Student Well-Being Opinion

Bridging the Gap Between Students’ In- and Out-of-School Experiences

By Contributing Blogger — August 22, 2018 6 min read
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This post is an interview by Tyler Thigpen, Partner at Transcend, with Yutaka Tamura, Executive Director of nXu, and Jabali Sawicki, Compass Director of nXu. nXu and Transcend have forged an R&D partnership through which Transcend is providing strategic, organizational, and programmatic guidance to nXu during this critical stage of its establishment.

Formal learning in schools is but a fraction compared to the informal learning students experience on a daily basis.

What if there was a way to connect out-of-school experiences with in-school ones so that deeper learning was amplified? We think nXu is on to something in this area.

In our previous post, we shared the what, why, and how of nXu, a purpose incubator designed to catalyze a diverse community of youth to explore, articulate, and pursue their purpose. For today’s post, Tyler Thigpen of Transcend sat down with nXu’s Executive Director, Yutaka Tamura, and Compass Director Jabali Sawicki to look at how nXu’s team is giving high schoolers time, space, and encouragement from others to use what they’re learning in school to make a measurable difference in the world.

Here’s a glimpse into the nXu team’s thinking and planning:

What is the value of an out-of-school model, and how does this impact students’ experiences in school?

We currently run programming on an out-of-school basis in the form of a fellowship program, but we are also building capacity to provide programming to schools within a school context.

We recognize that U.S. high schools--even today’s highest-performing ones--are constrained by time, resources, and an innumerable amount of other priorities to provide meaningful, customized, and purpose-centered educational experiences for their students. In the hustle of the academic school year, school leaders who are strapped by limited resources juggle a deluge of other important priorities (academic coursework, regulatory requirements, school culture/community, etc.) that are urgent and important. Moreover, enabling students to find and pursue their purpose is difficult work that requires both significant investments of time and energy and also new and different capacities among the adults facilitating the process.

We designed nXu as both complementary to the work of traditional schools, and integral to the holistic development and success of students. While it’s true that operating as an out-of-school program has benefits as we teach a curriculum anchored around purpose exploration, we’ve already seen that nXu can lead to greater engagement in school. Our high schoolers see the multitude of ways they can use knowledge and skills. They identify ways in which school connects to life, and more importantly, the lives they want to live. Through a process of intentional self-reflection and deep purpose exploration, students develop a personal and intentional lens through which they experience and pursue their in-school learning. By developing and embracing a greater degree of autonomy, we perceive they are motivated to take more ownership of their school experience.

The out-of-school model also enables us to help high schoolers build a diverse community. nXu cohorts are intentionally diverse to address the fact that a majority of our schools lack significant diversity and opportunities for students to cross lines of difference and engage in meaningful learning experiences. Operating as an out-of-school program encourages students to leave their comfortable bubbles of homogeneity and allows us to circumvent the prevalent segregation of our schools and create the rich, diverse, stimulating learning environments that students crave.

While we see value in our out-of-school approach, we piloted the implementation of our curriculum within schools last school year with strong success. We plan to spend this coming school year further exploring how we can import our approach into schools with hopes of expanding our reach and impact.

What prior skills and knowledge from education have helped your team build nXu and what if anything has your team had to unlearn?

nXu takes advantage of decades of best practices and research-based pedagogy. The core ingredients we’ve incorporated into our program design include effective strategies for:

  • Maximizing rigor and engagement;
  • Activating and igniting student passions and interests;
  • Fostering curiosity;
  • Designing transformative learning experiences;
  • Creating positive and inclusive cultures that celebrate diversity and encourage intellectual engagement; and
  • Promoting student advocacy and agency.

We think of the above priorities as design principles that need to get applied in some way to every learning experience at nXu. Before, during, and after each learning experience, we ask ourselves: Does this encounter spark further interest? Is it inclusive? Is it relevant? Do students have control and choice? And more.

If you were leading a traditional high school now, what elements of nXu would you want to incorporate in a traditional setting and what steps would you take to do so?

We think purpose development should be incorporated into all levels of education. When adolescent young people struggle to find and pursue their purpose, they struggle in other areas, too. A sense of purpose--and the perspective, skills, and social capital necessary to pursue purpose--are a powerful inoculation against boredom, distraction, and lack of engagement. Purpose is crucial in high school as students begin to experience and exercise greater agency and control of the outcomes of their lives.

If we were leading a traditional high school now, these are certain aspects of our program we would adopt:

  • An emphasis on relevance and personal meaning by connecting everything to students’ lives and lived experiences. The goal is to have students walk away from every learning experience with a clear understanding of why it matters to them.
  • A project-based curriculum that allows deeper exploration and analysis of key purpose related concepts.
  • Field Trips (Purpose trips) which allow for the immediate, practical, and real-world application of key learnings.
  • Spending more time processing, recognizing, developing, and celebrating, who kids uniquely are, outside of their academic performance.

We plan to embed our programming in schools this coming school year to better understand how our programming can serve students within a school context.

What’s your near- and long-term plan for nXu?

Our short-term goals for the 2018-19 school year are to expand our programming in New York City and establish a second region in San Antonio. We are also in the early stages of exploring the establishment of a third region in Seattle. While running our out-of-school programming, we also are exploring how our model can be implemented in schools.

Once established in New York City and San Antonio, we will make our content, training, and technology available to young people in communities and schools across the country. Long-term, we hope to become a purpose incubator that catalyzes many different groups of young people to explore, articulate, and pursue their purpose in a sustainable ecosystem.

Can you imagine thousands of young people and coaches who collectively cultivate and develop their sense of purpose within a supportive community and who build projects that meet critical needs? The result would be a cadre of youth who...

  • ...can articulate the ‘why’ behind their interests and aspirations
  • ...make more informed and strategic life decisions
  • ...possess a deep sense of belong and community
  • ...exhibit substantive self-awareness
  • ...are open to and pursue new experiences
  • ...take initiative to make meaningful contributions to the world

Wouldn’t that make for a better society?

Graphic: Stevens, R. Bransford, J. & Stevens, A., (2005). “The LIFE Center’s Lifelong and Lifewide Diagram.”

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.