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Dialogues with Gensler: Proactive Lifelong Learning

Gensler's Chicago office hosted the second event in the three-part Dialogues with Gensler series on March 26. Panelists and guests discussed how to make lifelong learning a proactive proposition. Image © Vanessa Churchill/gensler

Lifelong learning is a beautiful phrase, full of ambition while remaining conveniently vague. Everyone claims they’re a lifelong learner. But what does that mean, and what does it look like in practice?

The second event in our three-part Dialogues with Gensler series—held March 26, 2015 in Chicago—explores what a proactive approach to lifelong learning might look like in both the workplace and in academia. How do we challenge traditional paths to educational success? And how can we promote spaces in our everyday lives that foster collaboration, discovery, and professional development?

New alliances across educational and corporate entities are catalyzing fresh approaches to learning. These public/private partnerships have sparked a host of methodologies to revamp learning environments, driving workforce development, education theory, and design.

Panelist Dr. Kemi Jona serves as a professor of Learning Sciences and Computer Science at Northwestern University as well as Director of Northwestern’s Office of STEM Education Partnerships. His work asks, “How can we use technology thoughtfully to help people become better learners?” He spoke of the rich educational possibilities of informal learning environments. “We learn throughout our lives,” says Jona, “At home, at play, through our hobbies. People are amazing learners, but most of them shut that off when they walk into a classroom.”

Instead, Jona suggests we create spaces to help people learn in more authentic ways. In projects like VOISE Academy or the Fuse blended-learning program, Jona and his colleagues tap into the principles of informal learning. Students work collaboratively according to their own interests. Adults take the role of coaches or facilitators, rather than instructors. These programs are interest incubators, providing students with robust networks of educational resources beyond those of teacher and book. The coaches/facilitators encourage group learning. Students helping students is often seen as cheating—when in reality, we do it on a daily basis in our professional lives, so why should we not educate our students how to be resourceful and inquisitive in finding new ways to discover knowledge.

Our second panelist, Mike McGee, co-founded The Starter League, a company that teaches people how to code and build web applications. It’s also one of the original startups chosen to participate in Chicago’s tech incubator 1871. Though his work is now largely that of a tech educator, McGee started out as neither programmer nor teacher. The Starter League philosophy similarly champions the novice or newcomer in its approach.

One of the central principles of The Starter League is to “expose your ignorance.” Many people, McGee says, especially adults, approach learning with a defensive attitude. Rather than admit they don’t know something, students fake it, effectively shutting down a learning opportunity. The Starter League encourages students to embrace the potential inherent in being a newcomer, and to seek out the possibility that lives in that moment. McGee uncovered that as professionals, we forget how to learn. His mission is to create a network of learners—people who find time in their days to explore and uncover new knowledge.

Our final panelist, Haley Stevens, lives at the intersection of government, academia and manufacturing industry. In her role as Associate Director at the Digital Manufacturing Design and Innovation Institute (DMDII), Stevens champions manufacturing innovation and job creation, which often means she is in charge of creating jobs she doesn’t know exist yet.

Stevens spoke of the pervasive skills gap in manufacturing. “There are so many open positions in manufacturing right now, even with the low national employment rate,” she explains. “It’s a real issue. Companies struggle, they shut down, they move overseas because they can’t find people with the right skills to help.” Stevens strives to forge partnerships between government funders and policy makers, manufacturing companies and academic institutions to devise new ways to create on-the-job training initiatives to shrink this gap.

Throughout their conversation and well into the Q&A, panelists used their experiences to outline key features of new methodologies in lifelong learning. Among these are embracing unexpected partnerships, constructing learning frameworks, devising responsive educational programming, and navigating the shifting importance of credentials.

Embracing Unexpected Partnerships

Cross-pollination cultivates unexpected fruit. All three panelists explained that letting seemingly diverse ideas rub shoulders speeds the process of discovery, leading to fresh products and outcomes.

At The Starter League, McGee welcomes students of all professional backgrounds. You’re more likely to find lawyers, retail workers, and journalists in a Starter League class than professional programmers.

