How Out-of-School Education Shapes Students

Jan 9, 2015

Participants interact during an after-school event run by the Boys and Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania.
Credit Courtesy of Boys and Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania

Traditionally, learning in the U.S. has been home to school and back to home.

Educators widely agree different approaches are needed for each generation of learners. They also agree that means learning must occur in all aspect of a student’s life.

“We understand that students don’t stop learning at three o’clock,” said Cathy Lewis Long, co-founder and executive director of The Sprout Fund. “And learning continues in out-of-school time, it continues while they’re online, while they’re with their friends, while youth are at home. And what we really want to begin to think about is how we can create learning pathways to carry and extend that learning from the school building in and through the community.”

She said connected learning focuses on cultivating and engaging learners in all aspects of their lives.

“Some youth learn very well in the classroom, others you know find that ‘ah ha’ moment maybe at the Boys and Girls Club, or at the museum, or at the library. But for those who are not excelling at school, does not necessarily mean they don’t have the skills or the competencies or the knowledge that they need to do well later in life in career and in (the) workforce,” she said.

When students arrive at the Estelle S. Campbell Boys and Girls Club in Lawrenceville after school, they don’t run straight to the gym.

Jon Daugherty, executive director of the club, said students first work on their homework or participate in other educational activities.

“A lot of parents will say, you know, ‘My child needs help with math, or English, or reading’ and we just focus on that when they come in,” he said.

But some out-of-school programs work on additional learning based on the school’s curriculum. 

Taiji Nelson coordinates the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s Young Naturalist program. It’s an intensive, outdoor summer internship where students learn about environmental science by working in the parks.

Nelson said often times students don’t connect what they learn in school to what they do out of school. So he works with teachers during the previous semester to build a summer program reflective of what they learn in class.

“When students come out to the park, they’re referencing things they are doing in the classroom. Then when students go back to the classroom, they’re referencing things they’ve done in the park,” he said.

Michael Rogers, a junior at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, interned in the Young Naturalist program.

“I love being out in the field and able to actually get out and see what I’m learning rather than just like being in a classroom all bundled up in one space. I get to see a type of tree that we are talking about rather than hearing about it, I get to see a bird that flies past rather than hearing about it,” Rogers said.  

And Nelson said you don’t need a teaching degree to engage kids. His background is in environmental science.

“I think that when you really care about something, kids can see that. And a lot of times the kids that I work with, they haven’t had anyone in their life that’s excited about being outside, that’s excited about turning over a log and finding a salamander. You know it’s kind of validation that, oh, this could be a cool thing to do, this could be a cool thing to see someone excited about that,” Nelson said. 

As educators use resources outside of the school, students have greater access and more opportunities to learn. Patrick Dowd is the Executive Director of Allies for Children. 

“The ability to get kids connected to things that are really happening in the world and to get their hands on things and to get them experience as well, whether it’s creating art or doing scientific experiments, or a whole cluster of other things - there are really rich opportunities. And we need to find a way to make sure the city as a classroom really starts to emerge and becomes even more robust than it is now,” Dowd said.

Educators in and out of classrooms agree these informal learning experiences will be relevant to a young person in school, work and life.