A brief history of the Remake Learning Network.

by Gregg Behr, Executive Director of The Grable Foundation and Dr. Lynne Schrum, Dean, Abraham S. Fischler College of Education, NSU and Co-Author of “Leading 21st Century Schools” — Founding Chairs of the Remake Learning Council

Almost a decade ago (before the inception of the Remake Learning Network) we heard again and again from teachers, librarians, museum educators, youth workers, and others a common refrain that was simultaneously expected and yet astonishing: “I’m not connecting with kids the way that I used to.”

This expressed frustration would, of course, have been natural if these educators had been talking about the usual challenges of the generation gap, or the gradual shift in youth culture. After all, generations of adults have voiced worries about “kids today.” What was astonishing, however, was that these educators were referring to dramatic changes brought about largely by digital media and technology.

So we asked ourselves: “What on Earth had happened in such a short period of time to create this disconnect between educators and students?” Digging in to the learning sciences, we found that youth in the digital age are pursuing knowledge differently, developing their identities and interests differently, and seeking support differently. Faced with this new reality, how could we help educators in- and out-of-school connect with today’s youth and develop learning experiences that engage them deeply and equip them with the knowledge and skills relevant to the world in which they now live?

We reached out to our community and quickly discovered that the Pittsburgh region was home to a broad range of creative people — not only teachers, youth workers, and museum educators but also gamers, technologists, and roboticists — who were beginning to think differently about connecting with kids.

We believed we could harness the resources in our community for the benefit of all children and youth. We were confident that we could remake learning.

In 2007, The Grable Foundation convened an interdisciplinary group of thought leaders and field practitioners to explore how contemporary, active learning pedagogies could improve educational experiences in the region’s schools, museums, libraries, early learning centers, and out-of-school program sites.

Brainstorming early ideas for “Kids+Creativity” in Pittsburgh. (Photo: MAYA)

First adopting the name Kids+Creativity, this informal working group — fueled by coffee and pancake breakfasts — began meeting regularly, exchanging ideas, and collaborating on new initiatives. Ten doubled to twenty, and twenty doubled and then doubled again. Together, the group engaged academics, artists, librarians, educators, technologists, and parents in thinking anew about 21st century teaching and learning.

Early investments awarded by The Grable Foundation and such other funding partners as the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, the Buhl Foundation, McCune Foundation, and the Pittsburgh Foundation included support for such leadership organizations as The Sprout Fund (a community-based grantmaking nonprofit) and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (an educational service agency). Respected for connecting the grassroots community to major regional priorities, in 2009 The Sprout Fund began providing catalytic support for new projects and programmatic partnerships — adding fuel to the fires of innovation. That same year, in order to catalyze innovative teaching in the region’s school districts, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit began awarding STEAM Grants to enable administrators and educators to reimagine learning in public school classrooms, labs, and library spaces.

The emerging network focused on providing high-quality maker, STEAM, and digital learning opportunities that would equip children and youth with competencies they need to thrive now and in futures yet to unfold. These approaches are not just passing fads in education; they are the key to building engaging and relevant learning experiences that prepare today’s youth for school, college, workforce, and life.

In 2011, after several years of successful small-scale projects and flourishing interest in Kids+Creativity, The Sprout Fund stepped in to formalize the network, enhance the individual and collective capacities of all members, and create a sustainable support structure through a coalition of major regional and national funders, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. That’s when the since-renamed Remake Learning Network soared.

Educators & innovators come together at the first Network Primer in February 2013. (Photo: Ben Filio)

What began with just a handful of people and organizations has grown into a diverse network of more than 200 organizations, including more than 2,000 educators and professionals in schools, museums, libraries, afterschool programs, community centers, university research centers, educational technology companies, local philanthropies, and youth civic groups.

Recognizing the need to sustain momentum, leaders across the Pittsburgh region reaffirmed their commitment in 2014 and formed the Remake Learning Council. The Council brings together leading executives and learning scientists in business, higher education, public education, civic and cultural organizations, foundations, and government to strategically support the greater Pittsburgh region’s efforts to remake learning in all the places where children and youth learn.

In the years since the network’s inception, millions of dollars have been invested by regional and national funders. Thousands of educators, students, and families have been engaged in the process of learning innovation. We’ve witnessed remarkable projects emerge as the result of interdisciplinary collaborations that are pulling together diverse individuals, resources, and tools, and bringing them to bear for the benefit of all learners. We’ve seen a dramatic change in our region. Dozens of school districts are transforming their buildings, curricula, and teaching practices. More youth are participating in innovative out-of-school learning programs than ever before. And network members are being recognized as leaders in learning on the national and global stages.

Learning is indeed being remade in Pittsburgh.

We’re working hard to share what we’ve learned so that successful strategies from the rural hills of Elizabeth, Pennsylvania are brought to Pittsburgh’s urban neighborhoods and the innovations pioneered at our world-class research universities shape classroom practices in nearby West Virginia.

We’ve also been privileged to share what we’ve learned so far with colleagues across the country and in cities across the world. Many have come to visit, some have heard us speak at national events, and others follow us online.

Our aims for this Playbook are threefold:

First, we want to tell the stories of the remarkable people, projects, and organizations that are remaking learning in the Pittsburgh region. They are helping children and youth develop their interests and pursue their passions while inspiring a generation of lifelong learners in our community.

Second, we want to document the techniques and strategies that have been integral to the growth and development of the Remake Learning Network so that we might achieve even greater scale and impact in the future.

Third, we want to enable you. By sharing insights, key resources, and critical lessons learned, we hope to provide educators and community leaders with practical and actionable information, enabling anyone to take advantage of new and innovative learning practices. Learning now happens anywhere, at any time, and at any pace. And so, communities of caring adults — teachers, youth workers, mentors as well as gamers, technologists, artists, and others — need to think differently and collaboratively about how we light up every child to the joys and wonders of learning.

We’ve learned a lot since our first breakfast brainstorms. We’ve tried many things, and we’ve made plenty of mistakes. But ultimately, we’ve seen significant progress in our effort to provide all children and youth with the best available opportunities to learn and be creative.

We’re confident that all of us, together, can remake learning all across America.

About the Remake Learning Playbook

This is the first of six chapters of the Remake Learning Playbook, an ambitious effort to open source the “project code” for learning innovation undertaken by Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning Network.

We’re eager for your feedback! We’ve released the Playbook on Medium so readers can share feedback and help inform the field. Please add comments, notes, suggestions, and questions throughout these chapters to help us make the Playbook as useful as possible.


Table of Contents

Top photo: White Light Installation at The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh / Ben Filio for The Sprout Fund