Getting UPCLOSE to Out-of-School Learning

by Kevin Crowley

The University of Pittsburgh School of Education is an international leader in understanding and supporting learning as it happens in out-of-school environments, such as museums, youth community programs, and family settings. Our faculty members and graduate students are pursuing studies that explore the unique and special power of informal learning environments: the intrinsic motivation, the connection to self-identity, the social nature of learning, and the positive impact on youth development.

The outcomes that are most strongly supported by informal environments often are the very same outcomes that are most difficult to support in classrooms. At a time when many people are calling for increased attention to 21st-century skills as well as equity and diversity, we see tremendous potential for out-of- school learning opportunities to change the lives of youths as well as adult learners. We are working toward a day when the informal education system is understood to be an integral part of education in America and around the world.

The articles in this issue help to make the argument that formal and informal education systems are best considered as coexisting as part of a learning ecology. We think of learning as children and youths pursuing pathways through the ecology that are driven by individual interests and that cross the boundaries of school and home experiences as well as after-school and summer activities. The pathways that learners could follow are diverse; they might revolve around a child’s interest in, for example, nature, robots, art, science, medieval history, or digital gaming.

The School of Education and the Learning Research and Development Center have established a center to pursue studies of informal learning and to explore connections between in- and out-of-school learning. We call it the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of- School Environments (UPCLOSE), and we are working to establish strong evidence for the impact that informal experiences can have on learners of all ages. Lines of work focus, for example, on how children’s everyday interests can be cultivated into islands of expertise that serve as future learning resources in science. We have investigated how families can be developed into stronger learning systems and how museum visits can be transformed into moments when families can rehearse powerful ways of talking about the disciplines. To further this commitment to the field, the School of Education has even developed an area of concentration in out-of- school learning that will begin in summer 2016 as part of our three- year part-time EdD program.

UPCLOSE serves as a way for researchers to partner with a wide range of informal educational institutions both locally and nationally. These partnerships have focused primarily on developing educational experiences in science, technology, and art and have involved community-based organizations, science museums, art museums, children’s museums, media production companies, university outreach programs, and issue advocacy groups. The following pages outline some recent UPCLOSE partnerships and projects as well as some general out-of-school and informal learning projects within the School of Education.

Kevin Crowley is a professor and director of UPCLOSE.