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Designing Learning Pathways in a Complex Learning Ecology: A Research Practice Partnership Focused on Parent Brokering

In this chapter we describe an exploratory, design-led research project to align
a top-down learning innovation and improvement agenda (to support youth-
centered, interest-driven learning pathways) with the needs and interests of a local
community-based creative arts and technology organization. To negotiate align-
ment of stakeholder priorities and values, draw on theoretical learning sciences
research to inform practice, and to guide us toward productive innovation, we
turned to a participatory, design-centered process to enact theory and creatively
synthesize multiple perspectives for action. Our claim is that design-led modes
of inquiry are especially needed to respond to ambitious visions of educational
transformation and funding directives, which leave much unresolved detail to
be determined and realized by local practitioners, leaders, and learners. Our case
study provides one example of this kind of design-led learning innovation that
builds on and extends our understanding of interest development, and describes
its local application in a series of design probes to support forming and deepening
interest-driven learning pathways for youth.
A growing body of empirical research takes ecological perspective to account
for the dynamic nature of learning that evolves across the multiple and diverse set-
tings in which youth spend their time (Brofenbrenner 1979; Barron 2006; Banks
et al. 2007; Bricker & Bell 2014). A related line of learning research emphasizes
the critical enabling roles adult and peer relationships play in supporting youth
learning and interest development (Barron et al. 2009; Weiss & Lopez 2015).
Interest formation itself is highly contextual and deepens through socially sup-
ported “lines of practice” that span contexts and enable identity formation in
culturally valued life activities (Hidi & Renninger 2006; Azevedo 2011; Järvelä &
Renninger 2014). Rather than examining learning in episodic encounters in
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settings, researchers are now thinking about designing for “connected learning”
where learning experiences fit together to form coherent, interest-driven learning
pathways that sustain and develop into the future (Ito et al. 2013; Sefton-Green
2016). This broader ecological view of youths’ learning lives has led to calls for a
more coordinated and intentional brokering of interest-based learning opportu-
nities for youth across time and place (Rosenberg et al. 2014; Ching et al. 2015;
Russell et al., under review).
An expanded view of youths’ learning lives has inspired the implementa-
tion of new intervention approaches such as a set of regional City of Learning1
initiatives to build and study coordinated ecologies of opportunity through
networked infrastructures, programs, and platforms that seek to equitably open
learning pathways for youth to pursue and deepen their interests across settings
(Barron et al. 2014; Pinkard 2015). In our region, the learning pathways agenda
has been shaped in part by a local backbone organization and associate network
of organizations.2 To support this effort, a local foundation funded a university-
based research team of “design fellows” to collaborate wit a set of local learning
providers to interpret and support efforts to create learning pathways of oppor-
tunity for youth.
Our case study focuses on one of the design fellows (the first author) who was
embedded in a community arts with technology organization. The case describes
how a participatory design process enabled a professionally diverse team to first
reckon with multiple perspectives on what constitutes valued learning, and to
collectively define and ground the abstract concept of learning pathways in ways
that are locally relevant, valued, and actionable with respect to learning providers,
youth and their families
Case Study in Design-Led Learning Innovation Research
How do families, mentors, and caring adults in youths’ lives identify learning
opportunities and help youth make choices that cultivate the development of
their individual interests? How can we help families interpret complex citywide
learning ecosystems in ways that make learning pathways apparent?
To better understand how families navigate Pittsburgh’s informal learning
ecosystem (the physical, social, and culturally situated sites of learning locally
available) and broker learning opportunities for their youth, our research-
practice partnership focused on the decision-making criteria that families and
adult caregivers use when choosing out-of-school experiences for their children.
In particular, we explored how parents and mentors find, value, and encour-
age children’s participation in creative technology and maker-based program
offerings. The framing of this study emerged through a participatory process
where stakeholders engaged in learning design are positioned as co-creators and
included from the inception of the project through data analysis, interpretation,
FIGURE 8.1 Moving from a Program-Centric to a Learner-Centric View
of Opportunities
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and dissemination activities. The founding director of a local informal learning
provider (ASSEMBLE),3 her teaching artist staff, and the volunteer board were
included in problem formulation and goal setting for the design of this study,
as well as in the data synthesis and presentation of findings at professional and
academic conferences.
As with many nonprofit organizations, ASSEMBLE has the perennial goal
of increasing the recruitment and participation of youth in its programs, and in
particular reaching the underserved community in its immediate neighborhood.
The organization uses its website, associated social media channels, tabling events,
paper fliers, direct mailings, and word-of-mouth reputation as the primary strate-
gies for raising awareness and interest in programming.
To address ASSEMBLE’s goal of increasing and broadening participation
in their programs, we wanted to better understand how families navigated the
so-called Pittsburgh learning ecology of out-of-school time (OST) programs—
such as summer camps, weekend workshops, after-school activities, and weekend
family events—and selected these opportunities for, and with, their children. In
particular, we sought to understand how adults decided to encourage (or not)
children’s participation in creative technology-rich programs (e.g., robotics, digital
media production, coding, and maker activities) being offered around the city.
FIGURE 8.1 Moving from a Program-Centric to a Learner-Centric View
of Opportunities
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Study Design and Methods
Our research questions and study design sprang from a collective problematizing
process where the expanded research-practice team engaged in facilitated discus-
sions over several months in order to surface organizational challenges and oppor-
tunities. Moreover, we were able to identify key problems of practice related to the
regional charge to develop learning pathways as part of the Pittsburgh 2014 Cities
of Learning4 initiative. Much conversation centered on the challenge of reaching
parents and recruiting underserved youth in ASSEMBLE’s economically distressed
neighborhood. The team decided to focus our design research efforts on better
understanding how families choose to participate in informal learning activities.
