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Busting the Learning Boundary Between School and World

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By Grant Lichtman

A colleague, Tim Fish, Director of Innovation for the National Association of Independent Schools tells a story about visiting Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School last year. He was touring the "hive" an incubator-like space where high school students learn the skills and structures of design, and then put those into practice in partnership with organizations outside of the school. Tim was talking with two junior girls when a cell phone rang.  One of the girls very apologetically said, "I'm so sorry; I have to take this. It's my client, ATT."

In their iDiploma program, Mt. Vernon students have, over the last two years, worked not only with ATT, but Porsche, the Centers for Disease Control, museums, City Planning Departments, and more.  They are not paid, at least not yet, but they are doing real design work that is used by these organizations in the development of final products that take life in the real world, beyond classroom walls.  In my work with many dozens of K-12 schools around the country, this is what more of learning will inevitably look like in the future.

Innovative learning practices that smear the boundary between "school" and "world" are increasingly a hallmark of deeper learning in the 21st century.  They create scaffolds around which students learn critical content within the context of personal relevance and interest that generate intrinsic motivation, deeper understanding, and longer retention.  As I researched for my book, Moving the Rock, I looked for specific programs and practices that are fundamentally changing the outdated school operating system. Examples of learning "in and with" the community could have filled an entire book and I would still not have scratched the surface of a widely diverse array of school-community learning partnerships.

For most of the last 150 years, K-12 education has operated inside high, thick walls.  The boundary between "school" and "world" has been more than just the edge of the sidewalk, the campus gate, or the door into the school building.  The boundary has been physical, intellectual, social, and experiential.  The pervasive message we have pounded into generations of students is that "you come to school to learn; after school, you leave".

Non-traditional learning in and with the community ranges from programs that have been in place for more than a decade, to an explosion of new pilots in the last few years.  We find them evolving in the most exclusive independent schools, under-served urban public schools, innovative charters, and online and hybrid programs. They take a staggering array of forms: internships, externships, one-day trainings, one-year capstones, four-year student employment, embeds with incubators, long-term community service projects, city planning explorations, farm-to-table or rural ecosystem research, product development partnerships, pre-college vocational training, and more.

One poster child for broad, deep, rich school-community learning is the Remake Learning consortium in Pittsburgh.  Almost two decades ago, school and community leaders realized that if they wanted to attract young, professional families to participate in a post-Rust Belt future for the city, they had to dramatically revitalize education opportunities in and around the urban core.  Today, there are dozens of schools and thousands of community stakeholders partnering students, teachers, and outside people and organizations to break the idea that learning takes place at a physical school.

Lisa Palmieri, a leader in Remake Learning, is now the head of Holy Family Academy, a small inner-city Catholic high school with a largely non-white, low income student body.  The students at HFA spend one day a week for all four years embedded with a local business.  She told me that at the outset of her program, people doubted that these inner-city kids could work effectively "on the 60th floor of a downtown office building." Two years later, she shares the story of one junior who designed a new strategy to save his company over $100,000 a year by writing some new code, another student who is now training other employees at her company, and the evening when a group of her students stood up in front of their employers to boldly tell them that "you are not taking us seriously or challenging us enough".

Some schools, like Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia or the Hawken School in Cleveland, partner with museums and other non-profits to help deliver content and expertise that schools simply do not have.  Others like CART in Fresno-Clovis in California's central valley create an off-campus, college-like setting supported by a broad group of local companies that want students to graduate with skills they need in the local, rapidly changing economies.  Others, like the now-being-planned City Senior School at the Launching Pad in Auckland, New Zealand, are putting the "campus" right into a modern entrepreneurial incubator, or bringing those entrepreneurs on campus, exchanging cheap or free rent for mentoring of their students on real-world projects.

Entire consortia of schools are dedicated to breaking the boundaries of traditional schools.  Chris Jackson of Big Picture Learning, a network of schools that has pioneered student internships with community partners, says that authentic learning outside of schools is not about a two-week internship or a short capstone or service learning project.  Big Picture Learning schools, many of which have large populations of students from underserved neighborhoods, have inserted their students into the business community as a core part of their learning ethos for more than twenty years.  "Seventy per cent of Big Picture Learning school students who DON'T go on to college end up getting a job through their internship project", Chris says, "because these internships are deep, multi-year commitments. They are really about building relationships and community, and those are huge advantages when it comes to getting a first job out of school."

The smearing of boundaries between school and community is not limited to what most of us think of as traditional schools, at least for some communities and some families.  As school budgets have been hammered in the last decade, other learning options have quickly arisen to fill the gap, providing extracurricular programs outside of the traditional school.  Jal Mehta of the Harvard Graduate School of Education says that "parents and students told us that all of the interesting stuff happens outside of school, at the community center on weekends and during the summer.  Parents are paying for regular school through their taxes and then paying again for these supplementary experiences, if they can afford it.  At this point, there is nothing equitable about it, but there is nothing stopping this market from evolving."  Mehta says that this trend has already taken firm hold in areas with wealthier families.  "It is just happening", says Mehta, "there does not have to be formal coordination. There is a large market that is just going to evolve on its own. Hopefully we will see public funding follow this lead in order to broaden access."

Community-school partnerships are powerful levers for transformation precisely because they often do not require large district or state-wide approval or design.  What can community stakeholders do to move these efforts forward now, rather than waiting for permission or direction? 

  • Educators from individual schools and smaller districts can design and lead a pilot program that brings students and community resources together in a student-centered, growth-oriented, long-term learning partnership. They can ensure that these partnerships evolve with a laser focus on the long term best interests of the students. 
  • District leaders can call initial "imagination and design" meetings of local business, higher education, and non-profit leaders to share national best practices in school-community partnerships, inviting educators from other schools and districts with similar goals and challenges. 
  • Business leaders can take a proactive role in learning about the different schools and school leaders in their area, and support those that are willing to take risks, engage their students, and try to break the traditional mold of learning. They can offer to host, facilitate, or support exploratory meetings on deep, rich community school partnerships, set up partnerships and internship programs with schools, and loudly publicize the benefits you see both for your organization and for the students.

These learning partnerships are win-win-win for students, teachers, families, and business leaders.  The examples are all around us.  We just have to find the will to launch.

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