“When you bring people together from different backgrounds, they solve things faster,” he says. “A schoolteacher wants to do something really concrete with their code that a web designer would never think of on their own. The teacher sees the real problem that needs solving, and then they go solve it with their work.”

Constructing Learning Frameworks

More than subject matter expertise, the key takeaway from a lifelong learning course must be the ability to learn. Technologies change so quickly. At The Starter League, McGee observes, the coding language you just mastered can become obsolete overnight. Now what do you do?

By honing problem-solving and general learning skills, students are better equipped to adapt to unexpected reversals. Not only do stronger learners master new technologies quicker, they also adapt to right-turns in their careers. “Professionals these days may work at several jobs over their lives,” says Stevens. “If you start young with a mentality of flexibility, I see it becoming almost a faux pas to graduate from college without a whole suite of skills.”

McGee concurs. “Learning needs to beget more learning. Learning needs to lead you to the next level. If you have this framework set up, when a new thing comes along, you’re not rocked. What you’re really doing is learning a framework of how to learn hard things.”

Responsive Educational Programming

Our panelists observed that in order to succeed, educational programs must be relevant to students’ lives. Otherwise, any learning module you design is also designed for obsolescence.

Responsiveness can mean taking student interest and feedback into account when designing curricula. It can also be as simple as finding the right way to present material. Jona tells a story about teaching 3D printing to high school students through a module on jewelry making. “We don’t say to the students, ‘How about you come learn 3D CAD design?’ In the program, sure, you have to learn CAD. But it’s a means to an end, a way to do something fun. It taps into exactly the same skill set as manufacturing.” He laughs. “But we don’t tell them that.”

The Shifting Importance of Credentials

Credentialing – receiving formal recognition for work completed – can be tricky in new educational environments. Whereas a diploma from an institute of higher education is probably here to stay, what about proving what you’ve learned from other, less-structured learning environments?

“MOOCs (massive open online courses) threw everyone for a loop,” notes Stevens. “No one knew what to do with them. And these still don’t resonate in the industry as much as they should. So how do you leverage informal learning opportunities?”

In her work, Stevens builds partnerships, putting out project calls to university and academic partners to design professional development programs for small and medium-size manufacturing enterprises. In a world where you must prove you can handle multi-million dollar equipment before you ever get the chance, credentials still hold a central role. But in other venues, these pieces of paper may be losing their relevance.

“You can come out of school with good grades and still not have the skills,” says McGee, whose program offers no certification at all. Instead, his students graduate with a product. “Your receipt is what you’ve done, what you’ve built. That’s what we’re trying to shift people to.”

Jona agrees. “That’s what the shift from consumption to production produces. If you want to enable students as producers, they’ve actually got to make stuff to prove what they know. “You can hand me your certificate, but if the thing you’ve produced is stuck to that badge, then I can judge for myself what it’s worth.”

Creating adaptable and flexible, continual learning opportunities for students and professionals resonated as the number one goal from the session. An assembly line worker who can decode a problem on the line is far more valuable when they can correct a minor problem and keep production occurring. A coder who finishes their goal of a program, is never “done,” in that they are constantly retooling and adapting their completed program to respond to new needs.

This new type of student, this new type of professional needs a new type of learning that is framed during the infancy of formalized education, and distills a deep curiosity that extends well into their professional life. Those are the most valuable employees; those are the most valuable citizens; those are the most valuable life-long-learners. Learning doesn’t stop when you graduate; it needs to continue, and we need to create environments that encourage this to occur.

Stay tuned for the third and final part of this Dialogues series. Our next event will sprout these ideas in a different direction, exploring relationships and coalitions between cultural/educational institutions. Please continue the conversation at #dialogueswithgensler.

David Broz is very involved in his community, sitting on nearly a dozen not-for-profit boards and committees, ranging from "Placemaking in the Loop" to "Multicultural Scholars Program at the University of Kansas." A common thread runs through his work and his volunteer efforts: the desire to create great spaces to live, work, and play that respond to today's social and economic realities. Contact him at david_broz@gensler.com.
Meghan has a broad range of experience across the country and overseas in every phase of the architecture and construction process, and she draws on this experience when thinking about new and inventive ways for buildings to broaden the lives of the end-users. Contact her at meghan_webster@gensler.com.

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