Lehigh Valley Learns: Growth Through Collaboration

Education faces some mounting challenges as we approach the second decade of the 21st century.  What has largely remained an unchanged institution for the past 100 years is in desperate need of a new look.  Many schools are now approaching or tackling these challenges head on in an effort to revolutionize education to meet the needs of their students.  Despite the pioneering of many individuals, schools, and districts, there are still systemic challenges to education, many of which extend far beyond the reach of any one person or organization.  Such a complex set of challenges requires a multi-faceted solution in order to meet the varying needs of our education system.

There is precedent both in public and private sectors, that help point to a solution that has a proven track record.  Regional innovation clusters support development through a “dynamic mix of researchers, entrepreneurs, investors, and infrastructure, with support from universities and local, state, and federal government policies.¹”  One of the most notable innovation clusters developed during the course of the 1990’s and 2000’s; Silicon Valley.  This region saw a massive amount of growth due to the collaboration of various entities and sectors in the areas surrounding the San Fransisco Bay.  Personnel, monetary, and intellectual capital joined together, in this particular case ,to fuel rapid growth and create systems and feedback needed to continually improve processes and products coming from Silicon Valley.  For the better part of 50 years, Silicon Valley has been a proving ground for many technological breakthroughs as a result of the collaboration taking place in this cluster.  Though more common in the private sector, Innovation clusters have formed in the field of education on a couple of occasions.

Enter Remake Learning.  Somewhat in honor of Remake Learning days, I wanted to take some time to reflect on and share some of the successes and thoughts on one of the most successful innovation clusters in the field of education.  Remake Learning began as an organic organization composed of a few members that began to meet regularly to discuss challenges within their schools.  With the support of the Grable foundation in 2007, thought leaders began to convene to discuss learning and how collaboration can be leveraged to open new opportunities to children living in the Pittsburgh area.  This week Remake Learning is hosting by some accounts more than 300 learning related events for people living in and around Pittsburgh.  Truly amazing what this organization has done to bring learning to everyone, smashing down barriers in the name of equity and opportunity.  How do we build out an extensive network like Remake Learning that brings together more than 250 organizations all with common purpose?

I live in the Lehigh Valley, virtually the opposite side of the state of Pennsylvania, and this location has steadily been growing over the past 20-30 years culturally, economically, and demographically.  Though this area is not necessarily anchored by a major city, it is home to a three quarters of a million people within the tri city (Allentown, Easton, and Bethlehem) and the potential for a dynamic learning ecosystem.  Our world is rapidly evolving and with it, so much education to assure our students are prepared for their future.  Challenges unfortunately extend far beyond any one classroom and include but are not limited to, innovation, pedagogy, technology, teacher preparation, curriculum, equity, professional development, early childhood development, and the list goes on.

Addressing these challenges and scaling solutions will require a complex system of professional relationships.  The Remake Learning Playbook, a roadmap to building collaborative infrastructure, provides us with some helpful starting points through the 5 C’s.

  1. Convene a community of practice.  Our challenges demand that all stakeholders are brought to the table, including those within the school setting (students and parents, educators, and community members) as well as those that lie outside the school including private sector companies involved in education, non profits that are educationally oriented, as well as institutions of higher education.  The more diverse the group the greater opportunity exists to leverage different solutions, the more inclusive the better.
  2. Catalyze the community in order to build capacity for change.  Empowering members within the organization through various means can help move the needle and serve as a beacon for others facing similar challenges. Assistance can take many forms, however monetary and intellectual capital can be two powerful means for assisting growth.
  3. Communicating the work of member groups can help create a narrative that not only sheds light on the work taking place within the organization, but attract new involvement.  Rewriting the narrative in public education needs to be a priority to build trust for innovating within education.
  4. Coordinating the efforts of member organizations can be a daunting challenge, but in the name of efficiency a third party network that closely monitors the work of its members can better inform all parties involved in the educational process.  Too often schools have operated in silos, and therefore, changing ever so slowly.  Coordinating efforts can help propel growth by creating shorter feedback loops between schools, businesses, non profits, and higher education institutions.
  5. Champion the efforts of members and in particular, the students.  It is about them after all.

I have slowly been dedicating time here and there to this cause in the form of Lehigh Valley Learns.  The power of the collective will always be greater than that of the individual and Lehigh Valley Learns is a way to begin to convene, communicate, coordinate and hopefully in the future catalyze and champion our schools in an effort to better meet the needs of our students.  I hope you can follow Lehigh Valley Learns through Facebook and Twitter, and become part of the change our students need to be competitve in a 21st centruy environment.

 

  1. http://scienceprogress.org/2009/01/regional-centers-of-innovation-101/
  2. http://remakelearning.org/playbook/#chapter-4-network-support-strategies

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