Parent Way-Finding in a Complex Leaning Ecology
To reframe this challenge as a learning research design question, we developed and
piloted a parent way-finding study to (1) understand how parents and supporting
adults in youth lives become aware of organizationally hosted informal learning
opportunities for their children (i.e., characterize their information-gathering
needs and habits), and (2) identify the decision-making criteria that families use
when choosing technology-rich programming with their children. We used a
mixed-approach to examine how supporting adults (i.e., parents, mentors, care-
givers) find out about creative technology programs, and surveyed various prag-
matic and logistical factors that might influence their decision to support a youth’s
participation in a program.
For the study 10 adult caregivers were recruited from two ASSEMBLE
programs: “Learn to Scratch” and “Make It,” both aimed at preteen audiences.
These adults included parents as well as two mentors, and one parent-child
combination also participated. Of the participants, four were male, six female,
and four were of African American decent. These caregivers were invited at
drop-off and pickup times to engage in a program flyer think-aloud & sort
activity, where they told us what they were thinking as they read through 10
short program descriptions (robotics, digital media making, robotics, scratch
programming, and maker activities) offered by various informal learning provid-
ers around town, including museums, community organizations, arts groups, and
after-school programs. Adult participants then sorted these programs descrip-
tions into “likely,“maybe,and “unlikely” piles and described their reasoning for
these selections out loud. In addition, participants responded to a semi-structured
interview about their child’s interest areas and how they find and select informal
learning programs, and they were asked to describe their family’s approach and
philosophy to informal, out-of-school learning time. All the interviews were
audio- recorded and transcribed. We then analyzed the data in two rounds, first
with researchers and ASSEMBLE staff in a Data Synthesis Workshop described
next, and then in a second round where the research team identified and col-
lapsed thematic categories in the dataset.
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Data Synthesis Workshop
As a vital step in the co-design process, the researchers and ASSEMBLE staff
worked together to review and make sense of the parent interview data. This
workshop activity enabled us to listen closely to parent concerns and priori-
ties, jointly synthesize and identify patterns in the data, and finally to discuss the
implications and design opportunities. Five members from ASSEMBLE partic-
ipated, including, teaching artists, the director (second author), and a volunteer
board member together with the research team in a three-hour workshop session.
For the workshop, each participant was given an envelope containing excerpted
comments from the full parent interview transcripts presented as color-coded
strips of paper. Initially unknown to participants, the color codes were related to
parent gender and ethnicity.
First, the group individually went through each parent interview transcript
(edited only for off-topic chat and process comments) and used green dots
to mark positive statements and red dots to mark negative ones. Each par-
ticipant was given a set of silver stars to call out particular quotes of interest
they wished to discuss with the group. This seeded the next activity, where
we began a visual clustering exercise to group comments into categories, first
reading them aloud, then moving them into groupings and labeling them.
After formulating high-level categories, we revealed the gender and ethnicity
color-codes to check for any visually prevalent clusters of parent talk based on
these demographic factors.
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FIGURE 8.2 Images from the design workshop activity showing the color-coded
transcriptions, coding and examples of shared categories generated during our
discussion of parent talk
Design Research Findings and Insights
Our parent way-finding study highlighted the important enabling role adults play
in supporting youth participation in informal learning opportunities. In particular
we see evidence of the “learning broker” role (Barron et al. 2009). In Barron et al.s
typology, a learning broker “seeks learning opportunities for children by network-
ing, the Internet, peer networks, and other information sources. This adult signs a
child up and provides necessary support for endeavor. In our interviews we saw
this brokering role articulated as fourfold: logistical brokering (e.g., transportation
to a site, registration), financial brokering (program fees, bus fares, material costs),
transactional brokering (tapping personal networks for opportunities, recommen-
dations, reviews, and advice), and sourcing/vetting forms of brokering (searching
for appropriate high-quality programs, activities and events).
In survey questions, we asked adults to weigh the relative importance of six
factors influencing the selection of informal learning opportunities for their chil-
dren: ease of getting there, cost of program/event, when offered (schedule), where
held (location), hosting organization, and activity focus. These program factors
were ranked on a scale of 1–3, with 1 being not important, 2 being somewhat
important, and 3 being very important. Parent participants rated, on average, all six
factors as at least somewhat important, with location of the organization hosting
the program scoring the lowest in terms of relative importance. Cost and ease
of getting to a program ranked slightly higher in terms of relative importance.
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Participants indicated the most important factors influencing their support for
a child’s attendance in a program revolved around when a program was offered
(scheduling), ease of getting there, and program activities. The program activity
focus was consistently selected as very important by both parents and adults men-
tor participants.
