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The 180 Podcast: Karen Pittman


Karen Pittman: Learning Happens Everywhere

If, as the saying goes, learning happens everywhere, how can our community based programs – the ones outside the classroom that serve and engage our children and youth – use the Science of Learning and Development to rethink and redesign what kids do after the end of school bell rings? Karen Pittman just might be the perfect person to ask.Pittman is co-founder, President, and CEO at the Forum for Youth Investment, whose mission is simple and daunting: to change the odds so that all children and youth are ready for college, work, and life.Pittman is a globally-recognized leader in youth development, launching new organizations and initiatives at virtually every stop. Those stops include the Urban Institute, Children’s Defense Fund, and Clinton administration, as well as a stint with retired General Colin Powell to create America’s Promise, an umbrella group that connects hundreds of national nonprofits, businesses, community leaders, and more, focused on helping young people succeed.

Pittman has won numerous honors, written three books, and was named one of the 25 most influential leaders in after school by the National Afterschool Association. She is also a member of Turnaround for Children’s board of directors and, along with Pamela Cantor, M.D. and others, a leader of the Science of Learning and Development Alliance.

A major point of Pittman’s work is the idea that learning and development can happen in all of the settings where children grow and learn, if these environments are designed — and adults are prepared — to optimize development and learning.

Complete Transcript

Chris Riback: I’m Chris Riback. This is The 180, our podcast that explores how to transform 21st century education, how to turn it around, using 21st century science.

If, as the saying goes, learning happens everywhere, how can our community based programs – the ones outside the classroom that serve and engage our children and youth – how can they use the science of learning and development to rethink and redesign what kids do after the end of school bell rings?

Karen Pittman just might be the perfect person to ask. Pittman is co-founder, President, and CEO at the Forum for Youth Investment, whose mission is simple and daunting: To change the odds that all children and youth are ready for college, work, and life.

To be fair though, I’m not sure much is daunting to Pittman. She is a globally-recognized leader in youth development, launching new organizations and initiatives at virtually every stop. Those stops include the Urban Institute, Children’s Defense Fund, and Clinton administration, as well as a stint with retired General Colin Powell to create America’s Promise, an umbrella group that connects hundreds of national nonprofits, businesses, community leaders, and more, focused on helping young people succeed. Pittman has won numerous honors, written three books, and was named one of the 25 most influential leaders in afterschool by the National Afterschool Association. So, can learning in fact happen anywhere? Here’s my conversation with Karen Pittman.

Chris Riback: Karen, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.

Karen Pittman: Thank you.

Chris Riback: Let’s start at the very top. What is youth development?

Karen Pittman: Youth development, first and foremost, is a process in young people’s lives. It’s a developmental stage. So, people are familiar with the idea of child development and early-childhood development, and youth development really is the process that young people go through between early-childhood and adulthood. So, you could say, roughly by the time they end up coming into school until the time that they are coming out of school, and certainly coming out of college, that developmental process really is reinforced by the idea that young people’s primary goal is to learn and develop. And that learning and development happen in lots of settings. So when we talk about having a youth development approach, we’re talking about making sure that we have staff that understand child and youth development and understand how to promote young people’s sense of competencies, skill building, and agency through a range of activities that they may find in their schools, in their communities, in their families, and even as they move later into the teenage years in employment settings.

Chris Riback: I keep hearing the concept, “learning happens everywhere.” What does that mean to you?

Karen Pittman: Well, it means, quite frankly, that learning does happen everywhere. We do an easy test when we go out to talk to audiences and we ask people to close their eyes and remember an important or significant learning experience. And about 80% of the time that experience was not the classroom. It was someplace else where they were actively engaged, they were challenged to explore something new, they were learning a skill or a lesson that had personal implications to them, they were with an adult that they had a deep relationship with. That doesn’t mean that these things can’t happen in school, but that’s exactly the conversation that we’re about to have about how we translate what we now know about how learning happens into schools as they’re currently functioning.

Chris Riback: So let’s talk about that and let’s talk about the science and in particular the science of learning and development. You deal with community partners, parents, children, frequently with people who are in the business of learning and development but who may not be familiar with the science. How do you describe the science to them?

