Connected Learning: Unlocking the Potential of Every Child


February 13, 2013

PROJECTS: The Digital Edge

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One of the more interesting assertions of connected learning is the need to create new approaches to education that recognize the vitality of learning and the fact that it happens in many different ways.  There is widespread agreement among researchers from sociology, economics, and education that the academic achievement gaps in the U.S. are attributable to both in–school and out-of-school experiences.  While there is widespread recognition of the former, there is a tendency to gloss over the importance of the latter, out-of-school learning.

What young people from upper income households do with their time out-of-school varies significantly from their lower income counterparts.  In the preparation of the Connected Learning report we were struck by the “enrichment opportunity gap” between upper income and lower income students.  Since the mid-1990s college educated parents, often a proxy for middle and upper-income status, have made steadily rising time and monetary investments in their children’s lives and activities that are non-school related.  According to Greg J. Duncan and Richard J. Murnane, in the period from 1972 to 1973, high-income families spent about $2,700 more per year on child enrichment than low-income families.  Duncan and Murnane explain that by 2005 to 2006, this gap had almost tripled to $7,500.  Time spent in novel environments help young people develop the interpersonal competencies that are predictive of social and economic mobility later in life.

Most researchers believe that this extraordinary investment in extra-curricular activities—after school programs, summer camps, vacations, music lessons, etc.—is driven by one main motivation: the desire among college educated parents to increase their children’s odds of gaining admission to a select university.

Parental investment in extracurricular activities requires two things that poor and working class parents seldom have: extra time and extra money.  Consequently, low-income families are much more likely to rely on schools and other public resources to provide access to extracurricular activities.  This was certainly true of the lower-income families in our study at Texas City High School (TCHS).  Along with usual suspects like sports, students at TCHS had access to, for example, the culinary arts, debate, fashion, and even a gay and lesbian student leadership group.  We spent most of our time in the after school space with students pursuing interest in another area, the digital media arts.  After school options like these are offered to close the enrichment opportunity gap while also expanding the pathways for learning and achievement at TCHS.

In a report titled, “Learning at Not-School,” Julian Sefton-Green makes a case for what he calls “not-school learning.”  What is not-school learning?  It is a reference to learning settings where teaching and learning—at least how it happens in school—are not understood to be the primary purpose of what takes place.  Equally important, “not-school” learning settings suggests that learners possess agency and choice in the activities that take place.  “Not-school” learning is exactly what it sounds like, an approach to learning that differs significantly from the forms of learning—teacher-centered practices, sorting by age, emphasis on test-taking skills—that currently dominate what David Tyack and Larry Cuban call the “everyday grammar” of schooling.

The Miracle of Education
The ability of schools like TCHS to provide students opportunities for out-of-school learning have come under increase pressure due, in part, to the drastic budget cuts pursued by many state legislatures around the country.  In response to drastic cuts in Texas education in 2012 more than six hundred school districts across the state filed a lawsuit claiming that the funding for public education in the state is unconstitutional because it fails to provide adequate resources to support students’ ability to reach state-mandated academic standards.  On Feb. 5, Texas State Judge John Dietz ruled in favor of the school districts.

During a statement that framed his judicial and moral reasoning for siding with the school districts Judge Dietz asked those present in the courtroom, “what do we know of Brownsville, Texas?”  Sitting on the southernmost tip of the U.S. and Mexico border, Brownsville is 93% Latino and has the unfortunate honor of being consistently recognized as one of the poorest congressional districts in the U.S.  Recently, however, Brownsville has developed a more inspirational reputation.  According to Judge Dietz, “the United States Chess Federation recognizes Brownsville as the most active center of chess in the United States.”

In 1989, JJ Guajardo, a teacher in Brownsville was looking for a way to spark many of the students at Russell Elementary School.  He started teaching them chess before the school day began.  Within a year several students started arriving to school early to play chess.  Four years later the students won their first state championship.  Russell Elementary School became a chess dynasty winning seven state championships in a row and competing successfully against students from all over the U.S. and the world.  Today, more than 4,000 Brownsville students play chess.  The game has become a badge of honor for an entire community and one of the bright spots in the public schools throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

Facing tough budget decisions, education officials, fortunately, elected to keep funding the chess program, which has been covered by, among others, The New York Times and HBO and even landed some Brownsville students in the White House to attend a 2010 Latino Excellence in Education initiative launched by President Barack Obama.  Inspired by the success of the program, the University of Texas at Brownsville is one of the few U.S. universities to offer scholarships for chess, further recognizing and rewarding the efforts of students and their schools.  In his ruling against the state, Dietz explained the need to support teachers like Mr. Guajardo and initiatives like the chess program.  Opportunities like the Brownsville chess program embody what the judge calls, “the miracle of education” which is, in his words, providing avenues for children to succeed “by unlocking the potential in every child, as you find them.”

Judge Dietz’s statement illuminates the value of out-of-school learning.  The program offers students an activity that, while not explicitly academic, nourishes outcomes often credited with supporting academic success—self discovery, confidence, self-esteem, hard work, persistence, and discipline.  The chess program in Brownsville is a powerful testament to how connected learning can transform an entire community by creating spaces where every student can participate, learn by doing, foster a need-to-know, and share their skill and knowledge in ways that boost learning and social connections.

This, in many ways, is the miracle of connected learning.