Our analysis of interviews and think-alouds from the adult brokering study
provided insights into why adults rated the program activity focus as very
important, and shed light on the considerations parents weigh when choosing
an informal learning activity for their child. Not surprisingly, we found that a
common sort criterion adult caregivers used to judge the appropriateness of
a creative technology program was their perception of a child’s interest in the
Interest-Brokering Considerations
At the heart of much of the parent talk we heard was a deep concern for
cultivating children’s interests through informal, out-of-school learning expe-
riences. Parents of primarily tween-aged youth frequently mentioned they
would have discussions and involve their child in the decision-making. We
coded for these interest considerations and found that parents described inter-
est in terms of four distinct dimensions: matching, exposing, expanding, and
Relative importance
Decision-making Factors
Factors influencing family decision-making and participation
in OST programs
FIGURE 8.3 Relative importance of factors influencing OST program
participation (n=10)
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A. Matching interests
When reviewing program descriptions, many parents first scanned the copy
for interest matches. They used words like “my kid likes or doesn’t; is interested
in or into” to quickly weed through program descriptions and assess programs fit
for their child:
So the first thing I always look for is anything science related because when
it goes into anything just straight art related, they kind of pull back from
it, but if it’s tied with something science for whatever reason, that’s their
gateway into anything. [Father (S09) / Son, age 12]
. . . Intro to Video Game Programming, um, I think just from the descrip-
tion, he would be interested in that. So almost no question that this matches
his interests and would be worth investigating. [Father (S02) / Son, age 13]
B. Exposing to new interests
A second form of interest brokering talk we heard from parents revolved around
exposure, and the need to provide youth with opportunities to find and explore
new areas of potential interest by introducing them to unfamiliar topics and con-
texts, and giving them access to different kinds of tools, materials, and forms
of expertise. There was an admittedly coercive attempt to encourage youth to
move outside their comfort zone to discover and develop new interest areas. We
heard this exposure-seeking talk most frequently with mentors and our African
American parent participants:
She says she just wants to sketch. But I want her to be exposed to a list of,
a lot of different mediums, lots of different types of art. And again, I know
the importance of the STEAM education initiatives and I’d like her to be
exposed to that in a way that’s interesting to her. [Mother (S08) / Daughter,
age 12]
I would love to get involved with these organizations and introduce
them to the tech world, introduce them to the making world, introduce
them to art, introduce them to everything. But if it’s not affordable . . .
[Mentor (S04) /Son, age 11]
C. Expanding an existing interest
A third category of interest brokering talk involved using a youth’s expressed
interest in one affinity area to expand interest in another. Parents talked about
using a child’s existing interest as a hook to pull them into trying out a related
but unfamiliar activity. We also heard parents wanting to use a strong interest to
broaden or shore up learning in a perceived deficit area. These caregiver com-
ments often centered on taking a youth’s interest in computers or video games
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and trying to bend that interest toward a more “productive” or creative output
through a game design or coding class, or by connecting a youth’s interest in art
to technology though STEAM kinds of programs.
So this would be really interesting Introduction to Video Game Programming
because they’re interested in programming and they always talk about doing
it for video game stuff. But they never make the connection between the
two. So that one I’m drawn to just to give them a real sense of what it actu-
ally would take or be like. [Father (P09) / Son, age 12]
She’s interested in crafts, art, science, drawing sketches specifically and so
forth . . . . and learn about the chemistry behind the awesome printmaking
process. So it’s art and science, which I think is good for her because art is just
like the perfect avenue for her to start learning, you know, about more science
and advanced science and technology. [Mother (S08) / Daughter, age 12]
So he’s interested in computers. I mean we tried to steer him towards
more the producer-producing stuff, as opposed to just consuming it. [Father
(S07) / Daughter age 7, Son age 10]
D. Deepening an interest
A fourth interest brokering category of comments centered on finding ways to
support deepening an area of interest. Families were looking for, and often not
finding, informal learning opportunities to “level up” and build on emerging
creative technology skills and talents. Parents expressed frustration at not being
able to finding stepping-stones on which to deepen and extend interdisciplinary
digital making, coding, and technology-infused interest areas.
[My child] has learned Scratch, that will definitely be something that we
try to do continuity on things that he’s already done. The question would
be—whether or not it’s at a new level—if it’s a beginner level that he’s
already done, he may not want to do that and look for something that’s
more advanced. [. . .] So looking for the continuation of the next level up
is one of the things that we look for, for sure. [Father (P09) Son, age 12]
The electronics stuff there . . . you do it once and you’re done with it.
[Mother (S05) / Daughter, age 11]
They’ve taken one and then another and it’s been too similar to the
thing they already did, so it wasn’t very excited because they already learned
everything they were gonna learn out of it. They needed the next level.
[Father (S09) / Son, age 12]
Lastly, the data synthesis workshop marked a turning point in the embedded
design fellow’s relationship with ASSEMBLE, as it helped convince a somewhat
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skeptical staff about the value of research activities and the use of “data” and
evidence to uncover new opportunities; and it helped built trust in the interpre-
tation and authenticity of the findings. Subsequent to this workshop event, the
research team was more frequently included in internal e-mail chains with staff
members, and invited to a broader set of ASSEMBLE board meetings and plan-
ning activities. This trust-based relationship was vital to productive research-prac-
tice collaboration.
Design Implications and Probes
Communication Design Issues
As parents read through program descriptions several communication design
issues were noted. Parents appreciated graphic treatments in the copy that boldly
called out date, time, age, location, and cost information that could be gleaned
in quick scan. Not all program descriptions clearly stated age ranges or limits.
And when an age was listed, adults also questioned whether participation in a
technology-related offering should be strictly based on age and not competency.
In several cases parents had to reread copy to determine if a program was a one-
off event or a series, and guess at whether “drop-in” or partial participation was
allowed. To address these communication issues, providers could indicate whether
a program is an open studio arrangement that can support learners at different
skills and ages, or instead follows a more planned curriculum intended to move a
cohort along a set learning progression.
