Projects in Place: Civic learning ecosystems for the future of inclusive democracies

Special Focus : Learning Ecosystems: A New Paradigm in the Learning Experience
Learning Ecosystems and Leadership June 15, 2021

The newest addition to the Truman Presidential Library’s collection is a painting that is a variation on the Statue of Liberty. In this contemporary representation, the figure is holding up her dress to reveal a prosthetic leg. This artwork was made by a student at Lee’s Summit North High School in Kansas City, MO, and she presented it with a trembling voice and confident vision to the Library’s leaders as part of a teen-led marketing effort to celebrate the reopening of the Museum to the public. As she shared her art, she described how this rendition reflected the promise of America to be inclusive of all people, as well as the meandering journey that America has been on since the tribulations of World War II to become ever more welcoming to people with different identities and abilities. 

In her review of the experience, she rated it “one of the most meaningful learning experiences I have ever had in school”, and that it had allowed her to feel more connected with herself, with her community, and with her own sense of power.  This is what learning in an ecosystem looks like. It is schools, museums, and community partners working together to create learning experiences that are geared towards developing young people as human beings. 

The project was part of her regular high school class, but it is a high school that is part of an effort to advance “real world learning”, and as part of that participates in The Learning Collaborative’s model of museum-school partnerships for civic growth. Launched at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, The Learning Collaborative set out to activate the community to provide learning experiences that would provide young people with six key outcomes:

1. The opportunity to express their identity 

2. Connecting them to the place in which they live 

3. Inquiry driven, allowing them to conduct research into the past based on their own questions

4. The opportunity for them to be seen and heard by someone different from them

5. The opportunity to learn about a topic of global relevance

6. The ability to experience their own power and agency


This project—simply designed in a google doc, and with no fancy bells and whistles attached—delivered all of these learning outcomes and more. 

At the heart of this learning experience was a paradigm shift in the relationship between the institution and the student. Traditionally, parents, teachers and schools see museums, parks and historical sites as places where young people go to learn about what happened there, or about a specific exhibit.  The question we have usually asked our community institutions is “what content can you convey in a way that is exciting.” Instead, this experience started with the question to the Truman Library of “what experience can you let students have that will help them grow as a global citizen and member of their community?” 

That is the core question around which the Learning Collaborative, incubated by got history?, strives to reframe the role of museums and community institutions in educating youth on themes of history and civics today.  In partnership with the Kauffman Foundation’s Real World Learning initiative, we set out to create learning experiences that combine inquiry- and project-based learning and provide young people with an opportunity to apply themselves with their learning to create value to their communities. 

We have started curating a library of such projects that can be deployed in museums anywhere, in the context of any content and any setting, including teen-led exhibits, teen-led discussions, teen-led marketing campaigns and guided tours.  All of these projects share the design criteria above and are geared to enhancing the student’s connection with their community, their curiosity about the past and the present, and their ability to see themselves as a participant in the social fabric of humanity.  

Projects of this kind will be rolled out over all school districts in the greater Kansas City region in the coming school year and will showcase the power of a learning ecosystem to support young people in growing up as citizens for the 21st century.  The point is not to create one-off experiences but to transform the experience of learning from a young age, into something that consistently affirms to the young person that they are valued, seen and have power. 

These kinds of projects that connect youth with their community, and that activate archives and libraries as partners in learning are not new.  What is new is that we can place them into the emerging field of ecosystem-creation and see their power in transforming how we approach the failing system of educating participants for civic engagement.  What is also new is that we can start to imagine making this kind of learning accessible to learners not only in small private schools, but at scale.  With the advance of adaptive learning technology, such as the Capable platform developed by Area9, it is possible to create time on teacher’s schedules for project-learning by accelerating the learning of core content while providing the infrastructure for managing and evaluating individualized project-based learning at scale. 

We know from research by Bronfenbrenner and others that in order for young people to develop fully as humans they must be placed in a context in which they can be in a dynamic relation with their ecology, including the institutions, structures, symbols and stories that surround them[1].  Deprived of a sense of belonging, deprived of a sense that they could be part of a narrative of stability and success, young people and adults struggle to find a keel to help steer them through the challenging waters of life. 

We also know that how we have approached teaching history in modern societies has failed. Disinformation, tribalism, fear and frustration with government are on the rise, while educational policy makers argue vehemently over which facts and interpretations of the past are relevant and necessary for young people to know, which students, in fact, don’t learn the content anyway.  

As we struggle to strengthen the capacity of our youth to thrive in a rapidly changing world and meet complex future challenges, the core conversation should not be about what content is learned in classrooms, but on how we as communities create space for young people to develop as learners, able to ask questions and find answers, to explore, learn and imagine both the truth about the past and the dreams we hold for the future. 

With this research in hand and in mind, building thriving ecosystems of civic learning through place-based project learning to help young people connect as individuals with their community and their surroundings in a relationship of curiosity, inquiry and reciprocity is not only nice-to-have, but a vital necessity.