Karen Pittman: We describe the science actually in very easy ways, because while they may not be up to date on the new science coming out of the wonderful brain research, that really reinforces how learning happens. When you talk to people who are in what would sort of be called the youth development field, and those folks are working in organizations that primarily start with the idea that we want to create places where young people can build relationships, they can feel safe and supported and a part of a community. They can then be introduced to a range of learning experiences. But the settings are not driven by delivering content; they’re driven by developing relationships and a sense of belonging that young people then use to explore or master content in any number of areas – and then really explicitly name and build what most people in the practical world would call life skills, problem solving, teamwork, persistence, critical thinking, time management, obviously self regulation, learning how to resolve conflicts. All of those things are done naturally in what we would call these community youth development settings.

And so, what we’re doing is really bringing the science in to validate what they have been doing, because distinct from school, these settings have not basically been charged with moving out academic content across a set schedule and testing young people to make sure that they’re actually mastering a specific kind of content. So, they have had much more freedom to lead with what we now know are the basic elements that have young people really able and willing to learn. Which are this idea of relationships, and experiences, and belonging sets the stage for young people, actually being able to learn whatever the content is that we want to deliver it to them.

So we can be more explicit about how the science can help. We can be more explicit about what kind of adult practices are needed to create those settings and build those relationships. But these organizations that are working in community, and often these are people who were working in school during the school day, but they may not be the formal classroom teachers, and we can talk more about that. They’ve come into this with the basic orientation that learning starts with a foundation of relationship and support.

Chris Riback: And historically, is that where the drop off is? The child is in school, the kid, the youth is in school and there are relationships there, and there’s certainly a sense of belonging… and then the school bell rings and the day ends. The question is, where does that child go and where does that child go to develop additional relationships, to develop additional belonging, and to continue that social and emotional learning? Is that historically where the drop off was, and is that the gap that really needs to be filled?

Karen Pittman: I would probably talk differently about the drop-off in gaps, but I would back up to give you an example just to underscore this idea of how learning happens. So, there’s a researcher at the University of Illinois-Champaign, Reed Larson, who probably about 20 years ago … He’s an adolescent psychologist. He was studying motivation and achievement, not academic achievement, but just sort of intrinsic motivation and what does it take for young people to actually want to learn and master anything. At this point, this is before cell phones and everything else, he gave young people beepers. And they were beeped at certain points during the day and asked to take out a little notebook and write down essentially whether their head was engaged and whether their heart was engaged. So, are they passionate about what they were doing and were they literally paying attention? Were they working hard and thinking about what they were doing? What he found was that if they were in class they weren’t terribly either. Their heads weren’t really engaged, and their hearts weren’t really engaged. They were going through the motions.

If he beeped them and they happened to be with their friends, their hearts were engaged but their heads weren’t, which is how we ended up with risky behaviors in adolescent years. If he beeped them and they were in a sports activity you had higher levels of both, but he found that they named these other things that he ended up calling volunteer youth organizations. He wasn’t even aware really of what they were. But when they were beeped and they were at a Boys and Girls Clubs, or they were at a drama class, or they were in an extracurricular activity, that was something that was focused on content of their choosing, with people that they liked, it had them engaged in something that has some kind of arc to it. You saw the highest levels of both them concentrating and their being engaged and motivated from a relationship perspective.

And so, he then started studying what these things were. They were only spending an average of about 10% or 15% of their time in those things. But that was where from an intrinsic motivation perspective, that was of interest to him because that’s really where you’re most likely to learn things that are going to stick and be relevant for your life. So that’s what we’re looking for. And the question is where do we find that? It’s a different way to come at this question. Now that we really understand how learning happens, it’s important for us to not just think, well there’s this building called school that kids come into in the morning, they leave in the afternoon, and then where do they go? That’s certainly an important question; that’s an access question.

We know that low income kids, for example, by the time they get to the end of third grade have had, I think, about 6,000 hours less of any kind of organized activities outside of school than higher income kids. So we know that there are inequities in the availability of things to do when you leave that building, which leads to both opportunities missed in terms of learning and it also leads to opportunities increased in terms of dangerous or risky behavior because they’re not supervised. But we can ask the question differently by just staying inside the school building and asking, “Are we taking full advantage of all of the places where learning, not just academic content learning but developmental learning, where learning could happen and where these skills that we’re talking about could be reinforced during the day in the building, which is under control of schools?”