With regard to program descriptions and copy, the use of jargon can be a
double-edged sword. Terms such as “tween, “making,“STEAM” and “hack”
can be appealing, and indicative of a certain kind of cultural affiliation to those
who recognize it. But several parents were put off by the use jargon, and tripped
on unfamiliar and insider terms that resulted, in several cases, in parents reject-
ing a potentially appropriate program for their child. Parents also honed in on
the specific description of the activity to determine whether the experience
would be worthwhile in terms of offering something special or fun. Parents
commented positively when activities seemed unique and provided access to
novel materials, specialized tools and expertise, or offered hands-on learning
opportunities not available at school or home. More than organizational rep-
utation, university affiliated “brands, such as MIT SCRATCH and the CMU
CREATE Lab’s Hummingbird, were noted by several parents, and these names
seemed to function locally as a seal of approval for technology education pro-
grams. Having somewhat consistent and related programming strands from one
semester to the next also helps parent find and fit programs around seasonal
constraints and future schedule expectations. Lastly, parents often tried to gauge
the likely expertise and instructional talent of the staff who would be facilitating
the programs.
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FIGURE 8.4 Design Probe 1: Refining key information callouts, and reducing jargon
in program communications.
With ASSEMBLE staff, we piloted simple design probes such as making
intentional changes to copy in communication materials (web descriptions, print
flyers), minimizing insider language, and clarifying jargon to improve communi-
cations with parents and students. At staff and board meetings, we presented our
findings, including the important role of interest brokering and how adults use
interest matching, exposing, expanding, and deepening as key decision criteria
when choosing informal learning opportunities for their children.
We then discussed suggestions for how this adult role in interest brokering
might be used to improve communications and the understanding of learning
pathways. Ideas generated during these meetings included communication strat-
egies ASSEMBLE staff could engage in, such as talking directly to families about
a youth’s interests at community outreach events instead of just promoting the
particular programs that ASSEMBLE is trying to “sell. Communications could
describe how OST and enrichment activities are important for youth to exercise
creativity, build technology fluency, learn hands-on skills, and deepen interests, all
of which can have positive academic, civic, and vocational impacts. Other hooks
and value propositions include reminding parents that ASSEMBLE is a place and
a community in which to develop a creative arts, technology-savvy maker iden-
tity and network with a supportive community of practice. Communicating this
character of the space, and connecting youth with local and online communities
of practice, would entail rethinking communications with an intentional focus on
connecting youth interest with opportunities—a move that we talk about next.
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Family Engagement Design Opportunities
Starting from our interest brokering findings, the team set out to develop a set
of design probes for ASSEMBLE’s “Make It” and “Gotta Scratch” digital fabrica-
tion and media-based coding programs. We prototyped two new kinds of parent
communication formats, and explored ways to connect families to future learning
opportunities and events for their youth. We also worked with program facilita-
tors on ways to flag and share relevant online opportunities to encourage youth’s
emerging and developing interests.
FIGURE 8.5a Design Probe 2: What’s Up and What’s Next Messaging to Parents
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FIGURE 8.5b Design Probe 3: Reframing Conversations around Interest Brokering
at Family Engagement Events
To be good learning brokers, adults need ongoing ways to remain aware of their
children’s evolving interests and strengths, find resources, and develop networks of
learning supports to encourage those interests and associated skills development
(Rosenberg et al. 2012); they require technology supports that fit seamlessly into
the family’s existing communication practices (Lewin & Luckin 2010). With this
in mind, we piloted “What’s Up” and “What’s Next” communication probes with
adults during the Make It program to offer learning supports. We began by sur-
veying adults as to whether they wanted these kinds of communications, and what
type of content and formats they preferred. Our goal was to brief adults in person
(at pickup) and via messaging (e-mail/text) to provide insights on what children
enjoyed, gravitated toward, shined at, and where they might go next in terms of
other programs, resources, and events happening around town. We e-mailed adult
caretakers activity updates, and created a youth-facing blog for the program with
curated, safe, high-quality online resources and community sites that instructors
frequented, so that youth could continue use the technology (e.g., Arduino kits)
in new projects and find online support once the program was completed.
Another touchstone idea we used to help focus the organization’s work around
learning pathways was to view ASSEMBLE program experiences as part of a
larger “cycle of engagement” (Goffman 1963). This perspective reminded the pro-
gram design team to consider holistically not only the program activities, but also
the beginning phase (awareness and attraction phases of an engagement) as well
as closure and “what’s next” transitional moments following an informal expe-
rience. This cycle of engagement framing also moves us from a provider-centric
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to a more learner-centric focus that strategically considers how children develop,
nurture, and grow an interest.
We discussed goals and engagement approaches for community tabling
events that would focus on learner-centric interest brokering, rather than a
program-centric recruitment frame. Our interviews suggested that matching,
exposing, expanding, and deepening considerations operate as key factors adults
use to select informal learning program opportunities for their youth. At out-
reach events, ASSEMBLE staff began to talk to parents about their youth’s inter-
ests in these terms, as well as open up discussion about learning beyond school
walls. Other communications materials contained information and invitations
to ASSEMBLE’s upcoming Youth Showcase, local open studios, a Youth Maker
Night event at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and a sponsored invitation
to a Maker Event in Detroit. The goal of these communications was to help fam-
ilies find places, tools, resources, and learning environments that allow children to
experiment with creative activities aligned to their interests.
