Simply listening to the parents, teachers, and caregivers that programs are intended to serve can often get lost in the design process. The Summit was a reminder to many that end-user perspective and involvement lead to better designs.


“Without parents, we can do nothing to help the well-being of children.”

“Without parents, we can do nothing to help the well-being of children,” said Yolie Flores, chief program officer for The Campaign for Grade Level Reading, during a parent-focused panel. The session featured parents from The Parent Innovation Institute, the Lab’s initiative that brings together parents and non-profits to co-design improvements to services and programs.

Whether they were talking about messaging, data, evaluation, or technology, throughout the day many speakers and attendees spoke of the vital importance of asking parents and teachers what they need so organizations can realign their work to meet those needs. This included discussions on communicating authentically to tap into the power of parents.

“Parents are more than just parents,” said one attendee. “We need to focus on their larger needs. Keeping their larger aspirations and dreams in mind will inform and drive our work going forward.”

Rethinking Impact

Throughout the Lab’s Summit, panelists and participants discussed the need to think differently about impact, scale, and evaluation.

“I think we need to reframe how we think about impact. To focus deeply on ‘what’ we do and ‘how’ to evolve better and faster towards sustainable solutions for these problems,” said Lance Fors, board chair of the Early Learning Lab, New Teacher Center, Reading Partners, Social Venture Partners (SVPs), Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund (SV2), and Silicon Valley Children’s Fund.

“Process is the new program.”

“Process is the new program,” said Fors during a conversation about impact and scale. Creating a culture of innovation and continuous improvement is the lynchpin of how we will adapt and improve outcomes for young children and the adults that support them over time and at scale.

There not only needs to be a shift in thinking around impact, but in how we measure it. A panel on evaluation sparked a conversation about how to think beyond traditional, costly, and time-consuming evaluations for a new model of nimble, rapid-cycle, user-centered ones.

For many in the early learning field, it’s empowering to think of a future where data is directly in the hands of teachers. One attendee said: “There is a perceived mystery regarding data and evaluation; we need to make people at all levels comfortable with data and understanding it.”

Empathy is the Innovation

At its core, there was one overarching message from this year’s Summit: Empathy is the starting point for our collective efforts to improve how we support teachers, caregivers, parents. We must consider their experiences, aspirations, and needs. And this just might hold the key to truly helping children.

“…technology without empathy is going to move us faster towards a place where we don’t want to be. We believe that empathy is the innovation.”

“The way that a lot of people are thinking about innovation in this space is through technology,” said Sheetal Singh, the Early Learning Lab’s director of design and innovation. “I’m a big supporter. But technology without empathy is going to move us faster towards a place where we don’t want to be. We believe that empathy is the innovation.”

Under the nation’s current conditions, empathy highlights the sense of urgency to support children and their parents, teachers, and caregivers in a political climate where safety nets are being shredded and communities are under attack.

Empathy means expanding our “circles of concern,” as Pastor Michael McBride from The Way Christian Center explained to a rapt room during a cross-sector messaging discussion: “How do we make sure that all children and parents are our collective responsibility? How do we create systems that show that they all belong to us, and we all belong to them? We have to be courageous, brilliant, smart to not run away from these hard and difficult conversations.”

Empathy is the common thread in our work. Empathy means co-designing programs around the people who need them, and delivering them in a way that is meaningful to them. It requires listening to what parents, children, teachers, and caregivers have to say. It means understanding what marginalized communities truly need by asking them, and expanding our “circles of concern” to include them. It means creating inclusive ways of evaluating data. And scaling programs in a way that keeps communities and people in mind, rather than a one-size-fits all approach.

Next steps

The Summit was designed to spark new ideas and collaborations among early childhood professionals. At the end of the day, people were excited to go back home and leverage new connections and build off new insights to improve their work.

Some announced their commitments to reach out to partners around a wide range of topics such as “supporting family engagement with technology and innovation to reach a bigger impact,” “exploring a collaboration around family engagement and children’s environmental health,” and “leveraging caregiver experience and insight to improve quality and expand accessibility of 0-3 care.”

Participants also shared ways they envisioned the Lab supporting their work, such as continuing to find ways to break down silos and dive into the intersection of equity with innovation. “The Lab does not need to determine the recipe for the secret sauce,” said one attendee. “Rather, they can be a guide on the side who continues to push and nudge organizations and systems to innovate in guided, rapid cycles to create change in their communities.”

What we learned at the Summit is already informing the Lab’s work in 2018. And as innovation evolves, the Lab is committed to continuing to hold high-value convenings to provide field guidance and create new ideas and connections in early learning.