Tag Archives: libraries

Librarians Lead the Way to Digital Literacy

Unfettered access to information and news is essential for learning—but it can also be a hazard when learners lack the right tools for parsing that information.

Nobody knows this more than librarians.

“We’ve always talked about information literacy,” Nicole Cooke, a professor who teaches future librarians at the University of Illinois’ School of Information Sciences, told The Verge. “Information literacy is just trying to get people to be savvy consumers of information.”

For decades, visitors to a library were confined to a static collection of information. Librarians helped them access and wade through it.

“In today’s digital world, information literacy is a far more complex subject than it was when the phrase was coined,” writes University of California, Merced, librarian Donald Barclay at PBS. In this digital world, librarians play a different, yet even more important, role.

Last month this blog explored the need for digital literacy education in the age of “fake news.” We covered the recent Stanford University study that confirmed many educators’ fears: middle and high school students are likely to take false information they encounter online as fact. More than 80 percent of middle school students studied were unable to distinguish between credible online news and sponsored content.

“Librarians are natural allies for educators in helping students become critical news consumers.”

Sam Wineburg, the director of the Stanford History Education group, which published the study, says librarians may be uniquely poised to help young people navigate a sea of digital information.

“Librarians are natural allies for educators in helping students become critical news consumers,” he told the American Libraries Magazine.

Librarians—whether at schools or in public libraries—provide access and support in welcoming settings. Trained to help people find and decipher information, they can act as coaches. As young learners explore topics of their choice, librarians are there on the sidelines pointing them to sources that may be helpful and training them to recognize those that are not. Libraries also can hold workshops for visitors on topics like online safety and digital literacy.

Many students learn basic practices for determining whether a digital source is trustworthy. Is the ending of a URL a for-profit “.com” or an academic “.edu”? Is there an author or organization’s name attached to the information, and what can you find out about that person or entity?

Beyond encouraging those basic precautions, librarians and other educators and mentors can facilitate conversation that stokes inquiry and critical thinking—necessary skills as digital credibility becomes ever murkier.

“Having respectful and constructive dialogues is a must so that people can feel heard and understood,” Barbara Alvarez writes in the Public Library Association magazine. “Public libraries have an opportunity to lead this effort while promising a space where all are welcome…they may be able to use the connections made in their conversations to form new opinions and critically think about the information they read.”

One path to critical consumption of media is by creating it. Doing so allows young people to share their own truths while honing their critical thinking and evaluation skills. Libraries have increasingly begun offering programs that train students to make their own media.

“Teaching evaluation of information has never been so critical.”

Storytellers Without Borders, a joint program between the Dallas Public Library and the Dallas Morning News, teaches journalism to high-school-aged visitors. As part of the journalism training, librarians show participants how to conduct research using digital resources at the library.

In Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Public Library becomes a “lab” where teenage visitors can work with mentors to make films, record music, or build robots. The Labs @ CLP program, at multiple branches, leverages the library’s accessibility to all in the community.

As the digital information landscape continues to change rapidly, so too must librarians. As the consequences of “fake news” become clearer, some veteran librarians are reevaluating how they approach digital literacy education.

In the School Library Journal, longtime librarian Laura Gardner writes: “Teaching evaluation of information has never been so critical, and I’m thinking fast.”



Learning at Libraries in the Information Age

At an elementary school in Riverside, Connecticut, the campus library has been rechristened. The new “learning commons” is home to a makerspace equipped with a 3-D printer and an active staff of digital media specialists. Students can still check out any of the thousands of books on the shelves or work quietly on their homework, but the new moniker and resources reflect a widespread shift in libraries throughout the country.

For centuries, libraries functioned as unique archives of written information and stories. Now, that information is available on many portable devices, but libraries are not obsolete. Far from it.

“In many communities around the world public libraries are still the only place where any person, regardless of education or skill level, can have access to information,” wrote IDEO in a recent report. Libraries are actually uniquely situated to support new types of learning and curious communities.