We brainstormed with ASSEMBLE staff other ways to be mindful of the
rhythms of family life and discussed adding calendar reminders about public
school in-service days to the internal calendar, and adding reminders to start the
summer camp marketing push in February, when working parents start to commit
to camps for the summer. Other ideas included offering pop-up maker program-
ming on snow days for busy working parents. We also considered more concep-
tual ideas such as starting to think about the organization not just as a provider
of programs, but also serving as a guide and way-finding resource that supports a
learner’s journey. ASSEMBLE already functions to some degree in this way, with
an enticing table of flyers with hip-looking events and programs, promoting not
just their own programs but citywide opportunities as well (Figure 8.1). This
lightly curated set of STEAM activities around town is a useful resource for youth
and families to discover, and something parents told us that they wished existed
more formally online in a centralized resource of informal learning opportunities
and interest pathway guides.
Pathways in youth sports and performing arts have, in many ways, mastered the
learning progression aspects of program design and parent communication with
clear skill development trajectories and participation structures that grow with
interest, age, and competency. However, in relation to creative digital making and
technology programming, we heard repeatedly from adults that the next steps for
children who had completed a program were lacking, hard to find, redundant,
and did not “level up” as kids grew. Our small sample reflects what is perhaps
a larger issue in youth informal learning programming: it is often fragmented,
redundant, and potentially “dead ended” (Kehoe, Russell, & Crowley 2016).
Adults were voluble about how hard they had to work to help their children find
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appropriate learning pathways to deepen skills and interests. Furthermore, this
highly structured parental approach to enrichment and “concerted cultivation” of
youth’s informal learning activities also tends to correlate with higher socioeco-
nomic status (Landau 2003; Putnam 2015). We know from research that, when
adults are able to broker learning opportunities successfully, it can be life-altering
for the youth (Crowley, Barron, Knutson, & Martin 2015). But for adults to play
that critical role, culturally appropriate and socially appealing on-ramps to learn-
ing pathways must exist and be evident, when decisions are being made about
how and where youth spend their time (Martin et al. 2015).
“Unhiding” learning pathways will require a regional set of learning pro-
viders and communities to intentionally organize and make interest-driven
learning pathways visible and navigable to youth and adults. This exploratory
learning design research highlights the ways in which adult caregivers opera-
tionalize interest in terms of matching, exposing, expanding, and deepening—
and use these features of interest development to way-find and broker learning
opportunities for their children.
In conclusion, our work suggests three sources of design inspiration:
1. Parents and supporting adults in youth lives play a vital role in brokering
appropriate learning opportunities for children.
2. Adults struggle to navigate complex and fragmented learning ecologies to
find places, tools, resources, and social networks that will allow youth to
experiment with creative, technology-infused activities aligned with their
3. Learning brokering requires a solid, ongoing awareness and insight into a
child’s specific and evolving interests (and skills), as well as trusted guides to
link those interests to appropriate opportunities.
Reflections Design, Learning Research, and Educational Innovation
The call for design, or design thinking, in learning research is not new. Against
the backdrop of student uprisings on college campuses in the late 1960s, Joseph
Schwab, a progressive 20th-century educational reform scholar and noted racon-
teur, expressed deep frustration with the ongoing failure of educational research
to effect lasting change. He specifically blamed the fragmentary and incomplete
nature of contemporary educational theories, and pointed to the inability of
applied research to effect positive change. Schwab believed moving educational
research and practice forward would require paying much more attention to what
he called the eclectic and practical arts of deciding and doing (Schwab 1971). The
“Eclectic Arts” are the means by which theory and insights are selected and read-
ied for practical use through the arts of polyfocal conspectuses, integration, and
framing. By “Practical Arts, Schwab references the arts of perception, problema-
tization, prescription, and commitment that enable groups to decide what to do.
What Schwab was describing was the need for what we might call design today.
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Design research and practice at its most ambitious seeks to be the integrative
21st-century discipline that combines the eclectic arts of finding, selecting, and
synthesizing multiple perspectives and theories with the practical arts of seek-
ing to perceive, formulate problems, deliberate on solutions, and take planned
action (Buchanan 1992). Since Schwab’s time, design as an inquiry approach,
an array of methods, and a set of disciplinary commitments has increasingly
surfaced in educational research discourse and practice. In the early ’90s Ann
Brown and colleagues began to call for situated design experiments (Brown
1992; Collins 1992; Design-Based Research Collective 2003) as a way to make
learning theory more sensitive to the particulars of real-world conditions, enable
a methodologically grounded process for reformulating questions, and make
design changes in response to findings that emerged during the research pro-
cess. The field has since continued to explore disciplinary connections between
design and research (e.g., special issues of The Journal of the Learning Sciences
[Vol. 13, No. 1, 2004) and the Educational Researcher [Vol. 32, No. 1, 2003]), debat-
ing the complexities, fuzziness, and slow theoretic yield of design-based research
in applied, practice-oriented settings. “Design” in learning sciences has become a
term that signals a practice-oriented research agenda that will intentionally adapt
and evolve in response to iterative design challenges to the learning intervention
or object under study.
