How John Dewey got his first job—and why it matters for the future of learning ecosystems

Special Focus : Designing Vibrant and Purposeful Learning Communities
Learning Ecosystems and Leadership December 15, 2020

A school community is a precious and fragile ecosystem. Teachers and leaders must constantly perform a balancing act: build a healthy school-wide climate and culture, while also attempting to cater to each individual students’ academic strengths and needs.

These twin values—of community and individual—have been around since the dawn of the Progressive Education Movement itself. Over a century ago, the godfather of progressive education, John Dewey, implored educators to focus intently on providing individual students with ownership and real-world, authentic learning experiences tailored to engage them. Crucially though, Dewey rarely situated students as lone, atomized learners. Instead, he imagined modern education as a fundamentally social endeavor.

Fast forward to today, and many of these same ideas are finding new resonance among champions of an ecosystem approach to learning. Building local and regional hubs for learning offers an immense opportunity for schools to expand what individual students know in real-world, authentic ways by expanding where learning can happen beyond the four walls of school. 

But perhaps of equal importance, an ecosystems approach can also foster the social side of learning and community-building, and start to expand whom students get to know along the way.

The power of who you know

Unlocking greater stocks of social capital for students is a critical but often unacknowledged lever for expanding opportunity. Social capital describes the benefits that people accrue by virtue of their relationships or membership in social networks. In today’s labor market, an estimated half of jobs come through personal connections. The power of networks was true even for Dewey himself. After graduating college, Dewey spent the summer wondering what to do next. With few prospects, he wrangled a favor from his cousin, a high school principal, who hired him to teach. For all the promise he would later realize as a seminal leader, it was a relationship—rather than his innate abilities and skills alone—that landed Dewey his first job in a lifelong career in education.

Those hoping to build more open learning ecosystems that deliver on the promise of progressive education should take note. Particularly for ecosystem builders aiming to cure rising inequality, without access to broad, diverse networks, less-connected students will be at a distinct disadvantage to their better-connected peers. But with the right tools and measures in place, designing a more networked learning ecosystem could radically expand students’ access to relationships that can open new doors and horizons. 

Innovators investing in students’ social capital

Luckily, a host of innovators committed to building more open, real-world learning opportunities are starting to focus on expanding—and measuring—students’ social capital in three noteworthy ways.

First, edtech entrepreneurs are building tools that help schools to recruit and organize individuals from businesses, nonprofit organizations, and higher education institutions who can share their skills, experiences, and passions with teachers and students in schools and in out-of-school settings. For example, CommunityShare is a platform that allows teachers to find these partners. Josh Schacter, the platform’s founder, calls it “a human library of regional wisdom and expertise,” and it works like many two-sided marketplaces. “Community members—including artists, scientists, parents, retirees, and business leaders—register and create online profiles to indicate the expertise that they would like to share with teachers and students,” explained Schacter. “Classroom educators then search online for community members whose real-world expertise matches the needs and interests of their students and the goals of their curriculum. Community members matched with classrooms can serve as volunteer mentors, project collaborators, content area experts, internship hosts, guest speakers, and more.”

Second, innovative school leaders are starting to find ways to award credit for out of school connections and experiences focused on career exploration and experience. For example, at the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) students can enroll in “career explorations to meet industry experts through live video conferences, in career-focused courses, and in local work-based learning opportunities like job shadows or internships. Although a number of schools offer some form of career exploration, VLACS’ model takes this a step further: explorations and experiences allow students to earn high school credit and a career badge that verifies the skills they have acquired through the experience. In other words, through the competency-based VLACS model, students earn credits not just for tapping into new funds of knowledge online and across their community, but also for expanding their networks.

Third, a host of organizations have started to develop measures to better understand the networks that students accrue in the course of their in- and out-of school learning experiences. These measures, which we catalogue in our recent report The Missing Metrics, approximate the size, quality, and structure of students’ networks, and can start to gauge the value created when students engage with individuals across their communities. For example, Big Picture Learning, a nonprofit that supports a network of high schools that offer out of school, internship-based learning, aims to diversify and expand students’ professional networks. Using a technology tool called ImBlaze, Big Picture Learning’s partner schools can pose questions to students and their internship site mentors on a daily or weekly basis. Some schools collect information on the connections students are themselves forging, asking “What adults do you plan to work with today?” Other partner schools flip that script and use the app to ask adult mentors about the extent to which they are opening up their networks to the students they work with. For example, one school asks mentors, “Did you introduce your young person to someone in your professional network today?” Prompts and survey questions like these can provide formative feedback as to how much students’ newly-formed contact with the local business is yielding authentic, broad professional connections.

These new tools, school designs, and metrics offer a glimpse into what a more networked model of learning could look like. Learning ecosystems could lead the way, harnessing immense stocks of social capital that most schools have yet to tap into across communities and industries. 

As Dewey famously proclaimed, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” The same, it could be said, is true of how we connect students.