So, if we’re not just looking at the academic classes where core content is being taught, we’re looking at your elective classes if you’re in middle school or high school. We’re looking at your extracurricular activities. We’re looking at what’s happening on the playground, the cafeteria, the gym, the hallways, all of those, the counselor’s office, the nurse’s office. All of those are places where young people can be building relationships or can be threatened in relationships. They’re all places where adults can be interacting in ways that reinforce skills, and build relationships, and build trust, or they could be tearing those things down. And so, the challenge that we have with K-12 as we currently define it is it’s so focused on academic content that not only have we not thought a lot about what happens to young people when they leave school, we haven’t given sufficient attention to all the places where learning broadly defined could be happening. It could be being reinforced inside of school.

Chris Riback: Where are the bottlenecks around that understanding?

Karen Pittman: The bottlenecks are really related to the idea that there’s a competition between teaching academic content and teaching social and emotional skills, which is why this commission that just wrapped up, the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, really focused on the idea that these things have to be integrated together. And that’s where the science comes back and says, “Not only is it efficient to integrate them it’s essential.” Because if young people, if they don’t feel like they’re socially accepted, if they don’t feel like they’re emotionally safe, the brain kicks in and they’re not in an optimal position to be learning anything. It’s also very clear and very important that we separate the idea of academic content from cognitive skill building, because cognitive skill building happens all the time and it happens connected to lots of different content. The way we currently, for the most part, deliver academic content in terms of we’re assuming that this young person is an empty vessel and we’re pouring that academic content in. And I know there are lots of ways that we’re not doing that. But that still is the way a lot of traditional curricula are done. We’re bringing you the content – the adults, the expert – the content is being delivered to young people. Then they’re tested to see if they learned the content.

Chris Riback: That’s the historical standardized approach, isn’t it?

Karen Pittman:  Right, that’s the historical approach, and I’m going to give you the content over a certain number of weeks. I’m going to give you a short test, and then a long test, and then a standardized test to see if you mastered the content. In that approach, stopping to talk to young people about their emotions, stopping to ask questions and build relationships, stopping to even make sure we’re naming and acknowledging the cognitive processes that are going on, problem solving, critical thinking, etc., all of that seems like it’s taking time away from content delivery. And so, it’s very hard when you start talking to the academic classroom teachers, even though they understand. And there have been so many surveys now that say that classroom teachers fundamentally believe that more time should be spent on helping young people practice and reinforce and build these broader 21st century skills, whatever you want to call them, these critical skills that are needed for life, that more time should be spent on it. But they also simultaneously say they don’t have time. So, that certainly means it must be somebody else’s job. And that tension is coming from the way we currently are asking teachers to deliver content. And frankly from the way that we are currently measuring academic success.

Chris Riback: As you interact with community partners, and as you think about community partners, and as you think about that time that youth spend after that school bell rings, do those community partners – as they get an understanding of the science and of all of this – do they see their role as helping fill the social and emotional learning, or advance, or help with those skills because the schools don’t necessarily fulfill that capability as much as one might like? Or do they not see their role so much as filling in what school might not be offering, but instead thinking that learning happens everywhere and we’ve got the kids here and so we ought to be helping them grow in all of the appropriate ways?

Karen Pittman: It’s both. And so, at this point the country has actually for a variety of reasons, acknowledged that our overall goal should be more and better learning opportunities. That there are enough things that we want more people to be able to do in the 21st century and enough experiences that we want them to have that communities across the country – and the federal government for that matter, with the 21st century learning centers – that we’re making systematic investments in making sure that young people have access to after school, out of school, summer opportunities, additional opportunities for learning that happen beyond the school day. Sometimes that happens by actually having a school system extend the school day and extend the school year. Sometimes it happens through partnerships; sometimes it happens independently. But the commitment for communities to actually say, “We want to make sure that these opportunities are available, and in particular we want to make sure that these opportunities are available to young people and families who can’t afford them in the same way that we’re making sure that K-12 opportunities are available during the school day. We want to extend that commitment to making sure that young people have at least some access to additional learning opportunities in the afternoons, the weekends, and the summers.”

So from a policy perspective, from a resource perspective, we’ve been on a path for the past 10-plus years to actually really say that these additional learning opportunities matter and that they should be available. One of the things that happened along the way was that we then had to clarify what those additional learning opportunities should look like and what their primary goals should be. And there was a tension for a while between saying this was just more time to do the same thing that you do in school. And the community pushed back hard on that, and it’s taken awhile to come back. But the first argument for basically putting public funding into the space was an argument that said, “Well, we’ve got a bunch of kids who are behind in school. Let’s give them more time to do what they didn’t do from nine to three.”

