Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Expanded Learning Requires Expanded Thinking: An Interview with Karen Pittman, Part 2

By Sam Piha 

We have been following the national discussion of "expanded learning". We believe that expanded learning opportunities should be developed by both educators and out-of-school time leaders. Further, we believe that any discussion of expanded learning time has to include clear learning principles that explain how children best learn so we can shape these experiences accordingly. The Learning in Afterschool & Summer project is focused on defining these learning principles.

Karen Pittman
Below is an interview on this topic with Karen Pittman, President and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment. This interview with the FrameWorks Institute is an excerpt of one that the Forum posted on their website, which can be found here in its entirety. We offer this interview in 2 parts. 


Q: What does a classroom that promotes intrinsic motivation look like? 

A: In an engaging classroom you will see desks pushed together, more team time, students working on group projects where the project on one table may be completely different from the project on the next table. Essentially, this is about effective project-based learning. Young people need opportunities to make meaningful decisions about topics they want to learn about, and then [they need] the supports to do something with that topic.  

Once you show students that they can really learn whatever they want to learn and they experience that sense of mastery, they will learn because they enjoy feeling that sense of mastery. In that kind of environment, young people will trust an adult who says, “You need to learn this because …”  


Q: There seems to be a notion in the education system that fairness is about having clearly defined standards and everyone learning the same thing. Do you see that as a problem?  

A: Standards are good. We use standards in our work for all kinds of things. There is value, however, in broadening what gets included in standards, and providing genuine opportunities for students to get there through different paths. So we need youth to have basic reading and math skills, but we also need them to develop teamwork, communication and problem-solving skills, financial literacy, a solid work ethic. These are competencies that have multiple uses once you develop them and that employers say their incoming workforce often lacks.  

There are examples of schools paying close attention to both content and competence. In the New Tech Network’s high schools, half of a student’s course grade is based on mastery of the content, and the other half is for improvement in different skills like teamwork, communication and initiative. Teachers’ lesson plans address both content and the development of those core competencies.   

Q: What do you think about the separation between the learning that goes on inside vs. outside of school?  

A: When kids are in preschool, we stay true to an expanded definition of learning. Learning in the early years includes all of those things that allow kids to be curious and navigate their environment, and teachers and parents are considered equal partners in learning. When kids become school-aged, the definition gets restrictive. The word “learning” gets captured by school – and then suddenly everything else isn’t thought of as learning. 

When an uncle teaches his nephew how to tune an engine, does that get counted as learning? Maybe. Does it get the same respect as the learning that occurs when a teacher teaches you how to do long division? No. And yet when we do a simple exercise and ask people to reflect on the most powerful learning experiences they had as a young person, their answers are rarely about something they learned in school.  

Q: What kinds of changes do you think need to happen in order to improve the quality of our education system?   

A: Public education is absolutely critical to the American ideal, but there is room for reinvention. Look at other large public systems, like public health. The CDC [Centers for Disease Control] has reinvented itself many times, both in terms of how public health is defined and how the system is designed to address it. We haven’t done the same level of redefinition and reinvention in public education. The system is defined more by buildings and schedules than by student learning needs and desires. 

I would want to step back and think about what really works for kids and families. Research on everything from how kids learn to adolescent sleep patterns demonstrates that the system as currently conceived isn’t working for many kids. But we have difficulty getting outside of the box. I’d like to get to a public education system that has standards, expectations and resources, but a little more flexibility in terms of how and where learning happens. We have the expertise and the technology to make public education a very different system while keeping its core intact.  


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Karen Pittman is a co-founder, President and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment. She started her career at the Urban Institute, conducting numerous studies on social services for children and families. Karen later moved to the Children’s Defense Fund, launching its adolescent pregnancy prevention initiatives and helping to create its adolescent policy agenda. In 1990 she became a vice president at the Academy for Educational Development, where she founded and directed the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research and its spin-off, the National Training Institute for Community Youth Work.
In 1995 Karen joined the Clinton administration as director of the President's Crime Prevention Council, where she worked with 13 cabinet secretaries to create a coordinated prevention agenda. From there she moved to the executive team of the International Youth Foundation (IYF), charged with helping the organization strengthen its program content and develop an evaluation strategy. In 1998 she and Rick Little, head of the foundation, took a leave of absence to work with ret. Gen. Colin Powell to create America’s Promise. Upon her return, she and Irby launched the Forum, which later became an entity separate from IYF.

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