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Reimagining Learning

Why this focus?

President Obama has called for a renewed focus on science, technology, engineering and math education in the United States. The headlines of 2009 highlight the need for urgency: Whether it is epidemic disease, clean energy, climate change, new economic models, or innovative responses to local and global problems, the next generation will experience a rapidly changing world of daunting challenges. The complexity of such challenges will require sophisticated critical thinking and an ability to understand and affect the multiple systems that shape the economy, society and even life itself. Today’s young people will be called upon to demonstrate the dispositions and habits of mind that have always been at the heart of innovation and achievement – creativity, persistence, imagination, curiosity, storytelling, tinkering, improvisation, passion, risk-taking, acollaboration. These are the very dispositions and habits of mind that are nurtured by the exploration and understanding of science, technology, engineering and math.

This is also a time when the way young people learn, socialize, and participate in civic life is changing dramatically. Today, young people are accessing information in ways never before imagined. Young people are contributing, producing, and making things as they participate in local and global networks. They access just-in-time information while engaging in three-dimensional simulations and global networks. They also collaborate and contribute high quality peer-reviewed work in global “pro-am” communities, and ascend to leadership positions in complicated multiplayer team-based games. Recent studies of young people’s participation with digital media – including games, mobile devices, social networks, and virtual worlds – suggest that young people are re-imagining learning on a daily basis. They are engaging in what is called “participatory learning.”

The 2010 Digital Media and Learning Competition challenges designers, entrepreneurs, practitioners, researchers and young people to put participatory learning to work on behalf of science, technology, engineering, math and their social contexts in the 21st century. Awards will total $2 million.

Reimagining Learning: Participatory Learning

Helping young people develop the capacities and knowledge to grapple with the challenges of the new century, thrive in the emerging economy, and serve as active and productive citizens may require new and innovative approaches to supporting learning. Several have hinted at this need.

In a 2009 speech to the National Academy of Sciences, President Obama stated: “I want us all to think about new and creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering, whether it's science festivals, robotics competitions, fairs that encourage young people to create and build and invent -- to be makers of things, not just consumers of things.”

Larry Rosenstock, founder of High Tech High, recalls his work as a carpenter when explaining the success of his schools (100% college acceptance): “Young people like to make and build things, that’s how they learn and that is how our schools are organized.”

Professor Mizuko Ito, in a seminal study examining how more than 700 youth participate with digital media, describes two critical patterns of participation: interest-driven and friendship-based. With interest-driven activity young people acquire new skills through exploring interests, tinkering, and “messing around” with digital media. They add to their repertoire through practice, trial and error, sharing, and ongoing feedback from peers.

Central to all of these descriptions, but often not acknowledged is the inherently social nature of learning. Whether with friends, in online communities, in schools, or afterschool programs, young people are learning through engaging, sharing, or creating information with others. In fact, in a recent a study published in Science, neuroscientists are beginning to demonstrate that humans possess powerful implicit learning mechanisms that are affected by social interaction.

Projects supported by the MacArthur Foundation have begun to demonstrate the criteria and elements of participatory learning.

At its simplest, participatory learning refers to young people’s learning that:

  • is intrinsically motivated because it is connected to their interests and passions;
  • is inherently social in nature because it involves interacting, providing feedback, and sharing with others; and
  • typically occurs during tangible, creative activities, that are open and discovery-based, involve tinkering and play and are not highly prescriptive.

Participatory learning is often facilitated by digital media because they significantly lower the barriers to production and distribution, invite social engagement and interaction, promote the possibility of contribution, and challenge traditional notions of authority and expertise.