For the past ten years, Gregg Behr has been executive director of The Grable Foundation, where he “manages a grantmaking portfolio advancing high-quality early childhood education, improved teaching and learning in public schools, and robust out-of-school time support, including digital, maker, and STEAM learning.”
I recently met Gregg at Lego’s Idea Conference in Billund, Denmark. He described Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning Network and I was impressed. It is a unique approach to addressing education problems that leverages a community’s collective wisdom in a truly synthesized and participatory way.
When he sent me information about Pittsburgh’s upcoming “Remake Learning Days,” a week-long celebration “of the regions ascendency as a center of future-facing learning,” I wanted to know even more. So I reached out to Gregg for a fascinating conversation.
I was particularly struck by a point he made toward the end of our discussion, about how and why it is so important to incorporate parents and other adults in our efforts to “remake learning.” He thinks about this from a very unique perspective that many of us would do well to adopt.
Read it for yourself…
Jordan: You believe that we are in the midst of a massive cultural shift and that education is struggling to keep up. Can you explain what you mean in more detail?
Gregg: One hundred years ago, a rapidly changing world inspired John Dewey to ponder the purpose of public education. The philosopher believed learning — a lifelong pursuit — was inextricably tied to experience. Formal education, he said, must prepare students to engage with their communities and navigate uncertain economic futures.
We are now immersed in another era of great change, but our education system has not kept up. Dewey’s ideas ring truer than ever, but how do we adapt what he articulated for the modern world?
Jordan: I suspect you have some suggestions…
Gregg: I do. Let’s start by looking at what’s changing. Kids today are bombarded with a wealth of information, which they can access on unique new tools and devices. They are tasked with making sense of complex content and events, and acquiring skillsets that will position them for success in a competitive global economy.
The world is shifting at an incredible clip, and there is no telling exactly what kinds of challenges our kids will face or what problems they will need to solve. But it is probably safe to assume that critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration will continue to be vital skills for the 21st century. Therefore, we have to remake learning to foster resiliency, curiosity, and initiative.
Jordan: What does that look like?
Our education system should give young people the chance to tinker, explore, and experiment — to design and iterate solutions to problems, and to work together alongside peers with diverse experiences and backgrounds. Each student’s perspective should be valued, and they should learn to embrace each other’s points of view.
Jordan: Of course, there are lots of individual schools and dedicated teachers, all over the world, that are doing what you’re describing effectively. But when one considers education on a larger level — the district level, the state level, the national level, even the international level — things start to look bleak very quickly. One of the things I admire about the Remake Learning Network’s approach is the way that the model itself depends on the participation of so many diverse people and institutions — you’ve got real buy-in from folks that are deeply invested in children’s wellbeing.
Gregg: Yes, we do. Education today demands a networked, collaborative approach — one we have built in Pittsburgh with the Remake Learning Network, a coalition more than 250 schools, museums, libraries, and community institutions that have come together to support learning wherever and whenever it happens. Among its members are teachers, artists, technologists, roboticists, entrepreneurs, youth workers, learning scientists, and civic leaders, all in conversation with one another.
Through these partnerships we’ve created an ecosystem of learning for our children and youth. We’ve constructed hundreds of innovative new labs, experiences, and spaces where, say, teachers can talk with coders; where students can learn from makers and gamers; and where opportunities for building 21st century skills are available to students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.
Jordan: That’s pretty impressive. Can you give me some examples? What do these labs, experiences, and spaces look like? What would people discover, for example, if they were in Pittsburgh during the Remake Learning Days (May 9–15)?
Gregg: Let me tell you just a bit about the events that I, myself, am going to try to attend this week.
On Monday, we’ll launch Remake Learning Days at an event hosted by Google Pittsburgh. Our Mayor and County Executive, along with officials from the White House, will announce more than 100 commitments made by regional companies, universities, school districts, and foundations to support innovative teaching and learning during the year ahead, cementing the Pittsburgh region’s place among the forefront of reimagining education.
On Tuesday, I hope to attend at least seven events, if not more, including a youth-led summit that will spotlight how young people are using media as creative expression; a summit the intersection of entertainment, education and technology; and a maker faire hosted jointly by four local school districts.
You can imagine how each of these days, and continuing into the weekend, are full with opportunities to experience how learning is being remade. There are nearly 300 from which to pick!
Jordan: I just love that there are so many examples. And that this is a regional effort, a community effort. Too often, I see great isolated solutions to our educational problems. But school and learning, on a fundamental level, has to be a community’s endeavor.
We sometimes forget that education is essentially about teaching individuals how to contribute to the larger collective, that academic content is really just a collection of intellectual skills and tools which we use to relate to one another. I’ve often suspected that because education is thought of in such an individualistic way — in a way that focuses so intensively on individual achievement — the pedagogy has become decontextualized. I think, for instance, that this is why we see such rigid divisions between subjects and disciplines. When we imagine the self as something separate from others, it’s hardly surprising that we would also imagine math as something separate from literature. The big problem is that when you separate things from their contexts, learning becomes boring. As Jim Gee once said to me, “it is as if we were to give kids game manuals without the games.”
Of course, now we’re getting into the messiest part of our national education system, aren’t we? When it comes to these questions of student engagement, there’s a huge socio-economic “learning experience gap.”
Gregg: Yes, that’s true. And that’s why educators in our region are working to mend a system where, for too long, only certain students could parlay their experiences and skillsets into learning opportunities. As it is, too few children have access to superior resources and rich extracurricular programs. Only some attend schools with sufficient funding and up-to-date technology.
So how can we reimagine education so that all children have the opportunity to achieve great learning? That’s the question the Remake Learning Network grapples with every day.
Jordan: How do you go about resolving that?
Gregg: We hope that by forging connections across all possible sites where young people learn, networks like Remake Learning can leverage and pool resources for the benefit of all learners. The whole community becomes a campus of sorts; a student can apply what she learned in social studies while interviewing her grandfather for a documentary she’s filming at the library’s makerspace. Young people have room to pursue their passions, finding relevance to their lives and relationships in what they are learning at school.
But it is not just about the students. Just as critically, a community must become more campus-like for parents and caregivers so that the adults, too, can experience how learning is being remade. Parents who experience coding or making or digital badging will not only be better positioned to support their own children in modern learning pathways but also spark demand for future-facing approaches to learning in schools, museums, libraries, and elsewhere. We need to find ways, then, to give parents a chance to experiment, play, and dabble with STEM, STEAM, maker, and technology-enhanced learning.
If we can do that, we will more swiftly achieve a modern sensibility about public education, or — better yet — public learning, better suited for today’s kids. And if we get it right, we might finally put our young learners at the center, fulfilling Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon’s belief that “learning takes place in the minds of the students and nowhere else.”
This story originally appeared on my Forbes.com blog