Recognizing the changing role of libraries, the Knight Foundation focused its 12th annual Knight News Challenge on the topic. The contest posed the question: “How might we leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities?” Twenty-two winners, who split $3 million in prize money, were announced in January.

The Metropolitan New York Library Council will use its winnings to assemble a mobile team of digital archivists, who will help residents in Brooklyn and Queens tell . At the Chicago Public Library, the Knight funding will go toward in-person study groups for students who want to supplement their online courses with live discussion. The Library Freedom Project, a series of traveling workshops, will teach librarians digital security methods and privacy law.

Most of the Knight projects share a premise: Libraries have always been excellent repositories of information. With some restructuring and support, they can continue to serve this function in the digital age. Another winning initiative, Boston’s Open Data to Open Knowledge, will corral the city’s public data—“digital artifacts of our life in a digital environment”—and release it in an accessible and organized manner.

As libraries carve out these new identities, many librarians are taking a thoughtful look at their physical spaces. “When every student has the potential to carry a global library on the device in his or her pocket, the role of physical libraries may become even more important, not just a place to house resources, but one in which to create meaning from them,” wrote Beth Holland in Edutopia. For young learners, it can be particularly important for a physical space to be inviting. At Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, the library was redesigned without any walls or other physical barriers, so the site is ripe for spontaneous collaboration and colearning.

In the report “Design Thinking for Libraries,” IDEO encouraged librarians to apply the principles of design thinking to their buildings and programs. The creative approach to problem solving asks empathetic, intuitive designers to focus on human needs. The process can be simple. When a second-grade teacher in New York noticed his students were disengaged, he asked them how the classroom could better meet their needs. It turned out the bulletin boards he used in most lessons were too high for the kids to see, IDEO reported.

Libraries can redesign their spaces and programs to better serve the needs of their patrons, too, whether that means simply lowering the shelves or adding a brand new children’s play area as the Chicago Public Library branch did, IDEO reported. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has long served as a venue for informal and digital learning. At The Labs, teenagers engage in hands-on creative tech projects, building robots and shooting videos.

These experts remind us that the piles of dusty books and literate librarians cherished by patrons of yesteryear are still around. Building on—not discarding—our print past, libraries have the opportunity to take on many new and necessary roles, be it a community center, data hub, or makerspace.





How Libraries Help Families Encourage Learning Outside of School

Education equals schools—right or wrong? That deceptively simple question kicked off the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) web conference on October 15. “Creating a Conversation About Anywhere, Anytime Learning” was the second installment of HFRP Interact, a yearlong series that explores family engagement in the context of out-of-school learning.

As the host, Heather Weiss—HFRP founder and director—asked panelists with expertise in education and digital media for their thoughts on ways to provide children with meaningful learning opportunities outside the classroom.

Traditional schooling is still important, but according to Weiss, the data increasingly show that learning doesn’t begin and end with a ringing school bell. Kids also learn through extracurricular activities, cultural institutions, health and wellness programs, and especially the internet.

Parents play a huge role in shaping kids’ out-of-school learning opportunities. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a parent or a caregiver who doesn’t want amazing, wonderful opportunities for their children,” said panelist Gregg Behr, executive director at the Grable Foundation.

Unfortunately, not all families have equal access to those opportunities. Panelist Terri Ferinde Dunham, who leads the National Network of Statewide Afterschool Networks, noted that higher-income parents outspend their lower-income peers 8:1 on outside-of-school activities, mainly because they have the disposable income to do so. Low-income families seek extracurricular options for their children, but cost and transportation obstacles often stand in the way. Currently, fewer than one-third of US children have access to afterschool programs, Dunham said.

Parents also need help creating a pathway for their children to follow their interests and passions and to bridge what they learn in and out of school. In Pittsburgh, for example, the Kids+Creativity Network is working to help parents find those paths. The 200 organizations and 2,000 people in the network are coordinating their efforts to make sure that kids who have a passion for robotics, spoken word, or computer coding can be challenged and guided to more advanced learning opportunities as their skills develop.

