SOCAPtv: Connecting Learning to the 21st Century with Constance Yowell

Posted by on October 9th, 2015

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Constance Yowell is the Director of Education at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She oversees a $50 million program on Digital Media and Learning, one of the first philanthropic efforts in the US to systematically explore the effects of digital media on young people and its implications for the future of learning and education.

“So these are my boys,” says Constance Yowell to the audience at SOCAP15.

A photo flashes on the screen, showing three young, beaming brothers: Jake, 13; Journey; 17; and Sam, 16.

“And no, Sam has not cut his hair in three years,” says Constance with a smile.

“I want to tell you about my summer with my boys. My summer starts in January or March. I want my boys to have a really great summer where they explore their interests and they learn some skills for their future. I do my research. I spend hours online and talk to parents in the community, to friends, to my boys, and finally I find some great programs.”

By the end of the summer, Sam learned how to remix music and is becoming a DJ. Journey was in a design program and created a line of shoes, and Jake, the youngest of the three, learned anime.

Most kids in the United States don’t have this kind of opportunity. Even at the High School level, more than 60% of students report being disengaged. Constance points to the data: A 20% dropout rate and almost 7 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who aren’t in school or working–a 5 trillion dollar loss in opportunity that translates into a skills gap.

For the past 10 years, the MacArthur Foundation has spent almost 200 million dollars trying to understand and reimagine what learning can look like in the 21st century, within the roles of digital media and technology.

A Foundation for Learning

Here’s what Constance says they’ve figured out when it comes to engaging young people in learning.

  1. Peers. Young people need to spend time with their peers to learn who they are and to learn together.
  1. Passion. Kids are motivated to learn what they care the most about and they need time to engage and go deep.
  1. Purpose. When we connect peers, with passion, with an opportunity to engage with something real in the world that matters to them, we see young people engaged in powerful learning and preparing for their future.

Together, Peers + Passion + Purpose lays a powerful foundation for learning.

However, these three things almost never come together for young people.

LRNG Creates Opportunities

LRNG, an education venture in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation, the National Writing Project, and John Legend’s Show Me Campaign, hopes to change that through an exciting new approach to learning.

As Constance explains, LRNG creates new learning opportunities for young people that brings them together with their peers, to do the things they care the most about, and helps them find the information and connectors that they need in order to continue learning and move on the path to success.

LRNG taps into all of the learning opportunities that exist across a city: libraries, after school programs, museums, businesses. It brings them together into a seamless network that is open and inviting to young people and transforms how they access and participate in learning and their paths to success.

“At LRNG we like to say that learning is a lifestyle and it happens everywhere all of the time,” she says.

Like Spotify with its musical recommendations, LRNG can recommend a whole set of learning opportunities to young people in the program live, based on where they live, what they’re interested in, and their overall competency level, and then connects them to peers and mentors in their community. As they are guided through those learning opportunities, young people can demonstrate their competence, and earn digital “badges” to unlock new opportunities–a special program, an internship, or a possible job.

“We’ve been piloting this work in Dallas, Chicago, Washington DC and Pittsburgh,” says Constance. Through this work they have learned how to build an infrastructure that networks learning across a city.

One Million Youth by 2018

By 2018 she expects to have more than 1 million youth involved in LRNG across 70 communities. LRNG, she stresses, is a collaboration, and one where they welcome more partners to build a network ecosystem of learning across cities.

Her final slide shows 14 year old Ahmed Mohammed who recently made headlines for being arrested at his Texas school after bringing in a homemade clock that was mistaken for a bomb.

“Ahmed was punished for exactly the behavior we want to encourage,” said Constance.

“School is everywhere. Curiosity, creativity, engagement–it’s everywhere. We want all of our kids to be makers, creators, and inventors. It’s why we created LRNG. We want all kids to have the opportunity to turn learning into a lifestyle, and have a bright and balanced future.”