The new academic year is in full swing, and I can’t help but wonder if and when we might no longer use such language to demarcate the learning journeys of young people. If we are truly interested in a learner-centered educational journey where we acknowledge that learning happens any time, anywhere, and with anyone, there is no “break” from learning. If life is happening, learning is following along stride for stride.
Such was the sentiment that kicked off Education Reimagined’s second Learning Out Loud conversation series. In our first conversation, Karen Pittman, Co-Founder, Senior Fellow, and former President & CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment, dove into when and where meaningful learning happens and the implications that has for community-based ecosystems of learning.
One of the stories Karen shared that struck a chord with me was how, two decades ago, a group of “afterschool” funders came together and invested in youth development intermediaries that would work to connect young people and families to all of the “out-of-school” learning opportunities available in their communities.
Within a learning ecosystem where the community is the playground for learning, this role of connecting youth and families to learning opportunities is essential. There are great examples of how this work is already showing up across the country, including organizations like the Providence After School Alliance, Nashville After School Alliance, and CommunityShare.
What often limits these organizations from having an even greater impact is the conventionally held belief that anything after school or outside of school is “enrichment” (vs. essential learning); therefore, those experiences are optional and considered to be of lesser importance to the “real learning” that goes on within the walls of a conventional school building.
Interestingly, as an optional, non-compulsory experience, the “out-of-school time” learning provider must engage the learner in something the learner wants to do. Otherwise, the learner will go elsewhere for their “out-of-school-time” activities. This means that learning in these settings must be engaging and fun for the young learner.
This sits in stark contrast to many young people’s experience of school—a place they must attend and where their interests may or may not be integrated into the daily learning experience. Such a structure sets up a learner to view “real learning” (learning that takes place in a school building) as boring and the spaces where they are authentically engaged as something other than places of learning. The result? This narrow view of where meaningful learning happens, placing what a learner finds joy engaging in outside that definition, can invalidate so many of the interests and gifts they bring to the world.
None of this is news to a learner-centered leader like yourself, but I hope it adds fuel to the fire to begin connecting the dots between every meaningful learning opportunity available within your community. There is no reason the learning that happens at a YMCA, public library, museum, 4H club, home, or conventional school building should be seen as more or less meaningful than any other. The moment we start to recognize that meaningful learning happens everywhere the learner is developing themselves is the moment we can begin inventing the structures and supports that can enable dynamic, thriving, robust ecosystems of learning to spread and grow in our communities.