Behr talked about this pathway at the Harvard event, noting the important role of mentors as “tour guides” and supports for this anytime, anywhere learning.

To help guide kids, “We’ve placed fellows in the Carnegie libraries of Pittsburgh,” Behr said. “They have some makerspaces in the libraries, and those individuals know well the other maker opportunities in the community. So, if a child interested in ‘making’ visits the Northside branch of the Carnegie library, just down the street is the Makeshop at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Making those handoffs happen between institutions and supporting parents and caregivers to build upon the learning interests of their kids is critical.”

Libraries, in fact, are an important resource for families. Libraries have been engaging teens for decades, and now many are on the leading edge of reaching today’s kids where their interests lie. Often that means with digital media.

YOUmedia, teen-focused learning spaces that opened at the Chicago Public Library in 2009, is one of the more cutting-edge efforts. The library devoted a large space just for teens to work with the latest digital media tools. The teens can mix music in the sound studio, produce podcasts of video game reviews, put visuals to their favorite books, and create documentaries of their lives. At the Labs at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the city’s teens can head to local library branches to make robots or try out instruments with local musicians. YOUmedia spaces have spread to more than two dozen cities.

“That’s not the traditional view of libraries or museums,” Amy Eshleman, who led the team that created these spaces, told Remake Learning last year. “But this is the way folks learn now: they work collaboratively, iterate, show work they’ve done, try and fail and try again.”

Anywhere, anytime learning isn’t a new concept for libraries, panelist Lori Takeuchi pointed out. Libraries have always been interested in extending learning opportunities for community members. Along with updating libraries for the 21st century, it’s important to strengthen links between libraries and other community institutions—and to simply put the word out.

You can watch Creating a Conversation About Anywhere, Anytime Learning in the Harvard Family Research Project media archive and hear more from Gregg Behr of the Grable Foundation, Terri Ferinde Dunham of National Network of Statewide Afterschool Networks, Lori Takeuchi of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, and Heather B. Weiss of the Harvard Family Research Project.

How Can Adults Help Young Children Learn From Screens?

As we near the end of the school year, here in Pittsburgh we’ll be spending some time thinking about our youngest learners. We know that high-quality early learning experiences can make important differences in kids’ lives—differences that they’ll carry with them as they grow.

Low-income young children need particular attention. On average, they enter school with significant shortfalls in areas such as vocabulary. And national research has found that investments in high-quality pre-K education can help prevent these achievement deficits between low-income students and their higher-income peers, as well as produce longer-term benefits such as raising high school graduation and employment rates.

In their 2014 report, Using Early Childhood Education to Bridge the Digital Divide, the RAND Corporation finds that low-income children also lack the same access to technology as their more-advantaged peers, and that without this access, low-income kids are missing out on important opportunities for learning.

RAND and PNC Grow Up Great gathered experts at a forum in Pittsburgh last week to discuss if and how technology could be used to support learning in the early years—a conversation that’s been a long time coming.

“The early childhood community has been a little averse to talking about technology in any deep way,” the New America Foundation’s Lisa Guernsey told us in a Q&A. “And for good reasons, honestly. There is fear that technology in a preschool classroom might lead to kids sitting around staring at the TV. There is also fear that kids might get pushed into things before they are developmentally ready. Everyone wants kids to have a well-rounded, hands-on, exploratory learning environment, but those types of fears have hung over the question of what role technology should play in that.”

One of RAND’s research questions at their forum—“How do we define appropriate use of technology in early childhood education?”—is something local experts have looked at closely.

The Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College partnered with the National Association for the Education of Young Children to define quality media experiences for young children. The Fred Rogers Center’s work has been important in helping educators, media developers, and parents to better understand how children learn from screens and to apply the knowledge to improve young children’s media experiences.

Even at their youngest ages, we want people interacting with kids as they interact with media. 
In her recently released TEDxTalk, Guernsey says we’re at a pivotal moment in our need for a national conversation about children, learning, and media.