In 2011 Penuel and colleagues began advocating for design-based implemen-
tation research (DBIR), to address the challenges of effectively scaling successful
educational programs. DBIR draws on participatory design traditions, with its
roots in Scandinavian workplace democracy movements, as a means to bring
about a more grounded and inclusive research process to large-scale implemen-
tation projects (Penuel et al. 2011) The DBIR model emphasizes the need to
focus on “persistent problems of practice” that often thwart efforts to scale and
sustain policies and programs in education. Participatory design methods and
approaches are called upon to enable greater stakeholder involvement, elicit tacit
issues, and give problem-solving agency to a broader set of affected actors in order
improve teaching and learning as well as the culturally sensitive “infrastructuring”
of learning systems (Simonsen & Robertson 2012). Equity-oriented research-
ers push even further, calling for the positional and relational work involved in
design-based interventions to be made explicit so to reveal underlying power and
racial dimensions in the research-practice endeavor, and furthermore encourage
researchers to be more fully open to community-valued definitions of learning
(Vakil et al. 2016).
Our case study follows in a participatory design tradition and contains many of
the practical theory-testing features associated with design-led research. However,
we think of this work primarily as an example of participatory design informed by
the learning sciences, or a form of research-based design. Design is a form-giving
mode of inquiry that strives to democratically involve users in a full innovation
cycle that includes shared problem-finding (envisioning) and defining (framing)
and continues through project realization and engagement in outcomes. In doing
110 Marti Louw, Nina Barbuto, and Kevin Crowley
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so, design shifts the role of stakeholders from informants to participants in the
design research process. For research on learning, we believe that a participatory
design-led approach offers a strong set of disciplinary practices to reckon with
multiple value-laden learning goals, wrestle with the application of incomplete
or fragmented theory, and finally to help ground sweeping visions of educational
change that speak only partially to the complex, locally situated learning design
problems at hand.
This design fellowship was supported by a grant from the Grable Foundation to
the University of Pittsburgh. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions expressed
are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the sponsor-
ing intuitions. We are grateful to the other design fellows, Megan Bathgate, Peter
Wardrip, and Stacy Kehoe, for their camaraderie and the many rich discussions
on learning pathways and research-practice partnerships; to Drs. Chris Schunn
and Tom Akiva for their guidance and support; and to Dr. Lauren Allen for her
close reading of this manuscript. This work would not be possible without the
committed participation of our co-design partner ASSEMBLE’s staff, and we are
indebted to the parents who kindly agreed to participate and contribute their
time and thoughts to this study.
1; http://://
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Author Queries
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... Although almost all the families in the study reflected on the long-term, positive impacts of the program, only a small subset reported ongoing interests directly related to the program goals of engaging families with the engineering design process. Recent attention to ecological perspectives on learning systems has also highlighted this complexity (Falk & Meier, 2021;Louw et al., 2017;Shaby et al., 2021 principles of multifinality and equifinality to describe the unpredictability of family systems: "The principle of multifinality posits that any complex interactive system may have many different outcomes for any given input. The principle of equifinality posits that many different inputs may have the same outcome" (Broderick, 1993;p. ...
... Proactively thinking about and building on these support structures can enhance STEM learning ecosystems (National Research Council, 2014;Shaby et al., 2021;Takeuchi et al., 2019). As scholars have increasingly argued, applying a systems perspective to supporting family STEM learning requires a better understanding of how the current education system can be reconfigured to build on families' existing strengths and support parents as brokers of their children's learning and development (Barron et al., 2009;Louw et al., 2017;National Research Council, 2015). ...
Interest is a critical motivating factor shaping how children and youth engage with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) inside and outside of school and to what extent they continue to be STEM learners throughout their lives. Emerging evidence over the last several decades indicates that the foundation of STEM‐related interests develops in early childhood, even before children enter the formal education system. Although researchers have documented the emergence of these early interests and their implications for long‐term learning outcomes, there is still much that is not understood about how and why these interests develop, including the role of parents and caregivers in supporting interest development at this age. To explore the processes of early STEM‐related interest development, we recruited 18 low‐income Spanish‐ and English‐speaking parents who had completed an informal engineering education program for preschool‐age children and their families 1–2 years previously. Participants engaged in an in‐depth home‐based interview about their program experience and the subsequent impacts on their children's and families' interests. Using a family systems perspective, we analyzed the ways these families described how their interests related to the program had evolved over the years and the factors that had shaped that process. Findings highlight the diversity of interests that emerge from this type of experience and the ways that family values, parent roles, and life challenges shape the unique interest development patterns of each family.
... Adults play important roles in encouraging and shaping youth interest development and in connecting youth to events, programs, internships, people and other organizations (Barron et al. 2013;Ching et al. 2016). Louw et al. (2017) found that parents can support their children's interests by helping youth find programs in areas of their interest, exposing youth to new potential areas of interest, or expanding on existing interests. Allard and Small (2013) argue that parents with less education and reduced access to professional networks may not be as able to play this role of connecting youth to interestbased experiences, and instead may rely on organizations, institutions, and systems to coordinate learning opportunities. ...
... In assessing the potential value of a program, the brand name of the organization or network may influence adult choices. In interviews with parents about selecting programs, some parents revealed that they relied on well-known university names associated with program curriculum as markers of quality (Louw et al. 2017). For example, if "Fun University" offers both science and sports day camps, a parent whose child already attended "Fun Science" might enroll them in "Fun Sports", regardless of the child's interest or disinterest in sports. ...
Multiple reasons shape how young people and families choose to participate in informal learning programs at museums and other settings. Youth interest is likely a factor, but so might be geographic proximity, institutional affiliation, household income, and race/ethnicity. We examined the relative impact of these factors through a comparative study of two art programs; one a small, neighborhood-based organization focused on art and STEM, and the other a program in a well-established art museum. The smaller program tended to draw youth from closer geographic proximity. Interest in art drove attendance at both programs, but institutional membership was also important. Demographic factors also were a factor, and race/ethnicity was more strongly associated with program placement than household income. We discuss the importance of better understanding of such factors as museums and other programs continue to grow as important sites for learning.
