In 1976, my older brother joined the Acton Cub Scouts. He was 10 years old, shy, and extremely bright, though bored at school. Acton was (and still is) a working-class town and our family, like most of the families around us, stretched every dollar to meet our basic needs. Any clubs or sports activities that existed in Acton were therefore necessarily low-cost, low-entry – they wouldn’t have survived otherwise. Darran progressed over the next eight years through cub scouts, boy scouts, venturers, and pathfinders, and eventually achieved – after a great deal of hard work and community involvement – his Chief Scout’s Award. Along the way, he was supported and guided by troop leaders who mentored him in many aspects of his personal and intellectual development, including encouraging his early programming skills. Darran didn’t kick it into high gear scholastically until grade 13 when he discovered the existence of the OSAP that would enable him to attend university. He’s 50 now, has a Ph.D. in physics and creates interactive exhibits for museums all over the world. He still talks about his scouting days fondly and with deep appreciation for the impact his leaders and the organization had on him.
It was this story that came to mind as I read through the report on Connected Learning by Ito et. al. (2013). I couldn’t help thinking about all of the stories that must exist, all over the world, that are similar to Darran’s scouting history, and how these stories had been around for a long time (not my own scouting story, by the way, as I was a bored “Brownie” who gave up the day I became a Guide). That is to say, the ideas presented in this report are interesting and neatly framed, and the work done by these sites of connected learning is really important, but I”m sure Ito et al. would agree that they aren’t new in any way. Deep learning, IBL, PBL, connected learning – these terms are much newer than the approaches to learning they describe. Indeed, this report states clearly that connected learning is “part of a longstanding tradition in progressive education and research on informal learning that has stressed the importance of civic engagement, connecting schools with the wider world, and the value of hands-on and social learning.” (p. 33).
In Canada, scouting dates back to 1907 and has long been an organization based upon encouraging youth to pursue personal interests with the support of both friends and adults and, importantly, linking what they learn in the organization both to their school work and to civic engagement. The learning provided in this environment aligns well with Ito et al.’s description of connected learning:
“Connected learning is socially embedded, interest-driven, and oriented toward expanding educational, economic or political opportunity. It is realized when a young person is able to pursue a personal interest or passion with the support of friends and caring adults, and is in turn able to link this learning and interest to academic achievement, career success or civic engagement” (p. 42).
With minimal costs to join and often subsidized “dues”, Scouts Canada works to “value and elevate the culture and identity of non-dominant children and youth” (p. 40), particularly if we include as non-dominant, children of poor and working-class families. According to their website, they have over 100,000 members representing every faith and culture in Canada and they offer their programs in over 19 languages. In addition, scouting rewards its members’ achievements through badges and celebrations that include families and other community members, something Ito et al. argue is empowering to connected learners (p. 80). Indeed, it is possible to align most of the design principles of connected learning with those of Scouts Canada.
Arguably, these same connections can be made to many other long-standing and popular local and national organizations that gather youth together around a main passion or interest and link them to academic achievement and civic engagement activities. One that comes immediately to mind is the Burlington Teen Tour Band, which engages heavily in volunteering opportunities, world travel, and fundraising for community-based organizations. There are even local hockey organizations that now involve their players in community outreach efforts (like starting a program to assist elderly neighbours with heavy outdoor work) and mentoring of younger children. Ito et al. write that “connected learning is defined not by particular technologies, techniques, or institutional context but by a set of values, an orientation to social change, and a philosophy of learning” (p. 33). Could these examples then be considered sites of connected learning? Though the report includes many really interesting case studies of connected learning opportunities available to youth, they are all new(ish) examples that, taken together, seem to ignore a long history of offering opportunities just like these to kids, often for the very purpose of encouraging non-dominant youth to succeed (like the way the YMCA has long functioned in many smaller towns unable to offer much else).
Three key and valuable points I noted in this paper include the idea of networking, the importance of educational reform, and the role of digital technologies to support both of these aspects of connected learning. Ito et al. argue that there is a need to network the sites of connected learning to achieve a greater impact and encourage greater involvement – as not all kids will seek out opportunities for themselves when their own parents are unable or unwilling to do this for them (p. 41). On this note, the Annette Lareau (2003) reference to the difference between middle-class “concerted cultivation” of children as opposed to the poor and working glass “natural growth” approach gave me some pause for thought (p. 23-24). On the surface, I think we would have fallen into the “natural growth” camp like so many other 70s kids, but it seems to be an overly simplistic dichotomy. Still, I’m interested to learn more about it. The report also argues that, by exploring and studying examples of connected learning, we can encourage more of these programs to exist in an effort to drive institutional change. Finally, Ito et al. focus on the ways in which digital technologies lend themselves to supporting connections between in-school and out-of-school sites of learning (p. 46), to encouraging activities of self-expression and collaboration (p. 82), and by increasing accessibility (p. 82). The authors are clear, though, that while technologies can be used in very helpful ways, they are not essential to creating the conditions of connected learning.