Young children, Guernsey stresses, learn from conversation. And even at their youngest ages, we want people interacting with kids as they interact with media. In her work at New America, Guernsey is providing important leadership on improving experiences for low-income children and seizing opportunities that technology may provide.

“We have the power to talk with our kids about what they’re seeing and to understand the media in new ways with them,” Guernsey said, “to help them see how it might related to their outside world.”

Michael Robb, the Fred Rogers Center’s director of education and research, agrees. “It’s not just quantity of talk, it’s also quality of talk,” he said in a blog post. “Depending on age, quality conversations around media should go beyond just describing what’s on screen, to talking about hypotheticals (what might happen if you do this?) or engaging in critical thinking (why do you think that character did xyz?).”

Similarly, when reading an e-book with a young child, experts at the Fred Rogers Center recommend treating the experience the same as if you were using a print book: put the child in your lap, point to objects on the screen, talk with the child, and introduce new vocabulary.

Guernsey proposes that all families of young children should have a “media mentor,” someone to help them make choices about media and learn to use that media in developmentally appropriate ways. This mentor could be a preschool teacher, a day care provider, or a parent. Librarian Cen Campbell recommends a children’s librarian as a mentor, whose expanding roles include making recommendations to parents about how to best use media with their child at home, using apps or e-books during story time, or incorporating new media into their media collections.

Guernsey, Robb, and Campbell are three of the experts gathering in Pittsburgh for the 2014 Fred Forward Conference next week, a biannual event that explores Fred Rogers’ lasting legacy. This year marks the Center’s 10-year anniversary.

Libraries Prove to be Adaptable and Vital in the Digital Age

Late in the afternoon, after school is dismissed, some teens in Pittsburgh head over to their public library to make movies, create digital crafts, and produce hip-hop music. And even though they are in the library, no one is telling them to be quiet.

In fact, they are learning these fun skills through The Labs at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, also called The Labs @ CLP, a program where students in grades 6-12 can use sophisticated digital equipment that sparks their creative interests — either on their own time or through many of the program’s workshops.  These “learning labs” are currently located in three Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh locations.

These libraries are among the many around the country that are becoming “bustling community centers” according to a recent New York Times article, “where talking out loud and even eating are perfectly acceptable.”

“I see the program as an opportunity for teens to follow their interests, developing them into true talent,” says Corey Wittig, a Labs mentor and CLP digital learning librarian.

The Labs @ CLP is just one example of the many new programs and resources offered at some of the nation’s 9000 public libraries.

Public libraries do face numerous challenges in today’s digital age, writes Karen Cator,  former director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education and current CEO of Digital Promise. Poor public perception and lack of funding are just two major hurdles.

Yet as Cator also points out, libraries continue to evolve in innovative ways to meet the needs of people of all ages.

“Libraries are so valued by the people who use them,” she writes, “that they simply cannot meet the growing demand for both traditional and new services of all types.”

In Boston, the downtown branch is building a new teen space based on cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito’s work on “homago” — where teenagers can “hang out, mess around and geek out.” Like the school library at Elizabeth Forward High School in the Pittsburgh Region, the new space in Boston will include “lounges, restaurant booths, game rooms and digital labs, as well as software and equipment to record music and create comic books,” according to the Times.

Young people’s demand for library services is strong. A 2013 Pew Research Center report found that 16- to 29-year-olds are just as likely to visit the library as their older counterparts, and are significantly more likely to use technology at the library.

For those familiar with programs like The Labs @ CLP, that’s not a big surprise. Indeed, for kids who don’t have a computer or internet connection at home, the local library is a vital resource.

“Until now I never used Photoshop,” said Gabe Gomez, a Pittsburgh high school student who, along with his friends, made a seven-minute film at The Labs that they hope to turn into a web series. “It’s rare to have access to this sort of thing. I’m trying to learn as much as I can.”

Cleveland Public Library Executive Director and CEO Felton Thomas Jr. is at the forefront of making “libraries the center of learning, where technology is provided that levels the playing field for the disadvantaged,” reports American Libraries Magazine.

