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North Hills Monthly

Remake Learning Redesigning Educational Experiences

Jul 29, 2019 10:33AM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

At the Duquesne Innovation Carnival, youth experiment with coding Sphere through an obstacle course.

It’s all in the name—Remake Learning is redefining what it means to learn. Through numerous partnerships, this local initiative is making a huge impact in the educational sphere with its innovative approaches to learning. We spoke to Gregg Behr, co-chair and founder of Remake Learning, about what this all means.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the objective of Remake Learning?

Gregg Behr (Behr): The premise is that this is a time of remarkable technological and societal change, so we need to think about learning experiences differently. Some things stay the same, like the important relationship between teacher and child, and mentor and child, but some more modern things are very different from what you and I may have experienced.

We are thinking of how we can design spaces, instructions and experiences that are mindful of who today’s kids are and where they are going and how we can support them. Remake Learning has thousands of educators involved, representing more than 500 schools and organizations. There are tens of thousand of students, and hundreds of learning spaces and experiences. Remake Learning supports the teachers, librarians, designers, artists, and youth workers who are part of Remake Learning who are every day designing educational experiences.

NHM: What types of organizations participate?

Behr: There are more than 500 schools, school districts, and organizations that are involved, and there are many dozens of them deeply involved in different ways, including early learning centers, afterschool programs, libraries, museums, higher education, businesses and creative industries.

NHM: How has the learning landscape changed? 

Behr: Kids spend 80 percent of their waking hours outside of a school building. To be sure, schools are still critically important and excellent teaching and classroom experiences are all still important, but what do you do with these kids the other 80 percent of time they are awake? There are so many places they can learn—on a sports field, in a library, online, playing. Kids are always learning; they’re always taking in their environments. By nature, humans are curious people. We’re mindful that there is potential for young people to learn anytime, anywhere, anyplace, and if in fact they’re motivated by their passions and interests, how do we support that in a way that is constructive and helpful to them?

NHM: What are the concepts underlying Remake Learning?

Behr: Relevant, engaging, equitable learning. By relevant, we mean that we promote experiences, practices, and approaches that will connect with kids and their interests and help them bump into other things stemming from those interests. Engaging because they have a sense of agency and want to get involved, and equitable because we’re especially mindful of kids who don’t have same opportunities as their peers: those youth in poverty, rural learners, girls in STEM, learners of color, and learners with exceptionalities.

NHM: When did Remake Learning start, and why was there a need for something like this in Pittsburgh?

Behr: We go back to late 2006 and early 2007. I was new to my position at the Grable Foundation. I was coming into leadership following an executive who had been extraordinary, and my management challenge was, how do you build upon excellence?

I was meeting with teachers, with youth workers, librarians—people whom Grable had the privilege of supporting. I asked questions—what would be most helpful to you as we look ahead? As conversations evolved, I was hearing people say, ‘I am not connecting with kids the way I used to.’ We at first thought it was a generational thing, but they meant ‘my class last year versus this year.’

It was as if there was a seismic shift in their lives, and that is what prompted me to ask, what is that about? This is when I began to discover the field of learning sciences. I learned from folks at MIT and CMU and began to appreciate the ethnographic research, the learning sciences research. It was suggestive that kids were fundamentally different—they were consuming and producing information differently and seeking affirmation differently because of profound scientific technological changes. So we thought about how to support schools, museums and other sites of learning.

NHM: What is Remake Learning Days?

Behr: Remake Learning Days began four years ago. We realized that, if in fact, we were going to reimagine the learning landscape in our region, we had to better connect with parents and caregivers. It’s a simple idea—we took the idea of an open house at a school and a festival or holiday and said, Let’s combine this and host an open house of all of these STEM and STEAM labs and design family-friendly events.

Each of the past four Mays, there have been 250 to 300 events, and 20,000 to 30,000 families have turned out to participate.

It is notable that Remake Learning Days took root in nine other regions this spring: places like Chicago and Chattanooga and eastern Kentucky. There were 75 events in the heart of Appalachia. I think all told there were 851 events across the nation that all stemmed from Remake Learning. It’s so affirming that people elsewhere value the idea.

NHM: Can you give me an example of a Remake Learning educational program?

Behr: A decade ago, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh started rethinking what a teen library service looked like. At the time, teens weren’t accessing libraries the way they had been. The sensibility among young people was that the library was no longer relevant. The libraries said that they needed to think differently about supporting young people. They redesigned spaces and brought musical instruments and gaming software and artistic platforms into those spaces and created a hub of activity. They brought hip-hop artists and technologists and filmmakers and other people into those spaces. There are still books, but they created a space that is physically different. 

There has been a twofold increase in the number of young people in the city who are taking advantage of the library system, and a double-digit increase in book circulation.

It’s a beautiful example of the way that a longstanding institution has reimagined what it is for today’s kids. They are obviously relevant and engaging, and are getting kids involved. 

NHM: Can you give me an example of an organization that has benefitted from Remake Learning?

Behr: I often turn to the Elizabeth-Forward School District as an example. They have redesigned classroom spaces and library spaces and thought differently about professional learning and the integration of technology in developmentally appropriate ways. They have wrestled hard with what is project-based learning, and asked, ‘how do we take advantage of this to support instruction that we’re providing for kids?’ We’re seeing an increase in math and reading scores, and their dropout numbers have gone from 25 to 30 a year to 0 to 1. A significant change in dropout rates has occurred because kids want to be at school now, as they’re engaged and supported differently.

NHM: You recently won the Chairman’s Award from the Carnegie Science Awards (CSA). Tell me about that.

Behr: That was a great big surprise to us. CSA presents annual awards honoring STEM learning and educators, and one of the focus areas for Remake Learning is STEM. The CSA only on occasion, not every year, presents the Chairman’s Award for special recognition and circumstances. They recognized Remake Learning with the Chairman’s Award this spring, which was extraordinary and humbling. 

NHM: How is Remake Learning changing the face of education in Pittsburgh?

Behr: The bottom line is it has changed the mindset about what constitutes learning and where the frontiers of learning are, and where we need to go to support young people. We can now see not only school districts and school boards, but also libraries thinking very differently about the design of spaces, instructional spaces, learning approaches, the partnerships they are forging, and the way they’re spending their money. The most significant impact is a shift in mindset about learning. 

To learn more about Remake Learning, visit https://remakelearning.org.