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School & District Management Opinion

The Informal Instructional Core and Teaching the Village

By Justin Reich — December 08, 2012 3 min read
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Let’s talk about teaching parents.

In schools, we have a pretty well-founded belief that one of the ways that you can indirectly boost student learning is to directly boost the capacity of teachers. Richard Elmore uses the idea of the Instructional Core to talk about this.

The idea is that the core of classroom-based instruction is an experience combining students, teachers, and the materials they use to learn and think with. The most effective reforms address all three pillars directly and in concert. The least effective reforms don’t touch the instructional core at all (see: No Child Left Behind).

Out in the world of informal learning—where most of us live during most of the day for most of our lives—things are slightly different. Let me propose an “Informal Learning Core.” Like Elmore’s core, it has three pillars: the learner, the mentor, and the materials. One difference between informal and formal education is that there is a much greater emphasis on “learning” rather than instruction in informal spaces, hence the name switch. Also, hierarchies of learning can be much weaker in informal systems, and the roles of mentors and learners are much more fluid than the roles of teacher and student. But in many cases, we’re still dealing with someone who wants to learn, something they are learning with, and someone who wants to help them.

When you look at technology-based informal learning through this lens, one of the problems that becomes apparent is that technology-mediated learning systems often only work with two pillars: learners and materials. Developers create an educational website, software, app, or game, and they focus on how the materials engage with the learner without necessarily thinking about the materials could engage mentors.

Consider my good friends at Trycycle Games, a little start-up that created a game called iReckon: Color. It’s a game about color and prediction, targeted at young children. It’s fun and playful, and a great little garage project. The system they have created is a set of materials (the app) that interacts with a learner, who is presumed to be a child. Kids attempt to match a color they seen with its position on a spectrum.

But what about mentors? What if the app did more to help parents and guardians learn about the domain-specific content of color, light, wavelengths, and spectra or the learning theory motivating the app? If iReckon: Color could provide a set of interactions for parents that deepened their understanding of how the app supports learning, then as mentors they might be better equipped to support their child.

If it takes a village to raise a child, let’s build learning systems that teach the whole village. Let’s raise kids’ capacity directly through great learning materials, and indirectly through raising parents’ capacity to support their kids.

For instance, an article in the last issue of American Educational Research Journal looked at STEM achievement with a focus on “family habitus.” In wealthy homes, parents know more about STEM careers and the connections between STEM learning and those careers. It’s in the air. And, while the authors are careful to note that STEM interest and achievement is not determined entirely by parental education, the benefits enjoyed by children of wealthy and well-educated parents lead to a measurable lack of diversity in STEM fields and a barrier for social mobility through STEM careers.

So if you want to boost STEM interest in the informal learning core (which is a fantastic thing to do), don’t just build materials that interact with learners. Build materials that boost the capacity of parents, and give parents new ways to partner with the learning materials (your app, game, etc.) to support youth learning.

I’m working on a grant related to this. More to follow...

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

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