In 2012, their library launched TechCentral, an impressive 7,000-square-foot space that holds a computer lab with 90 workstations and a “Tech ToyBox” equipped with iPads, Kindles, and all sorts of fun tech gadgets, as well as a maker space.

To bring attention to the dynamic things libraries are doing with technology, the Young Adult Library Association (YALSA) hosted Teen Tech Week March 9-15. Libraries across the country celebrated the new and inventive ways they are engaging teens. This year’s theme was DIY @ Your Library,” reflecting the new trend of libraries developing maker spaces.

School librarian Buffy Hamilton, aka “The Unquiet Librarian,” tweeted and blogged about the high- and low-tech projects students at Norcross High School in Georgia did for Teen Tech Week, including making friendship bracelets  and creating duct tape art and circuit kits made out of dough.

She also wrote about Teen Tech Week’s grand finale: the school’s media center partnered with the Gwinnett County Public Library to explore 3-D printing.

For Hamilton, seeing kids get excited about these new resources is rewarding.

“To see these teens thinking so intently, experimenting, and learning through trial and error in a relaxed setting was truly a joy and a way for us to grow the kind of culture of learning we want the library to embody,” she wrote.

Photo/ San Mateo County Library

Why What’s Best for Families is Also Best for Cities

This week in Seattle, hundreds of city planners, mayors, school leaders, and influential community members from around the country are coming together at the National League of Cities Summit to focus on improving the lives of families with kids. The summit aims to help planners and policy makers examine data and develop new strategies to keep families central in urban development and planning.

While it might sound obvious that the well-being of families and children is at the heart of healthy communities, planning cities with families’ lives in mind isn’t always a go-to strategy for urban planners.

“Cities are rebuilding with an enthusiasm for attracting empty nesters and young urban professionals….” explained the American Planning Association in a 2008 memo. The push to attract young professionals comes from the notion that they’ll help spur economic growth and widen the tax base without using an abundance of city services. “But planning priorities that stem from this approach often ignore the needs of families with young children,” the memo continues.

For example, new public transit routes are almost always oriented to get people to work. But there’s a lack of routes to places equally as important for families like child care services, grocery stores and parks.

A recent article by Joel Kotkin and Ali Modarres in City Journal argues that if cities want to keep their young professionals, they also have to figure out ways to welcome families. “The post-family city appeals only to a certain segment of the population, one that, however affluent, cannot ensure a prosperous future on its own,” Kotkin and Modarres write.

One way to attract families that can sustain cities? Education. The crux of family-friendly cities is quality education systems that are inclusive of all kids—no matter where they live. That’s part of the Kids+Creativity Network’s goal in Pittsburgh, and to reach it we’re bringing together over 100 schools, cultural institutions, and afterschool programs to revolutionize the city’s learning ecosystem.

Pittsburgh’s libraries understand they’re a particularly crucial part of this ecosystem and have been long at work to become leaders in rethinking where learning takes place. Carnegie Library is home to Pittsburgh’s Learning Lab, a unique space packed with digital media tools that inspire teens to become creators and makers.

“Libraries and museums have always embraced their role as important parts of the learning ecosystem in cities,” Amy Eshleman, who is spearheading the expansion of Learning Labs around the country, told Remake Learning last summer.

Libraries are also a prime example of the ways social policy, urban planning, and education efforts constantly overlap. Kids from low-income families are too often behind their higher-income peers in reading comprehension, even before they start kindergarten. As a report from the Institute of Museum and Libraries explains, strengthening the country’s network of libraries and other out-of-school learning environments is a key to bridging that gap.

The NLC summit sees just as much potential in libraries to foster lifelong learning across cities. So much so that it’s hosting joint sessions with the Urban Libraries Council’s Partners for Success Conference. President and Director of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Mary Frances Cooper will be speaking on building a learning network in Pittsburgh, along with Gregg Behr from the Grable Foundation and Cathy Lewis Long, the executive director of the Sprout Fund.

