Does Lawnmower Man’s Zip Code Still Matter?

The first full day of GLS11 kicked off with a rousing keynote by Dr. Nichole Pinkard. Her title: An Ecological View of Equity: Reframing Our Understanding of Youth Access to Connected Learning Opportunities. Dr. Pinkard (@npinkard) is leading some awesome work in Chicago and shared inspiring experiences and challenges with the packed room for this morning’s opening session.

“There’s no way any one person does any of this; there’s always a team. We are constantly in collaboration with others,” Dr. Pinkard began. And these others in include a who’s who list of edu donors as well as a diverse and deep talent pool. It doesn’t just take a village, it takes a global village.

The first task for this global village is to present learners with an interface that will work for them. For her group, this means intentionally designing an interface that reflects the users’ real world. When Dr. Pinkard says that they intentionally made the interface to look like the users’ real world, it’s easy to nod our heads in agreement and move on. This would be a mistake! If we dig in and unpack this a bit, it quickly becomes apparent that intentionality is just the starting point; there is mucho trabajo that goes into actually serving young people in a way that is true to this aim.

“There’s so much more beyond the system, beyond the technology that impacts the kids.” There’s a challenge to make the environment comfortable to young people whose prior experiences and expectations to whom it will not look familiar.

The school. The home. The church. “No one space is more important to us. It’s about following the kids and bringing the opportunities to where they are.” Her messaging around this makes me think about leveling up the Bookmobiles used by public libraries to bring books to readers wherever they are. Learning happens where learners are, not just within the confines of schoolhouse walls.

This work poses a lot of hard questions and she makes no claims on having divined a quick fix. “It’s not about being easy, it’s about putting in the work. What are the necessary components to get them working on their passions?”

She offered some concrete suggestions as to what these components may be. Access to what peers are doing. Access to mentoring (more on this later). Access to programing. Anytime a young person has something she wants to learn, we need to ensure she has access to learn it. There are clearly a LOT of compenents that need to be in place on the front end. On the backend, access for young people to SHOWCASE what they learned, achieved and created is essential to both recognize them for their work and to inspire the next cohort. As Dr. Pinkard points out, the key to getting middle school boys to stand on a stage and perform their own poetry is giving them the opportunity to see other middle school boys performing their own poetry.

Problem of Success

“Digital media prowess was no longer a needed social capital, hence, the amount of student production slowed down.”

Dr. Pinkard was transparent in sharing that along with the successes, there are still plenty of challenges. While serving 83,000 young people is an incredible accomplishment, she is concerned about the 300,000+ who they are yet to impact. She showed a map that conveyed populations and opportunity by location. On one hand, the number of opportunities being made available is significant. On the other hand, there is a profound equity problem. A young person’s zip code is the greatest predictor of her opportunities. Put simply, if you are poor, you are more likely to have access to a basketball court than a coding camp.

Some of the barriers that were identified:

  • experience gap
  • lack of interest
  • negative stereotypes
  • climate of the computing environment
  • dearth of role models, mentoring & community
  • lack of helicopter parenting

The possible solutions to these barriers are varied. She focused on six so-called Affinity Spaces. The one that really spoke to me is Social Capital. When moon boot-wearing Napoleon Dynamite dancing on stage was broadly accepted as cool, part of the phenomenon was that it was a total anamoly. While Napoleon’s character garnered social capital with his on-screen peers (and an entire country of off-screeen fans buying Vote for Pedro tshirts), it’s hard to imagine his performance being the start of a new movement in which all are encouraged to be themselves, shining how they want to shine and earning more currency in the social capital market as a result.

Solving for this problem of social capital will be a huge win. Dr. Pinkard shared encouraging findings around the use of narrative that could hold the key to one of the right answers to this important question. By including social components to the platform used to earn and issue Digital Badges in Chicago, they are seeing young people seize on the opportunities for narrative and engaging with one another in ways that promote learning and achieving.


Dr. Pinkard did not mince words: “Mentors are the secret sauce.” Her group has identified fifteen (15!) distinct roles played by mentors. It’s hard to imagine overstating the importance of mentors. Some challenges to overcome in cooking this sauce: recruiting mentors, training mentors and retaining mentors. I think another challenge with mentors that relates to the other challenges to success is around how we might support mentorships continuing beyond high school. It will be great to see more and more places building powerful infrastructure to have positive impact like we are starting to see with Cities of Learning. We can anticipate that this will lead to more kids finding their passions and setting goals for after high school. We can also anticipate that stripping away intensive supports (like mentoring) that helped young people succeed during their K-12 years will be problematic for some as they enter higher ed and the workforce.

This morning’s keynote was one of my all-time favorites. Dr. Pinkard comes across as super authentic and passionate. I love that she didn’t waste her time on the stage by talking about problems we already know exist; she spent her entire talk sharing what she is doing about these problems. We learned about what’s working, why it’s working and what needs to improve. We also witnessed a great model in owning the equity gap. While we want to change the world and accelerate learning and achieving for young people and help them become super heroes, the fact is that that zip codes still matter and are a top predictor of who has a chance to be the next Lawnmower Man.

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