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A Hybrid of Learning: Culture + Education + Community

Dialogues with Gensler panelists Antonia Contro, Shayne Evans, and Sam Dyson. Image © Vanessa Churchill/Gensler

This post is the third in Reimagining Learning, a series that will look beyond the classroom in a quest to explore how innovative design can better support learning.

How do we approach the task of youth education in a city like Chicago, a city with a spotty record of keeping students engaged? Or, to ask a larger question, how do we show students they can be critical thinkers and leaders? And how can we marshal our resources – technological, professional and otherwise – to create city-wide connected learning experiences for students?

We explored these questions at the third event in Gensler’s Dialogues series on Lifelong Learning. Our discussion highlighted the ‘connective tissue’ of community and cultural institutions that forms a holistic learning ecosystem within the city. These institutions fill in the gaps, creating alliances across schools, community organizations and the private sector to challenge our vision of what learning can be when it is supported systemically, technologically and spatially.

Creating the Conditions to Learn

Education is not just about helping students learn. It’s about inspiring students to want to learn. So much contemporary education teaches to standardized tests. And even as schools prepare students for their PSATs, they often extinguish a child’s natural curiosity along the way.

“When we focus on grades and tests, we make the interaction about ‘What grade did I get?’ Not, “What did I learn?’” says Shayne Evans, CEO and Director of the University of Chicago Charter School. “When that’s true, we can’t be shocked that kids leave school not wanting to continue learning.”

To shift away from an achievement-oriented mindset, we must first understand what robust learning looks like. Real learning is not a constant upslope of successful progress. Instead, it involves taking risks. It involves long stretches of what Sam Dyson calls ‘unlearning’: taking experiences that seem misaligned and reprocessing them to make new links. In his recent blog post on Deeper Learning, he captures the process of unlearning by describing that moment we all experience learning something new: gaining knowledge while losing understanding. Although potentially frustrating in the moment, unlearning is a vital part of an upward learning curve.

Antonia Contro agrees, noting that unlearning provides the very conditions for innovation. A mistake, she says, is just an opportunity for a new solution. Without giving students room to attempt new things, and even to fail at them, we aren’t giving students the richly creative educational support to help them succeed.

This seeming contradiction – the idea of a successful mistake – can be hard for students to embrace. “Real learning takes a lot of vulnerability,” says Dyson, “and young people are not trained for that.” This is especially true for students growing up in urban poverty. Being raised in poverty means a constant exposure to vulnerability that creates hardened barriers many students struggle to overcome.

“Simply put, not everyone has equal access to successful failures,” Dyson says. “Not everyone has the same consequences for failures. That’s the reality.”

In a study of 100 CPS students, only 14% went on to get a bachelor's degree within six years.

Our work as educators, then, becomes fostering the conditions for successful failures – creating the conditions for safe learning, experimentation and innovation – for all students. “We must make the same perception for all our students: that they have the runway to fail a thousand times,” says Evans. “That’s something we have to do as a society to change that conversation.”

Building Tools for Successful Failure

Helping students embrace experimentation means creating places of learning safety. Contro calls this mindset of safe, productive innovation the ‘studio space’. Studios – physical, digital, or a state of mind - are places where learning is activated by making, by trying new things to see how they work. Studio environments set students free to explore their curiosities without rubrics or metrics.

“Studio thinking prompts a kind of learning that is generative,” says Contro, who directs Chicago arts education non-profit Marwen. “It’s a flow-state thinking where you suspend judgment. By engaging in it, you’re taking that risk of doing your own thing in a safe environment.”

Studio spaces of all types have emerged in Chicago to connect the sometimes-scattered learning environment. Places like YOUMedia at the Harold Washington Public Library, the Design Studio at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and FUSE, a tech space developed by Kemi Jona (panelist at our last Dialogues event), offer youth-centered studios where students have room to simply ‘geek out’. There’s no pressure to create according to rules. Youth can drop in, play games, try the tools that interest them, and talk with other teens about their projects.

In all of these studios, technology remains a critical component of successful learning. One of our goals as a society, says Dyson, should be enabling tech-literate youth starting early on, so that the leaders of the future don’t just consume but also create on the Web.

“We talk a lot about the Web at work,” he says. “Not because we’re geeked about what technology can do, but because we’re excited about what people can do when they’re networked in interesting ways. The Web as a global, open resource works best when it helps people know more, do more and do better.”

In designing learning environments at Gensler, we’ve seen the same movement. Increasingly, designers and developers are making crucial distinctions between technology for its own sake and technology that opens doors for people to do better. In the early years of tech-enabled classrooms, the trend was to throw in every high-tech capability to see what stuck. Now we see a sharper focus on technology as a resource to support humans, not the other way around. Sometimes, the best solution is one that employs low-tech tools instead. Ultimately, a successful learning environment provides space for learners and educators alike to take ownership of driving learning activities to meet the challenge at hand.

Image © Vanessa Churchill/Gensler

Creating Access through Networks

Communities shape youth development by creating links between education opportunities and students. In this vibrant, entrepreneurial city, we are fortunate to enjoy a wealth of learning resources. We have a responsibility as professionals from the design, tech and corporate sectors to drive access to these resources.

“Creating access has become almost a cliché statement, but it’s far more nuanced than it sounds,” observes Contro. “It’s a more complex reality than just giving poor kids tickets to the Art Institute.”

By leveraging professional networks, our ability to connect youth gets supercharged. In Dyson’s work at the Hive Chicago Learning Network, they asked their constituent organizations to share the unmet challenges they faced in supporting students. One of the answers they got back was transportation. Often, students struggle to actually travel to learning spaces. Hive brought their partners to the table and developed Ride W/ Me, an app that lets students see the events their peers are already attending and then shows them other people who are traveling there. Suddenly, a tech-based tool makes one facet of the education experience both accessible and safe.

Networks have the power to change not just the student experience, but the fabric of the city itself. The Hyde Park Arts Incubator offers an example of what Chicago could look like when leaders from different parts of society come together to reinvest in education. Built in an underserved neighborhood on the South Side, this arts education space has seen investment from Chicago’s arts community and from the city itself. In the process, it has transformed how a neighborhood sees itself.

Taken together, these projects ask us to reconsider the meaning of successful urban education. In order to work, urban education requires buy-in from individuals and organizations across diverse backgrounds. It leverages technology in people-centered ways and it takes place at a systemic, city-wide level.

Dyson agrees, noting that, even more than technology, we have to understand the city as the platform on which the learning revolution will occur. “Urban education,” he says, “is not just a turning of our attention to the neediest areas of the city with a disposition toward service. It’s about transforming the city into a collective platform on which we’re all building the solutions we all collectively share.”

Meet Our Panelists

Many thanks to panelists Antonia Contro, Executive Director of Chicago-based arts education non-profit Marwen; Shayne Evans, CEO and Director of the University of Chicago Charter School as well as its umbrella organization, the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute; and Sam Dyson, Director of the Hive Chicago Learning Network for sharing their time, energy and insights with us. Their wide-reaching conversation offered a vivid illustration of the potential opportunities that can emerge if we change our understanding of a successful learning platform.

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 Webster 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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