The Future of Learning is Permeable

When I think about teaching what matters in the most empowering way possible, I think about aligning what happens in my classroom with what happens outside and beyond my classroom. The work of teachers and schools is most effective, authentic and empowering when it involves permeable learning partnerships with the community, local organizations, companies and surrounding institutions. In my mind, permeable learning means reciprocal, authentic learning that reconsiders who counts as teachers, where learning happens, is transparent and open, makes a positive impact beyond the school, takes places in multiples settings, breaks down walls, and allows students and teachers to be their whole selves.

Yet we live in a world that values impermeability – in and outside of the classroom. In the Pacific Northwest, outdoor gear boasts of its impermeable outer shell. In politics, toughness and super-human abilities garner votes. Increasingly, it seems that our financial system is based on an impermeable barrier between what people in the financial industry know versus the information that is accessible to the average investor or depositor. Which might explain why recent college graduates are clamoring to get inside the impermeable and increasingly profitable world of finance. Impermeability matters in school as well. Teachers are half-jokingly taught not to smile until after Christmas break. Colleges of education continue to teach self-preservation techniques for teachers to avoid appearing weak in front of students or parents.

My academic and teaching background was in American History prior to starting an economics program at Catlin Gabel. I didn’t enter the world of economics knowing everything – so I read textbooks, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal – anything I could get my hands on that helped me learn about the world of scarcity and choice. Unconsciously, but decidedly, I started to become a much more permeable teacher. I invited parents from the business world to talk with me about teaching economics and entrepreneurship. Successful entrepreneurs acted as guest teachers. I reached out to teachers from other schools, college professors and members of local business alliances to hear what they thought needed to be taught. I spoke extensively with a former college roommate who now works as a research economist for the St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve. These conversations helped me see connections between my classroom, the business world, and current events in powerful, relevant, and authentic ways.

After a conversation with a parent about whether entrepreneurship could be taught, I decided to organize Startup Camp. It turned out to be an incredible experience for everyone involved – from the organizing team, to the volunteer mentors from the startup community in Portland, to the students who relished this permeable learning experience that blended the business world with school with mentorship with co-learning in positive, empowering ways. We went from having 70 students from 3 area high schools the first year to selling out in 24 hours with 120 students registered from 13 area high schools in the second year of Startup Camp.

We’ve maxed out participation in Startup Camp, but I hope to create more permeable learning opportunities for students interested in business, innovation, and entrepreneurship. I used design-thinking methodology to facilitate a design challenge with high school students from the Portland metro area to design future learning experiences around entrepreneurship and innovation.

After empathizing, students defined the following challenges:

  • There is no clear way for students to access the business community
  • How do we make volunteer work or internships valuable to both parties?
  • How do we break stereotypes about teenagers?
  • How might we get students to become comfortable talking to adults?
  • How do we teach confidence?
  • How do we turn teachers into learners?
  • How do we create incentives to fail?
  • How do we teach others how to fail correctly/productively?
  • How can we reimagine grading, lesson student focus on grades, and move beyond letter grades?
  • How do we account for skill development in our grading system?

Based on these challenges, students came up with the following rough prototypes for entrepreneurial learning, which we will test and refine going forward.

  • Project-based, panel-graded learning experiences
  • Discussion-based grading
  • Multi-dimensional evaluation system
  • A Switchboard for Portland students
  • “Networkshops”
  • Creative Mornings for students
  • 4 year career coaching in high school
  • Mentor-based learning
  • “ABC to I can be” grading system
  • Student rating app for internships
  • Student-run professional development experience for teachers

Students seem to crave permeable learning experiences (without explicitly saying so) – they want much more crossover between what happens in school with the world of adults and the world outside of school. The amount of attention paid to our broken grading system was quite pronounced. Teacher and schools would do well to reflect on the ways in which kids feel like traditional methods of grading and assessment limit their creativity, risk-taking and confidence – all attributes that they named as essential for entrepreneurship earlier on in the design challenge. We’re meeting with the head of the Portland Business Alliance and organizing our a professional development experience for teacher, but in the mean time, we can all choose to take steps towards more permeable learning experiences – for entrepreneurship or otherwise, by engaging in some of the following practices.

Baby steps teachers and schools can take towards more permeable learning experiences:

  • Community based assessments (instead of asking my students to write an essay on race and equity in Portland, they facilitated community conversations about race. The AACU has a few stellar resources and rubrics for community assessments).
  • Public-facing student blogs or student websites for students to dialogue with parents, teachers, experts and friends during the learning process.
  • Location-based learning – using your community as a classroom, using community resources (from libraries to museums to businesses to hospitals) as alternative learning spaces.
  • Create learning spaces that allow for permeability. Why are ping pong tables, couches and slides relegated to the Googleplex and startup office spaces while students are still confined to discipline-specific boxes as classrooms?
  • Cultivate opportunities for students to build their network of professional allies, mentors and connectors early. Teach Linkedin.
  • Open learning experiences to students from other schools and invite trusted adults into the classroom as experts frequently.
  • Build community – work on advocacy and problem solving with students and other stakeholders in your community.
  • Reconsider professional development. Allow teachers to do site visits with private and public companies in their community to better understand their needs and the skills they value.
  • Be inventive and bold with space. Can your school adopt a startup for a semester and give them office space for a semester or two and name them the “business in residence” so cross-pollination can happen on campus?
  • Ask students to lead in the community – what skills might they learn from taking a leadership role in the farmers market, by attending city council meetings, by attending professional networking events, by being the first person to ask a question at a public talk, by leading educational sessions on personal finance, etc.?
  • Design case studies for students to solve problems for local businesses, organizations and neighborhoods and allow students to present their findings publically.
  • Reconsider what it means to be a teacher and who qualifies as a teacher. There are so many adults in our communities with expertise and kindness to share. Trained teachers are morphing into context-makers and connectors in more permeable learning environments. Be not afraid – teachers will always matter because teaching is about love, inspiration and building lasting relationships.

The future of learning is permeable and it is probably also more flexible, fun, relevant and engaging. As the distinctions between work and life melt away with mobile technology, so to should the distinct spaces of school and life.

Most important, perhaps, is that permeable learning gives students reason to believe two essential truths: we are all connected; we are all in this together.




*I wrote this guest blog post for the Traverse Conference: Check it out and I hope to see you in Boulder in June.