... For example, programs engage youth in specialized art, youth activism, physical activity, and making, to name a few areas. They respond to a demand from youth and families, not only for more learning time, but for more varied and interest-driven learning opportunities (Akiva, Schunn et al., 2017;Louw et al., 2014). They further fill curricular and developmental gaps that students of color, in particular, face in learning about their cultures and histories in ways that are often neglected in school environments (Delale-O'Connor et al., 2019). ...
Children and youth learn across settings; however, U.S. educational practice and policy frequently equates learning with formal schooling. This perspective overlooks the growth in structured out-of-school learning programs and the opportunities they provide for addressing educational inequities for marginalized students. In this article, we link the literatures on out-of-school time and educator expertise with historical and contemporary understandings of disparities in urban educational contexts to argue for a learning ecosystem approach that addresses racial and economic inequities embedded across settings. Drawing from these literatures, we propose ways to disentangle learning and education from formal schooling to center and promote equity.
... While networking is a widely accepted strategy for adult career development, we often fail to consider the importance of these kinds of social relationships for youth. However, parents broker opportunities for their children by tapping colleagues or personal contacts for opportunities, advice, or other information related to a subject of interest (Barron, Martin, Takeuchi, & Fithian, 2009;Louw, Barbuto, & Crowley, 2017). Non-parent adults, however, can also play brokering roles: in a framework for institutional agents (Stanton-Salazar, 2011), highstatus, non-kin adults can counter forces of social stratification by providing marginalized youth with key forms of social and institutional support. ...
An increasing focus on academics in after-school programs overlooks the substantial potential for such spaces to support populations of students who are also most likely to disengage from traditional schooling, including low-income students of color. This misplaced focus further ignores significant disparities in the types of services offered after-school. For wealthier students, after-school programs often serve as enrichment experiences in preparation for college and career, not as extended forms of child care or schooling. All students deserve access to after-school spaces that support individual interest and identity development and link them to the social resources that can promote upward mobility. Given their non-academic benefits, we recommend that policy makers and researchers reframe their understanding of after-school programs to support more equitable outcomes for marginalized youth.
Full-text available
Participatory design-based research continues to expand and challenge the “researcher” and “researched” paradigm by incorporating teachers, administrators, community members, and youth throughout the research process. Yet, greater clarity is needed about the racial and political dimensions of these collaborative research projects. In this article, we focus on how race and power mediate relationships between researchers and communities in ways that significantly shape the process of research. Using the notion of politicized trust as a conceptual lens, we reflect on two distinct participatory design projects to explore how political and racial solidarity was established, contested, and negotiated throughout the course of the design process. Ultimately, this article argues that making visible how race and power mediate relationships in design research is critical for engaging in ethical and sociopolitically conscious relationships with community partners and developing theoretical and practical knowledge about the repertoires of practice, tasks, and sociocultural competencies demanded of university researchers.
Full-text available
This report is a synthesis of ongoing research, design, and implementation of an approach to education called “connected learning.” It advocates for broadened access to learning that is socially embedded, interest-driven, and oriented toward educational, economic, or political opportunity. Connected learning is realized when a young person is able to pursue a personal interest or passion with the support of friends and caring adults, and is in turn able to link this learning and interest to academic achievement, career success or civic engagement. This model is based on evidence that the most resilient, adaptive, and effective learning involves individual interest as well as social support to overcome adversity and provide recognition. This report investigates how we can use new media to foster the growth and sustenance of environments that support connected learning in a broad-based and equitable way. This report also offers a design and reform agenda, grounded in a rich understanding of child development and learning, to promote and test connected learning theories.
Full-text available
Since summer of 2013, Hive Research Lab (HRL), an applied research partner of Mozilla Hive NYC Learning Network, has engaged in a range of activities that include both basic research and applied design activities geared toward advancing the community’s collective understanding of how to support youth interest-driven learning pathways. Our activities have included developing case studies of high school students and recent high school graduates who participate in Hive network programs and events, leading consensus-building discussions during Hive community meetings and calls around youth pathway issues, facilitating the design of initiatives that target specific barriers to supporting youth pathways1, and providing formative design research support to members2. In reviewing community members’ accounts of successful examples of youth pathway support in the Hive, one youth development practice emerged as central—educator activity linking their youth to other programs and opportunities, a practice we call brokering. At the same time, it was evident that efforts around brokering future learning opportunities were often time-consuming and constrained by factors such as awareness of opportunities at any given moment. HRL used this understanding as a starting point for asking: What if we as a network were able to collectively and systematically think about the issues and opportunities around brokering future learning opportunities to our youth? How might that enhance our impact on young people’s lives and on our abilities to address entrenched issues of equity, opportunity, and empowerment? This white paper, representative of collective work between Hive Research Lab, Hive network members, and the administrators of the Hive NYC network3, attempts to bring more clarity to the practice of brokering as a way to support youth pathways towards meaningful futures. In the fall of 2014, HRL facilitated discussions in the Hive community around how the network as a whole can more effectively broker opportunities to our youth, and worked with members to collectively formalize our collective understandings and definition of brokering as a promising youth development practice. Based on those community conversations, in this paper we articulate who are (or could be) learning opportunity brokers, how brokering is achieved, and some precise goals the Hive community could work towards. While many Hive educators already engage in brokering to some degree, our goal here is to bring more attention to what we do and what we can do to formalize this as a valued practice in our community. We aim to more actively give it consideration in a way that allows us to discover how to do it better as both individual educators but also as a collective. HRL facilitated many of these discussions and also attempted to connect our discussions to existing research whenever it seemed to be illustrative to do so. This paper represents the culmination of our collective knowledge building efforts and should be considered a product of joint research and action that emerged from the community as a whole.
