Bridging the Divide Between In- and-Out-of Classroom Learning

by Stacy Kehoe and Jennifer Lin Russell

In summer 2014, a small group of local high school students spent five weeks studying the organisms and environments of our parks alongside experts in a pilot summer program through the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy called Young Naturalists. These students learned about plants and animals alongside expert naturalists while working to improve the health of local parks by controlling erosion, managing and monitoring invasive species, repairing trails, and caring for trees. They were given access to resources from organizations across the region—including Tree Pittsburgh, the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, and the Animal Rescue League Shelter & Wildlife Center—that specialize in the conservation and identification of birds, trees, and animals. These learners were engaged in intensive, hands-on experiences that looked very different from the type of learning we typically associate with schools.

This program is not the only one of its kind. Metropolitan regions like Pittsburgh are rich with this type of out-of-school learning, in which youths develop interests, skills, and expertise. This type of learning falls under the area of informal education, meaning education that doesn’t happen in classrooms but can occur during school hours, as compared with more formal, in-classroom learning. The expanse between these areas is what we consider the regional learning landscape. At the heart of informal learning is the assertion that learning and development are not limited to the boundaries of the classroom or the schedule of the academic calendar. There is growing consensus among learning scientists that these learning programs create rich learning experiences that impact learner interest and identity formation in ways that our traditional classrooms may not be equipped to provide. Through the University of Pittsburgh School of Education and our partners, we are attempting to improve the recruitment of individuals for these types of programs as well as the structure of them.

Our work starts with the belief that this assertion is true—that informal learning opportunities enrich and inform the learning that takes place within the classroom and can strengthen student learning and development outcomes. We’re striving to complement the findings of researchers who have produced abundant examples of individual development in these programs with our studies that focus on the social supports embedded in organizations that help to provide these students with access to high-quality learning opportunities. Given the well-documented positive impact of informal learning, it is no surprise that there is growing enthusiasm in the education field for collaboration between informal learning programs and K–12 school systems.

While these collaborations are a promising link across the formal and informal learning divide, they are only one type of program in the larger learning “ecosystem.” Last year, we conducted a study of informal learning opportunities related to environmental education to answer the following questions: What does a regional learning landscape look like for a young person who wants to explore or delve deeper into an interest area? What patterns of access emerge across the landscape, particularly through partnerships between schools and informal learning programs?

Our study focused on exploring these informal environmental programs throughout the Pittsburgh region. While the study revealed a landscape rich with opportunities occurring in the classroom through informal-formal partnerships as well as opportunities outside school, our investigation of access across these types of partnerships found gaps in access to more intensive programs, fragile links between informal learning providers and schools that depend on individual teachers when institutional support is lacking, and cracks in the pathways between informal learning partnerships and out-of-school programs.

As our learning landscapes change in response to technological innovation and demand for novel out-of-school learning environments that facilitate deeper learning, there is a need for more structure in our learning organizations, both formal and informal, to help our youths not only have access to these learning opportunities but also recognize themselves as learners who are capable and deserving of these experiences. The Young Naturalists program has been a perfect example of this structure.

What made the Young Naturalists program extraordinary was not only the experiences that the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy provided during the program hours but also the strategic supports it put in place to construct a pathway across learning settings. Drawing on our findings from our environmental education learning study, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy collaborated with us on a design research project aimed at improving the recruitment and movement of learners to the Young Naturalists program. Together, we developed a process that positioned teachers to identify students who would be a good fit and support them during the application process. The Young Naturalists program drew participants from Pittsburgh Westinghouse 6–12, Pittsburgh Science & Technology Academy, the Ellis School, and City Charter High School. Together, this diverse group of students took lessons learned during the Young Naturalists Program and implemented them via leadership roles in naturalist- based classroom programs during the 2014–15 school year. Strategic social supports also were put in place to facilitate their movement into informal learning opportunities offered by other organizations. In fact, during summer 2015, two of the Young Naturalists participants were involved in field study and conservation work for our national parks as Student Conservation Association crew members.

Imagine if learning opportunities like this one were available for every student in our region for any topic of interest. Our design research project with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy was successful in bringing together a diverse set of learners who might otherwise not have come together by supporting them on a pathway that bridged the formal and informal learning divide. We believe that practices like this have the potential to transform our regional learning landscapes from sets of isolated programs to truly interconnected learning environments that support the learning and development of all youths across our region.

Stacy Kehoe is a doctoral student, and Jennifer Lin Russell is an associate professor.