Q&A: Connecting to Community

Several weeks ago, David Edwards, CEO, Ignite Learning Partners, Inc., and I discussed the Generation Z learner in this blog post. The conversation turned to an interesting issue facing the Gen Z learners, and that’s how to connect them to the community and build entrepreneurial skills.  Here’s the continuation of that discussion.
Adam: Technology has given tools to Gen Z kids that has allowed them to become entrepreneurs and develop their own startup ventures. What are you seeing with that?
David: Well, when you talk about starting up their own companies, it’s definitely about their passions.  Once they have a passion, they will work diligently to achieve the vision of those passions. Today’s educators do not understand that very well. Good example, when I was a tech director, kids would spend hours researching how to crack the firewall. Then they would communicate that out to their friends. Now, how do you take that ability to research and crack the firewall and turn it into a positive, problem-solving skill?  That doesn’t align with today’s educational philosophy. We need to be cognizant of the fact that they’ve always known this technology and have always had instant access to it. Put them in a school, and all of the sudden the lose access to it. They immediately go into this hack-mode to solve problems. So this notion that they’re not problem solvers is false.  If they’re passionate about it, and you don’t give them access to information resources and tools, they will find a way around the barriers that education puts up.
Adam: What else are we missing when we teach Gen Z?
David: In this move toward digital literacy, we need to help Gen Zs become the discoverers and curators of this massive amount of knowledge on the web. We need to teach them how to research and discover the information, and then apply that information in meaningful, relevant ways.  We need to help them understand that maybe the first result maybe not the best result and the first solution is maybe not the best solution.  They need to know how to test that theory and apply it.
Adam: I’ve got a statistic for you.  65% of grade school students will work in jobs that don’t exist today. How does education wrap its head around that?

David Edwards
CEO, Ignite Learning Partners, Inc.

