Looking for a Learning Landscape, 10 Years On

Topics: Future of Learning

In 2012, I wanted my students’ learning to be embedded in the place we lived, and I wanted their contributions to really matter and make that place better.

At the time, I was teaching middle school in a small town in far Northern California. I was excited by the prospect of grounding our learning in the context of our small community, one where I could easily access the editor of the newspaper, professors at the university and community leaders. Around this time, I also came across KnowledgeWorks’ Recombinant Education: Regenerating the Learning Ecosystem. The disruption Shareable Cities spoke to me.

In a one-page Disruption Digest, the authors summarized Shareable Cities as:

Next gen cities will drive social innovation, with urban infrastructure shaped by patterns of human connection and contribution. More and more people are living in cities, but cities—like all levels of government—find themselves increasingly challenged to meet citizens’ needs. At the same time, a do-it-yourself maker culture is shifting how people collaborate to solve problems. Instead of waiting for cities to get things right, citizens will come together to fill the service gap. Using rich information about what is happening where they live, citizens will create solutions that reflect where people are and what they need. Cities that use this new source of creativity effectively have the potential to spur economic development and embed learning across the urban landscape.

Ten years ago, I was excited about a future of learning that meaningfully connected learning to place. Today, teachers across the country still want that and are still working to make it a reality.

Now that we are in 2022, we have the chance to look back at the opportunities and challenges the forecast laid out to find out how they have played out, 10 years on.

These disruptions were major societal shifts that promised to have broad impact on the future of learning. We forecast that they would cause deep, and sometimes unsettling, change. But we also made the case that education stakeholders could use future uncertainty to spark creativity, not only fear. Read more >>

Opportunity: the learning landscape

The forecast said, “Watch for learning resources and experiences to meld with other city services and infrastructures, such that urban indices rank cities by their learning landscapes, driving urban reinvention.” Outside of the United States, this opportunity is becoming a reality. The city of Helsinki has been recognized for its leadership in linking learning to place. Its regional transportation authority even offers free transportation to students and teachers so that they can learn anytime, anywhere.

Though truly integrated learning landscapes are not commonplace in the United States, this concept continues to gain traction and energy. When schools closed in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, community leaders and organizations came in to fill the gap. The Hub, run by parent organization Oakland REACH, provided necessary education for Black and Brown students and support for families during school closures. But they did more than simply recreate the educational experiences that students would have had in schools. They integrated social-emotional learning and culturally responsive, community-connected experiences, knowing that traditional education approaches were not designed to help students in their communities thrive. The organization and its programming are continuing to grow, even with schools fully open.

In addition, The Center for the Future of Museums noted the growing connection between museums and education, with schools co-locating in museums, the creation of more and more museum schools and increasing use of museum resources for learning during the pandemic. Education Reimagined has called learning that “lives everywhere” the “Big Idea” that can truly transform education. Many young people have said that the learning they experienced while navigating the pandemic and participating in racial justice uprisings in their communities was invaluable, showing the power of learning that is connected to place and purpose. “How can anything being taught in outdated textbooks ever compare to the real-world experiences we as students have gained in 2020-2021?” The New York Times quoted one student as saying.

And, while learning landscapes are not a common aspect of city rankings, The Schott Foundation, has produced a Loving Cities Index, which identifies indicators associated with academic and economic success and recognizes both in- and out-of-school factors as being critical for learning and well-being.

Place-based strategies lead to greater engagement of stakeholders and greater ownership of the work.
Learn more >>

Challenge: access and quality

At the same time, the forecast also warned, “As learning becomes networked across city spaces and organizations, learning agents will need to ensure that all learners have access to the same range of services and that those services and their providers are of the highest quality.”

Those rich, community-based experiences have not been equally distributed. A coalition of young people in New York City recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, highlighting the ways academic screening processes for admission to high-quality high schools lead to inequitable outcomes. Their demands for change primarily focused on giving every New York City high school student access to high-quality, community-based learning experiences – including paid internships and extracurricular activities – that they say are not open to many students of color or students from low-income families.

Though the pandemic created opportunities for more out-of-school learning opportunities, expanding those opportunities does not seem to be a major focus for many schools, districts and states. Many are focused on addressing academic “learning loss,” which may lead to a doubling down on traditional approaches to teaching and learning. In the end, while learning landscapes might be emerging, the public school system is not engaging with them in a widespread way, despite evidence that community-based learning is an effective way to help students build academic knowledge and skills and support their mental health. This disconnect threatens not only the richness of educational experiences to which young people of color or from low-income families have access, but also support for public education, a critical element of a healthy democratic society.

Still seeking the shareable city

I still hold the aspiration that students can engage in relevant, real-world, community-connected learning, and I know that many educators, parents, students and leaders do, too. We still face opportunities and challenges in the pursuit of that goal, but we can be agents of change in turning our aspirations into reality.

This post is part of a seven-piece series reflecting on the state of the challenges and opportunities introduced in KnowledgeWorks’ third anchor forecast, Recombinant Education: Regenerating the Learning Ecosystem, published 10 years ago. Read the rest of the series: