Event Debrief: Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit

The view from my table: Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit.
The view from my table: Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit.

Last Friday, I attended Remake Learning‘s Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit. You can learn more about the event here. Writ large, it was an opportunity for all kinds of educational partners–from schools, nonprofits, and industry–to come together and talk about how to better engineer and support the learning experiences of kids in Pittsburgh. There was a lot of discussion around how all of us who work with kids can better work together and avoid constantly reinventing the wheel. There are great resources in schools and in nonprofits around the city and region; it would be great if we could all work together to offer a rich, rewarding learning environment for every student.

One of the biggest topics of the day was digital badging. You can learn more about digital badges through the MacArthur Foundation’s site here, or through Mozilla’s nonprofit Open Badges site here. In general, to quote the MacArthur site,

Digital badges are an assessment and credentialing mechanism that is housed and managed online. Badges are designed to make visible and validate learning in both formal and informal settings, and hold the potential to help transform where and how learning is valued.

Any organization can issue a badge, and most badges require hours-long, multi-step processes to earn them, a lot like a merit badge for Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts. Most badges fall into one of three categories–badges for knowledge, skills, and dispositions–and they can be displayed or shared however their earners choose.

“Badges help make learning pathways visible,” said the Sprout Fund‘s Matt Hannigan in his remarks. I like this idea. A learning pathway is by definition not a traditional journey through school, so a traditional document of school-based learning–like a diploma–isn’t a sufficient way to document that journey. Instead, badges serve as a set of artifacts that detail knowledge, experiences, and skills that are inherently valuable but perhaps not traditionally rewarded in a school-centered world. This idea came out pointedly with my group’s facilitator, the executive director of a local group that promotes robotics education in local schools. His affection for badges stemmed from the clear connection that badges could have with employers. “If I’m a company that needs a welder, I can look at a kid who has the welding badge, and I can hire him,” he said.

Between my fancy liberal arts degree and my recent San Francisco mailing address, I was a little skeptical about the rampant need for kids with welding chops. Then again, though, I might be wrong, and there’s an important point here about elevating “maker” skills to something laudable, desirable, and relevant. I think it’s a shame that vocational education in schools has such a bad reputation. In my own high school, kids like me–who took AP classes–were vocally discouraged from taking “those kinds of classes” by the guidance counselors. My only interaction with “those kinds of classes” came when “those kinds of kids” made their way into our palatial high school’s theatre and scene shop. As a sophomore, I was lighting head for our competitive one-act play (that’s a much longer story for another day), and I was in charge of bossing around a crew of junior and senior boys who had mostly taken the vocational route through our school and ended up hanging lights for me in advanced technical theatre. Though all of them were older and bigger than my sixteen-year-old self, I was blown away by their expertise, their creativity, and their work ethic. To this day, I know how to set up AV equipment and understand the circuitry of a lighting system because of their patience, expertise, and humor. As it turned out, these boys weren’t the troglodytes I was led to believe they were. These were fellow smart, hard-working kids in my high school who happened to be traveling a parallel path, and I’d vastly underestimated them.

It’s entirely possible that the world needs more people who can weld, and I know that my high school and college diplomas leave no room for privileging or recognizing that skill. I like the idea of a credentialing system that allows for a broader definition of what’s valuable and what achievement looks like.

My main challenge with the day was that I had a hard time reconciling what badges might look like in schools. I searched in vain for the working group table that dealt with the humanities; there wasn’t one. Instead, the working groups all focused on subjects that aren’t usually covered or privileged in schools, like media making and design. I had a great conversation about this with my colleague at The Ellis School, Lisa Abel-Palmieri, who had been part of the STEAM working group’s discussions and who directs the new Learning Innovation Institute. A lot of the event focused much more on how badges and learning pathways could function outside the school day, but there was limited connection to how badges might function, say, in an English class or in a science curriculum. I think that’s the tougher but still interesting case to explore. How might badges function on a college application?, I wondered. How might they help formal and informal learning spaces partner better to support kids? 

As usual, if I had the answer to this million-dollar question, all education problems would be solved and we could all call it a day and go out for ice cream. Clearly I don’t, so clearly we’re not. But I loved this conversation because it was such a provocative, critical discussion to have. Pittsburgh is a perfectly sized city for forging sustainable partnerships among a small but passionate group of people. As I told a friend later that night: the passion and innovation that fueled this event inspired me, thrilled me, and made me hungry to learn and do more. This, I told her, was the day I fell in love with Pittsburgh.


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