At first glance there appears to be something both backward and forward looking in this collection. The ambition to study learning across contexts harks back to the early progressive ambitions of sociocultural theory to conceptualise learning in ways that emphasise its rootedness in cultural practices rather than privileging forms of education shaped and privileged by academic schooling in contemporary societies (Scribner & Cole, 1973).
Conference Paper
Despite increasing jobs predicted in the areas of engineering and computer science, there is a well-documented and consistent drop in the number of women in these fields at each level of advancement, and these trends are even more profound for minority women [1]. Decisions about participation are frequently made prior to high school, and have been linked to factors such as prior experience, interest, and sense of fit with community [2]. Out-of-school time has been identified as a potential space for STEM-related programming that breaks free of traditional models [3], and there is evidence of learning and engagement outcomes from such programs serving underrepresented populations [4]. However, programs that happen out of school are often voluntary, presenting very real challenges of recruiting and retention. Inequities have been identified in student participation in out-of-school STEM programming, with males and dominant populations being more likely to access such opportunities (e.g. [5]). To truly broaden participation, we need to not only design quality programs, but also work to develop and understand recruiting strategies that can encourage young people and families who are not already engaged to participate. The specifics of such efforts, even for programs that have been successful in recruiting, are often undocumented [6]. In this poster, we attend specifically to the critical question of how to recruit young women from underrepresented populations who do not see themselves as engineers and computational thinkers to participate in opportunities that could spark interest, broaden social learning networks, and lead to the pursuit of further learning. The Digital Divas program invites inner-city middle school girls interested in fashion and design to develop e-textiles and try out introductory programming during out-of-school time. In this poster we share program recruitment strategies from two Digital Divas implementations, spring and summer, and compare participants in terms of general demographics, identity, and confidence with technology. Both implementations were successful in recruiting minority girls from around Chicago. Summer implementation, which followed a redesign of recruiting methods, evidenced participants who were additionally aligned with the program's target population: girls who signed up for the summer program had less access to computing opportunities at home and school and less incoming engagement and confidence with computer science and engineering than spring participants. This work points to the importance of attending to strategies and materials for recruitment. Summer recruitment materials had less emphasis on technical language, more on design and creation; had more images of girls and their projects, reflecting diversity of participants; highlighted solutions to potential barriers, including low cost, lunch, and nearby public transport; and were strategically shared through online networks. Recommendations for strategies include: (1) close attention to language and imagery to engage families from non-dominant populations; (2) redundant, targeted, channels of distribution, utilizing online networks and local organizations.
In order to be productive at home, school, or work, and in their free time, learners are constantly involved in communicating, collaborating, problem solving, and thinking critically. They need to master these skills to participate fully and effectively in society (McLaughlin, 2008). International organizations (e.g., OECD, EU, UNESCO), public-private partnerships (P21, ACTS), educational organizations (e.g., ISTE, NAEP), and researchers have formulated frameworks describing the skills necessary to contribute to the 21st century, and how to design learning environments to foster these skills (e.g., Trilling & Fadel, 2009). However, the roles of interest, motivation, and engagement that enable the development of these skills has not been carefully examined. In general, learners elect to engage in tasks and activities in which they feel competent and confident, and avoid those in which they do not (e.g., Bandura, 1997). Challenging tasks can lead some learners to feel they are not able to learn; for others, challenge is a reason to persevere. However, only those who believe that their actions will result in the consequences they desire have the incentive to engage (Schunk, 1995). Decades of research have shown that learners with a strong sense of their own competence approach difficult tasks and situations as challenges to be mastered, rather than as threats to be avoided (Zimmermann & Schunk, 2011). Past experience solving problems and individual interest impacts their ability to work with challenge or failure (Tulis & Ainley, 2011). Research on group learning, for example, has shown that learners’ interpretations can be positive and lead to increased motivation and engagement for group activities; and, alternatively, that learners’ perceptions can be negative and lead to de-motivation and withdrawal (Van den Bossche, Gijselaers, Segers, & Kirchner, 2006).
Class does make a difference in the lives and futures of American children. Drawing on in-depth observations of black and white middle-class, working-class, and poor families, Unequal Childhoods explores this fact, offering a picture of childhood today. Here are the frenetic families managing their children's hectic schedules of "leisure" activities; and here are families with plenty of time but little economic security. Lareau shows how middle-class parents, whether black or white, engage in a process of "concerted cultivation" designed to draw out children's talents and skills, while working-class and poor families rely on "the accomplishment of natural growth," in which a child's development unfolds spontaneously—as long as basic comfort, food, and shelter are provided. Each of these approaches to childrearing brings its own benefits and its own drawbacks. In identifying and analyzing differences between the two, Lareau demonstrates the power, and limits, of social class in shaping the lives of America's children. The first edition of Unequal Childhoods was an instant classic, portraying in riveting detail the unexpected ways in which social class influences parenting in white and African American families. A decade later, Annette Lareau has revisited the same families and interviewed the original subjects to examine the impact of social class in the transition to adulthood.