David:  That goes back to economic development and workforce development, which has really been the job of the universities and community colleges. When you think of the bureaucracy of education, we’re typically not nimble enough to start looking at what the jobs of the future are and how rapidly they are coming into existence.  So how in the world do we prepare students to go into these jobs that don’t exist yet? That’s got to be the role of K-12, to get students to be discoverers and curators and managers of information, which will be basic skills of future jobs.
Another thing I’m passionate about is letting middle schoolers and high schoolers create their own jobs.  We need to start looking at what are the needs of local economies, and the national and global economies.  Let them shape their own careers at that early age by building entrepreneurial thinking at the middle and high school levels.  We need a nimble, entrepreneurial thinker coming out of high school who can go right into the workforce or on to college where they would get more in-depth skills for the future.
Adam: I don’t think K-12 does a very good job at preparing the entrepreneurial thinker.  Can you talk about what you’re doing at Ignite to get kids more prepared for the workforce and have entrepreneurial skills?
David: Economic development in the 80s and 90s and early 2000s was all about the “big box” theory where we had big box manufacturers that had 4-digit employee bases and state and local governments gave them enormous tax incentives to locate in their communities. That model of economic development is rapidly dwindling now. The workforce has to become more nimble, more virtual, and more knowledge based. Ignite wants to see students get more involved at solving problems at the local, state, national, and even global levels. That makes curriculum and learning relevant.  If students are taking biology and can take that skill set and work with a local company or in a community project and apply that knowledge to solve a problem, then there is real relevance in the learning.
Adam: So what’s the blueprint, if there is one, for pulling this off?
David: It will take some strategic thinking and innovative solutions to create “networks” of learning within communities. Building frameworks around community and student needs is essential. In simple terms, identify resources and needs in the communities and tie projects to the classroom learning.  Make the curriculum real.  This crisis of relevance in education is really where Ignite is focusing.  The network needs to be both virtual and physical, and it must allow students to actually apply their knowledge to solve both local and global problems while working alongside entrepreneurs and business.  That gives them a practical application of the skill. Students also establish a network with entrepreneurs and creative thinkers to help them develop their own products or own solutions later on.  That help spurs the entrepreneurial skills earlier than trying to do it at the university level.
Adam: How did schools and community get disconnected?  It seems like communities would be eager to reach out in a meaningful way to the young minds, to the young entrepreneurs in our schools.
David: Some of this is more around the semantics of “connected”.  Many schools are “connected” to the community in terms of financial support, volunteerism, and general advocacy.  The National Association for Elementary School Principals’ says that connecting schools and communities means engaging the community to build greater ownership for the work of the school, sharing leadership and decision-making, encouraging parents to become meaningfully involved in the school and in their own children’s learning, and ensuring that students and families are connected to the health, human and social services they need to stay focused on learning.
While these strategies are very important, I see true connection as having students working on real projects within the community – whether it is business internships, civic engagement, conducting research, or helping local business to develop and grow.  Students need to demonstrate their learning in real projects that have real value to both the student and the community.
Adam: So is the disconnect an education problem? Are we the hold up or what are the barriers exactly?
David:  I think it’s a combination.  Forsyth Features, a group out of North Carolina, has really begun to understand that it’s a matter of connecting the dots first and understanding what’s going on in the community and focusing on the ultimate goal of economic development. What we’re finding is that there are so many silos out there.  Everybody is doing their own thing, but everybody pretty much has a common mission. So first it’s a matter of connecting those dots to understand what’s going on in the communities. What is the best return on investment? Where are things acting positively to stimulate the economy and stimulate economic development? But underlying all of that is an educational issue and that is what is being taught in the schools? How schools deliver curriculum and how we assess learning is definitely a barrier. It’s got to be thought about differently, especially when students are working alongside businesses or working in community projects. How do you assess that learning? How do you make sure the skills are applicable and are being demonstrated? The concern about standardized assessments is valid, too. If we are going to say that students must meet a proficiency exam based upon certain types of test questions and that’s the only way to demonstrate learning, I think that’s going to be a bigger barrier and challenge than what we’re imagining.  Badging systems and competency-based systems, those are the only ways to begin to connect students to the real world to demonstrate real-world learning.
Adam: What are Ignite’s plans specifically to connect communities and schools?
David: We are working to build out a connected learning community framework that engages the rural counties in planning around the “grand challenges” of their communities. We want to involve students at all levels in this planning and let them be part of the solution. We will work at the local level to understand the particular needs of students, schools and communities. We will then take existing technology and adapt it specifically for those needs, or innovate and develop something entirely new. The result is a blend of traditional and online learning that is relevant, cost-effective and actionable. The key here is actionable.  Real projects in which students are working with and within communities to apply the learning and solve problems.
Adam: What are some success stories out there now?
David: The only real actionable model that I have seen underway is in Ohio and is being led by KnowledgeWorks. The Strive Network creates these “roadmaps” or a guide for the student and the community with an interest in seeing that students have successful journeys. Their website is www.strivenetwork.org.
Adam: What could some of the success be in the future?
David: True successes will vary but some examples would be students who work on building a new business model for a local company that is trying to convert to green energy and gaining experiential credit for their learning.  Also, counties that build out a strong network of business, NGOs, and government resources that have educational “activities” and projects for students to work on that are related to their standard course work. And also students and entrepreneurs who work together to create new solutions to local and state problems in some sort of “idea incubation” network that is part of their learning.

Adam Renfro

Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011.

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Gary Lynch

The one component that I think is most overlooked here is that a large majority of our students and their parents have no idea of what community is or even looks like. If we start by partnering with community leaders to teach our children what community really is and looks like, something basic like the meaning of the word community: coming together and working as one, then teaching our children and their parents the value and importance of community, if we do this first then I believe the things you speak of here will fall more naturally into place. Teaching and becoming a true community must come first.

Adam Renfro

Thanks, Gary! Definitely needs to be part of the discussion.

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