Representatives from Hartford, St. Paul, San Diego, and Seattle will also be speaking to highlight successful public partnerships to support kids and families in their respective cities, including Seattle’s wonderful Roadmap Project, a regional effort to improve education for all kids from cradle to career.

Technologist John Seely Brown, self-proclaimed “chief of confusion,” renowned for his pioneering work at Xerox PARC and work on interplay between organizations, technology, and people will keynote, along with Sir Ken Robinson, an international leader in education and creativity.

The most-watched TED Talk presenter ever, Robinson’s work revolves around transforming the goal of education today. He stresses that creativity is as important as literacy in the 21st century and that educating students for a future we can’t predict requires a comprehensive approach from all sectors of society.

“Human resources are like natural resources; they’re often buried deep. You have to go looking for them, they’re not just lying around on the surface,” Robinson said during his 2010 TED Talk on personalizing learning and nurturing creativity.

Solutions for making cities a great place for kids and families to prosper also aren’t laying around on the surface either; they’re much deeper and differ greatly in every region. But bringing different sectors together to figure out ways to keep families central can ensure a place for them in our cities’ futures.

Creating Spaces That Engage Teens: A Q&A with Amy Eshleman

This week, dozens of innovators from more than 15 cities are converging on Pittsburgh for a two-day session on Learning Labs.  

Learning Labs are unique spaces in libraries, museums, and other cultural sites designed by and for teens. At their core are youth themselves, whose interests and input drive the programming. The spaces feature a range of digital media tools that are designed to inspire teens to become creators and makers, not just passive consumers, and in doing so find their own voice and inspiration. Learning Labs are inspired by YOUmedia, teen learning spaces that opened at the Chicago Public Library in July 2009, as well as spaces in Miami, New York, and Washington, DC.

We sat down with Amy Eshleman, who led the Chicago Public Library team that created YOUmedia and has been integral to Learning Labs from their start in 2012.  She is the program leader for education at the Urban Libraries Council and is helping to spearhead the expansion of Learning Labs to more than two dozen cities nationwide, including Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh Learning Lab is housed in the Carnegie Library’s main library as well as three neighborhood libraries. The Labs, based on the principles of YOUmedia, are getting underway now. Young people are helping plan how the space will be integrated into the rest of the library and the city’s Hive Learning Network.  

Remake Learning: What are three words that describe a Learning Lab? 

Amy Eshleman: I’d say teens, interests (because their interests are the focus), and powerful (because when you bring teens and their interests together and provide a space for them to learn, pretty powerful things can happen).

Why are Learning Labs so important to libraries and museums today? 

Amy Eshleman

Amy Eshleman

Libraries and museums have always embraced their role as important parts of the learning ecosystem in cities. The connected learning principles behind Learning Labs have given libraries and museums a roadmap for engaging youth in relevant new ways and provided them the opportunity to own the learning space in a new way.

Learning Labs focus largely on using digital media to engage youth as creators, not just passive viewers. How do libraries and museums fit into this plan?

Libraries and museums are incredible hubs in their communities for information and lifelong learning. They house a combination of great spaces, really smart educators and librarians and collections. Combine those strengths with digital media tools, and Learning Labs can be a really powerful way to reach teens.

Libraries, for example, have always been great as safe and democratic spaces to hang out. Teens come to do their homework, socialize and get on a computer. Hanging out is really critical still, but now there are different opportunities to engage in a library or museum after school—ways to tinker and explore interests, and go deeper with their own learning.

What sets Learning Labs apart from other after school programs in libraries or museums? 

I absolutely think it’s that these spaces put youth at the center, engage skilled and caring adult mentors to support youth, and are built on robust research and designed to support that.  If someone walks to a Learning Lab space, they’ll see kids having fun and playing video games, or maybe taking part in a workshop. But there’s so much more to it than that. As you peel back the layers of the onion, you start to understand that the teens have created the learning pathways for themselves and how engaging that is, and how it can be a bridge between in and out-of-school.

What makes these spaces a success?

