George Lucas Educational Foundation

Diana Rhoten on Sparking Student Interests with Informal Learning (Big Thinkers Series)

Sociologist and digital learning expert Diana Rhoten founded the New Youth City Learning Network to help organizations like museums and libraries design digitally-enabled learning activities built to tap into kids' interests and teach 21st-century skills.
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Diana Rhoten on Sparking Student Interests with Informal Learning (Transcript)

Diana Rhoten: Every kid has an interest. Sometimes he doesn't know what it is, sometimes he can't articulate it. But every kid has an interest, that's a fundamental belief. If you can't buy into that, then you can't buy into the work that we do.

In this day and age, the responsibility of libraries, museums, schools, after-school programs, the type of institutions we work with, is to not only help that kid identify the interest, but progress through that interest, become more advanced. It's just the same job as a tennis coach, the same job as a football coach. It's the academic coach.

So I'm Dianna Rhoten, I'm an organizational sociologist. I work at the Social Science Research Council.

One of my projects right now is called the New Youth City Learning Network. It's in New York City; it's a consortium of about a dozen institutions. We're working together to create new, digitally-enabled learning activities and create new youth networks across the city.

The notion of interest-driven learning is not a new concept. In fact, it's quite an old conversation, but it's a conversation that's been enlivened recently by two things: unprecedented technical infrastructure and new empirical evidence around learning. What we see in the kids that we're working with is, they want an experience that means something to them personally. They want to be able to relate it into the context of their own lives or their own interests. Then they wanna be able to reshape that story and tell it in the context of their own lives and interests. And then they want to be able to translate that into something they can do in the community, they can do-- whether that's an online community or a physical community. So it's really a-- it's going consumption, production, participation.

"What does this mean?" I mean, we had to start there. So part of the reframe was, we're talking about learning, not education. What's that difference? We're talking about digital media; we're not talking about big technology. We're talking about learner centered, rather than institutional driven. So there's a lot of sort of ground leveling to do, in terms of just basic understanding of what this transformation might mean. We're trying to get them to think about, what happens if you take your assets around biodiversity, for example, and start putting them out there in a way that a kid can incorporate them in a narrative that he or she finds personally motivating, personally relevant, personally interesting? And then ways in which they might be able to do dynamic remodeling around that asset, dynamic mapping around that asset, dynamic storytelling. Because, you know, part of the opportunity here is learning the content, which is very much the twentieth century idea around education. But in twenty-first century, it's learning the tools and the skills of remaking that content and becoming the creator and the producer.

We have a mandate and we have a mission. You know, we wanna go through this process, at the end of which we can demonstrate what digital media learning tools can do. We started on the edges. These are institutions that are central to a city, but not necessarily central to a kid's life right now. They're more flexible; schools are highly structured around standards and assessment right now, so it's very difficult. Even where there's a will, it's very difficult for a teacher right now in a formal school setting to think about, "How do I incorporate this mobile-based geolocative game into my classroom?" Can't even use mobile phones in New York City classrooms right now, whereas if you come to a place like the Natural History Museum, or you go to the Wildlife Conservation Society, not only do they have the assets to teach about that subject matter, but they can use the tools and they can practice and demonstrate the tools. We don't have enough positive examples of what this means. We have a lot of discourse around it, but we don't have a lot of concrete, positive examples of how do you do this? And that is our job right now; we have to put that out in the world, so that the chancellors and the principals and the teachers understand that this isn't just about media arts and crafts, but it's about using the tools to get to the content and the skills and the competencies that they value.

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This video was originally produced by Mobile Digital Arts for the New Learning Institute, from the Pearson Foundation.

Big Thinkers Video Series

Some of the most compelling visionaries in the world -- from Sir Ken Robinson to Jane Goodall to Martin Scorsese -- are focusing their attention on how to improve education. From innovative classroom concepts to suggestions on how to foster creativity and collaboration, they share their valuable insights for teaching and learning and illuminate new solutions to old problems.

Get inspired by their big ideas.

More Edutopia Coverage on Informal Learning and Community Partnerships:

The New Youth City Learning Network evolved to become Mozilla Hive NYC Learning Network. Diana Rhoten has since moved on from the Social Science Research Council to become the chief strategy officer at News Corporation's K-12 educational technology company Amplify. Watch Diana talk about her work at Amplify in this video from Stanford Business School, or follow Diana Rhoten on Twitter.

Visit the Big Thinkers series page to see more videos.

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