‘Steel City’ innovation blazes trail for 21st century American learning.
GUEST COLUMN | by Cathy Lewis Long
From steel to steak sauce and Mr. Rogers to Andy Warhol, Pittsburgh has a long and storied reputation as a foundry of American culture, industry and innovation. Today, as America confronts new challenges in educating its people to lead healthy, productive lives in an increasingly competitive and complex world, Pittsburgh is again forging new paths. Nowhere was this leadership on more vivid display than this month at Pittsburgh’s Cabaret at Theater Square, the venue for this year’s Kids+Creativity Network Assembly. The annual summit — led by Pittsburgh-based Sprout Fund and attended by more than 200 organizations — focused on innovation and education, included schools, businesses, museums, community centers, philanthropic groups, libraries, after-school programs and other regional institutions.
Connected learning – linking a student’s personal interests with their peer/mentor networks and their academic, civic and economic empowerment – is essential.
With a rapid-fire series of multimedia presentations, participants reviewed their concrete, collective progress in 2014 and sketched out plans to take their ‘remake learning’ efforts to the next level in 2015.
Confirming the growing national interest in ‘The Pittsburgh Model’ of education reform, Randy Paris, until recently a White House staff official with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, announced he was joining The Sprout Fund, one of Pittsburgh’s leading agencies for innovation, to spearhead production of a “Learning Innovation Playbook” focusing on how cities and regions can create networks of local schools, museums, libraries, and other organizations to remake learning. This playbook, a first-of-its-kind roadmap due to be published next spring, will document programs and principles proving successful in Pittsburgh that will offer other cities in the United States and abroad ideas about how they can pursue similar education innovation locally.
So what does ‘remake learning’ mean in practice? And how is it distinctive in Pittsburgh? The answers are simple.
First, our Network is committed to making learning both engaging and relevant for today’s youth. This means meeting students where they are, giving them opportunities to be creative producers (not just passive receptors) of knowledge and making sure this learning process equips them with skills and competencies like digital literacy, creative capacity and a passion for lifelong learning that they need to thrive in today’s world. Connected learning – linking a student’s personal interests with their peer/mentor networks and their academic, civic and economic empowerment – is essential.
This core notion predicates everything we do further downstream. It influences how we devise accessible ‘learning pathways’ for students to follow, using digital badging and other state-of-the-art tools, to consolidate related learning experiences and enable students to earn practical credit in a new paradigm that ties traditional classroom education to structured learning in the bigger world outside of school.
Second, we believe that to be successful in the 21st century, education must be the business of the entire community – not the sole responsibility of the teachers and school administrators traditionally responsible for the welfare of our children during the six hours they spend at school on weekdays. Through the Kids+Creativity Network, the wider Pittsburgh community has stepped up to the challenge. With the direct engagement of sectors not traditionally thought of as bearing responsibility for education – corporate CEOs and local businesses, artists and philanthropists, politicians, library volunteers and museum employees, among others – Pittsburgh has become a city of learning.
Lastly, Pittsburgh is fortunate to benefit from a thriving and enlightened philanthropic community that has grasped the stakes at hand and chosen to support innovative learning initiatives that public budgets alone cannot animate. Meaningful and sustainable social change demands dedicated people and financing. With backing from partners like the Grable Foundation, the Benedum Foundation, the Hillman Foundation, the Pittsburgh Foundation and others, Pittsburghers have found a mechanism that invites anyone interested to play an active role in expanding, shaping and remaking education. The city of Pittsburgh is the campus of Pittsburgh.
Learning innovation is fundamentally democratizing and carries benefits far beyond the immediate goal of equipping students with the skills and competencies they need to succeed today. It offers new opportunities for advancement to groups that are otherwise often at a disadvantage, such as single parents, minorities, immigrants and the elderly. And it helps harness energies that might otherwise go astray toward bedrock values like gender equity, good governance, business development and racial justice. Rethinking learning and adopting new approaches to education is the rising tide that lifts all boats.
In Pittsburgh, we think learning “is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire,” to borrow an idea from W.B. Yeats said. Traditional basics like reading, writing and arithmetic will remain central to education. But the world is changing fast and we can no longer afford to treat new technologies and the new opportunities they make possible as something ‘extra’ or outside standard learning in our societies. Yes, we still need the basics, but the basics have changed.
Innovation is the order of the day and the field of education is no exception. With strong doses of vision, passion, imagination, planning and just plain fun, students and teachers and the broader Pittsburgh community are together leading the charge to remake American learning.
Cathy Lewis Long is the founding Executive Director of The Sprout Fund, a non-profit organization that supports innovative ideas and grassroots community projects that are catalyzing change in Pittsburgh and the surrounding communities of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Under Cathy’s leadership, The Sprout Fund stewards the Kids+Creativity Network, a cross-sector, multidisciplinary coalition of researchers, educators, innovators, and civic leaders representing more than 200 organizations including university labs and research centers, regional cultural institutions and child-serving agencies, public, private, and charter school systems, and a burgeoning entrepreneurial private sector focused on technology and media—all working together to build an innovative model for 21st century learning in the greater Pittsburgh region.