As we know from the last two to three years in the incubator spaces (Chicago’s YOUmedia; ArtLab+ in Washington, DC; DreamYard in New York and Miami at the Miami-Dade Public Library), you can build incredible spaces and fill them with lots of great new media tools, but what makes these spaces so relevant and successful are the relationships teens build with their peers and the adults in the space—mentors, staff, and others.

What kind of shift has this entailed for library and museum staff in places that have launched a Learning Lab?

I think it’s a bit of a shift for libraries and museums, which have always been places of expertise and recognized authority, to now start having folks who visit museums and libraries create and build content and artifacts which then can become part of the collections or experience of the library or museum. That’s a shift—but an important one that we have to make to remain relevant in the 21st century

Even the physical space is a shift. Learning Labs are loud, social, collaborative spaces. And that’s not the traditional view of libraries or museums. But this is the way folks learn now: they work collaboratively, iterate, show work they’ve done, try and fail and try again. It’s a really powerful way to learn and gain the higher-order skills needed to succeed in life. And a physical space that promotes that approach is just going to look and feel different.

Also, the type of people organizations hire to work in these spaces is a shift. Libraries and museums are now hiring artists, makers, and musicians. And in many ways, the adults are the learners as well as the teens. Adults do have a level of expertise, but the exchange is different—it’s much more interactive and less top-down. It can evolve over a span of time, rather than be a one-off exchange. And the adults are working together with the teens to help them gain some expertise that they care about.

What about institutionally? Did starting a Learning Lab in Chicago affect the Chicago Public Library more broadly?

Photo courtesy: CLP South Side

Making movies at the CLP South Side

Yes, it absolutely provided the library with the opportunity and responsibility to own the learning space in a different way. We always knew we were a critical part of the education fabric in the city, but the process of creating and operating YOUmedia [Chicago’s Learning Lab] was transformational. We know that kids’ learning never stops, but before YOUmedia, we weren’t really building on what teens were learning in schools in a way that was relevant and came from them. Now that happens in a more robust way. Starting YOUmedia also changed the conversation for us internally and externally around our staff and their professional development, partnerships, our library spaces, and our role in the learning ecosystem of Chicago.

I read a story today about summer school programs that are blending traditional teaching practices (reading aloud, for example) with trips to museums, script-writing sessions—in effect a kind of laboratory for new, more engaging instructional ideas. What can Learning Labs teach us about engagement? 

Many Learning Labs are still in an early stage of development, but we’ve learned a lot about teen engagement even as these spaces are evolving because they’ve nearly all incorporated innovative and authentic ways to engage youth in the planning and design. In Nashville and San Francisco, for example, the public libraries have youth working side-by-side with architects to design what their space will look like. Teens have ownership and a voice from day one. That’s really important to engagement, we’ve found. If you meet teens and talk to them about the things they care about, they’re going to engage in a way that they haven’t before. It’s very powerful and the kids are amazed. They’ll say, “They asked us about what we want to do in the space and they listened!” They can’t believe that the adults would care about what they thought and actually incorporate their ideas into the design of the space.

You were integral to YOUmedia’s start in Chicago, the original Learning Lab. What’s the key lesson you learned there that is valuable for other spaces? 

I think to be as flexible as possible. Be willing to try something that you haven’t tried before and partner with people you haven’t partnered with before. Pittsburgh has already established a set of great partnerships with the Hive and the Kids+Creativity Network, so partnering is part of their DNA. Those kinds of partnerships can make the learning experience for youth really dynamic.

And speaking of Pittsburgh, isn’t it cool to be a kid in Pittsburgh at this moment?  

Yes! You are doing amazing stuff. Pittsburgh was one of the first cities to visit Chicago after YOUmedia opened and say, “This can work in Pittsburgh and we’d love to be part of, and add to, this conversation.” Pittsburgh has become an incredible source of inspiration for all of us lucky enough to do this work.

This is exactly what we hoped would happen—cities would take these design principles and go out and make something relevant and make them their own. That’s been a joy to watch and be a part of. We’re so excited to be bringing the Learning Labs teams from all across the country to Pittsburgh because we know they’re going to be inspired when they meet folks and see your spaces. Just more great examples to take back to their own cities and remix and reimagine for their own work.

