Connective Tissue: A Healthy Part of Education

Connective Tissue: A Healthy Part of Education

Nichole Pinkard’s high school basketball coach also happened to be her computer science teacher. By the time she graduated, she’d taken eight programming classes and could visualize her future -- a career in the field.

Today Pinkard, a learning scientist at Northwestern University, sees the connection between something she loved – basketball – and her experiences in the classroom as essential “connective tissue” in a robust and healthy educational ecosystem.

In a new research paper published in the journal Human Development, Pinkard argues that education should be reimagined as a networked ecosystem, one where information moves freely in and beyond school. And it’s the often-overlooked connective tissue, Pinkard says, that supports freedom of movement.

“It’s not enough to expect participation if youth cannot see what participation looks like for them,” Pinkard wrote. “It’s not enough to hold an afterschool program in an under-resourced neighborhood without plans for providing safe methods of transportation to and from locations.”

The places where young people spend time can greatly influence their learning and development. Neighborhoods, libraries, faith-based institutions, community centers, park districts, museums, and other informal spaces offer opportunities.

But lower-income communities often don't have an ecosystem that connects formal and informal learning for youth, says Pinkard, associate professor of learning sciences in the School of Education and Social Policy. Moreover, there’s limited research looking at how citywide infrastructure such as parks, transportation, and libraries work together to support offering equitable and effective out-of-school learning opportunities. 

As a result, when researchers study the impact of educational interventions, they might miss how the infrastructure or the connective tissue supports or hinders the intended goals," Pinkard says. Because when the connective tissue is there – think of roads without potholes or air in tires – it’s rarely noticed.

Technology can change that. Smaller devices and increased access to free WiFi in community spaces have ushered in new ways of accessing, communicating, connecting, and showcasing that don’t assume schools are the only place where learning occurs, Pinkard says. Instead, “they are the essential critical hub that connects families to formal and informal learning experiences,” she wrote.

“Safe, secure, and enriching experiences can bolster relationships, knowledge, tenacity, and interest, Pinkard says. “When these supportive structures are not in place, however, it can hinder the development of foundational competencies, such as forming relationships with adults, managing challenges, staying engaged, and identifying and accomplishing goals.”

Portrait of a Childhood

Pinkard calls her own childhood experiences “an example and metaphor” for the freedom of movement concept.

Growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, a town without public transportation, Pinkard rode her bike with friends around the neighborhood and to basketball practice. Her parents’ schedules allowed them to drive to piano lessons and other activities.

But when her father’s commute increased and her parents divorced, Pinkard faced new barriers and the cost of participation increased. The community of mothers and coaches on her sports teams filled the gap by helping her get to practice and games.

“When the connective tissue is there, people see choices and potential consequences. They can participate in different locations and develop relationships, Pinkard says.

Her experience laid the groundwork for the four learning ecosystems she has developed, including her Digital Youth Network which has expanded from one building serving 140 middle school students to a city serving over 800,000 youth.

Over the last 15 years, the Digital Youth Network "evolved to focus less on creating new stand-alone learning opportunities and more on developing the connective tissue between opportunities and other elements of the ecosystem," Pinkard says.

Pinkard’s framework includes three components: using and connecting accessible learning spaces; ensuring safe and affordable transportation paths; and making visible learning expectations that resonate with individual learners and their community. When these are working together, children have more freedom of movement, which is a sign of a healthy STEAM learning ecosystem, she says.

Her latest work, the L3 platform, pulls everything together and provides the infrastructure on a broader scale. The system, used in Evanston public schools, is intentionally designed to integrate learning across home, school, online and community spaces.

It doesn’t favor any program or location; instead, it focuses on making shared resources and learning expectations more visible across a community. The network is directly integrated with schools, so teachers have access to individual and class participation and progress.

By removing the boundaries of programs and working at a collective level, “the community as a whole becomes aware of and accountable for learning and development both in and out of school for its young people,” Pinkard says.

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 8/21/19