How Museums and Libraries Are Creating Lifelong Learners

This post originally appeared at the Fred Rogers Center.

Far too often, children, and particularly low-income children, show up for school already behind, lacking the cognitive and social-emotional tools in their toolbox that make them ready to learn. In this highly competitive world, where education increasingly means greater security, falling behind so early in life can lead to disastrous consequences.

Educators do their best to bolster children’s skills once they arrive at school, but they shouldn’t have to go it alone. As the Annie E. Casey Foundation put it in their 2010 report on school readiness, children “need to have high-quality learning opportunities, beginning at birth and continuing in school and during out-of-school time, including summers ….”

A new report, “Growing Young Minds: How Museums and Libraries Create Lifelong Learners” published by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), argues that museums and libraries can be that crucial piece in the puzzle of early-learning networks.

growingyoungminds-230x300“Brain development during a child’s first few years—before he or she is in school—is critical for later learning,” Susan Hildreth, director of IMLS, told us. “But not all children have access to early learning opportunities and resources. Many children from low-income families don’t gain the language, cognitive, and social tools they need as a foundation,” she said. “These children have the most to gain from the accessible programs and services of museums and libraries.”

The report details the enormous role museums and libraries around the country already play in informal education for children, from acting as children’s first teachers to providing access to digital technologies—and how they can do more. The report features several Pittsburgh organizations as examples of institutions doing exceptional work in this area.  We were delighted to see some of our own work among them—the authors mentioned the Fred Rogers Center Early Learning Environment (Ele), an online hub where educators, families, and others can find and share quality digital resources that support early learning and development.

Also in Pittsburgh, the Kids+Creativity Network collaborates with more than 100 organizations to exchange ideas and support connected learning opportunities. The IMLS report also spotlights the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh for its ongoing research of informal learning environments, community partnerships, and MAKESHOP, a hands-on and digital learning space rooted in early learning, literacy, and STEM.

Despite these advances, the report also points out the gap by family income in museum and library attendance, arguing that now more than ever, libraries and museums should be emphasized as crucial parts of a national early-learning system. Only 36 percent of children from the lowest socioeconomic status visited libraries in their kindergarten year compared with 66 percent of children in the highest socioeconomic bracket. Likewise, only 43 percent of children in the lowest socioeconomic bracket visited a museum, versus 65 percent in the highest.

It seems that now, more than ever, libraries and museums can play an integral role in a national, early-learning system, and particularly for low-income children.

As Hildreth told us, “The disparity of access to learning resources has created a ‘knowledge gap’ with serious implications for society.  If we can strengthen the country’s network of museums and libraries to be a greater force for early learning, effective learning opportunities for all children can deepen and grow.”

Hildreth emphasized that now is the time for policymakers to act and use libraries and museums, especially in cash-strapped communities, to their fullest capacity as key parts of an extensive informal learning infrastructure.

To support this effort, IMLS in 2013 provided $2.5 million in grants to museums and libraries to help children from low-income families reach the goal of reading at grade level. Nationally, two out of every three fourth graders were not proficient in reading in 2010, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  Worse, four of five fourth graders from low-income families were not proficient readers.

However, the report explains, it takes more than just funding to truly integrate museums and libraries into children’s early lives. State and federal policymakers, administrators, educators, and parents all play a role in supporting the valuable learning that takes place inside museums and libraries.

Below, from the report, are 10 ways museums and libraries contribute to early learning.

  1. Increasing high-quality early learning experiences
  2. Engaging and supporting families as their child’s first teachers
  3. Supporting development of executive function and “deeper learning” skills through literacy and STEM-based experience
  4. Creating seamless links across early learning and the early grades
  5. Positioning children for meeting expectations of the Common Core State Standards
  6. Addressing the summer slide
  7. Linking new digital technologies to learning
  8. Improving family health and nutrition
  9. Leveraging community partnerships
  10. Adding capacity to early learning networks