And so we were just extending time for homework, and we were extending academic summer school. We were doing the same thing and putting the kids through. That really wasn’t necessarily helping close the achievement gap. And so over time we’ve come back to argue that there are complementary things that need to be happening in that time space. And the science has helped us with that – the economic analysis that shows that young people don’t just need academic content, they need time to name, and practice, and build these broader skills that are useful for the workforce that are useful for post secondary education. That employers are saying even high school graduates are showing up without sufficient skills to really be good entry-level employees because they haven’t built these skills. Which, developmentally, there’s no reason why they couldn’t build them, except that we haven’t prioritized them and given young people a chance to actually practice and master them in different environments.

So from that perspective, the community organizations have said, “This is a complementary space. If you can’t get these things done in school for all the reasons that we’ve just said because of the overemphasis on how academic content is delivered, then we should do this outside of school.” And so these traditional organizations, whether those are youth organizations like Y’s, etc., or community organizations, or faith-based organizations, are being more explicit about the complementary role that they can play to support these skills with families. Which both covers time and gets more, but also balances out the better learning opportunities by leading with building these skills through building relationships and giving young people a chance to pick what they want to work on voluntarily, what topics they want to work on and interest areas.

But there’s also a part of this that’s compensatory to the other answer to your question. There are neighborhoods, there are community organizations, in which there is a very clear sense that their schools are failing their children. And so, children are leaving school to come into programs in which they are both focusing on trying to get them a different approach to building up their academic skills to close those gaps, as well as building the other social skills and giving them other experiences. So, some of the programs are complementary, some of the programs are compensatory, and some of the programs are frankly cultural. Acknowledging the big gap between who the teachers are in schools, which are heavily sort of white and female, and who the young people are in the community that are attending some of the schools. And really finding ways to explicitly help young people understand what their culture is, and who they are, and where they live is impacting their educational experience. So, you’ve got all kinds of things happening in this broader space.

Chris Riback: Yes. There is so much happening and I want to follow up on one area of it that you’re talking about and that is this concept of equity and then the economic opportunity. I read where you recently said, “If we’re really going to address equity issues and embrace this idea that learning is social emotional, we really have to acknowledge the importance that community partners play.” And that’s to the heart I think of what you’re talking about. To then bring up another topic that you just raised, the economics. Can youth interventions, youth development help young people climb the income ladder?

Karen Pittman: The short answer to that is yes. High quality educational programs, again, whether they’re in school or out of school, if we’re doing the right thing with young people in terms of developing their learning experience we have a huge impact on their life trajectories. This was demonstrated powerfully very recently with the study that that James Heckman just put out, the 50 year study of the Perry Preschool project.

Chris Riback: Yes.

Karen Pittman: Now, the Perry Preschool project is the project that gave us the idea from a policy perspective that we should implement Headstart, we should have public funding for early childhood education. That project is known for the fact that low income children put into a high quality preschool experience, basically as you track them over time longitudinally had much better life outcomes. They were more likely to finish high school and get post secondary education. They were more likely to be employed and employed at higher salaries. They were less likely to be involved with the criminal justice system. They were more likely to delay pregnancy and parenthood. All the things that you would want really were directly related back to other things being equal. The fact that they had this high quality experience.

What we need to understand is that it wasn’t just that they had access to preschool; it was that they have access to a preschool experience that David Weikart, who was the person who ran the High School Educational Research Foundation and put the Perry Preschool project in place, because of his concern about low income kids going disproportionally into special education. So he was looking for a way for them to actually bypass going into that system by giving them a high quality education. And his concept of active learning is exactly what we’re now talking about. It was relationship-rich, supportive, giving young people natural opportunities to explore all kinds of content, giving them opportunities to build and use this broad set of skills which let them move into school and this wasn’t changing school. Whatever school they moved into, they moved in with a higher sense of competence, a higher sense of confidence in their ability to be good learners, and better social skills which allowed them to move forward.

What’s so fascinating about the new study that just came out is that the children of the Perry Preschool participants are doing better than their control group. That’s incredible that we have an intergenerational effect of the power of having that early childhood experience. And so, that’s been all over the news for the past couple of weeks. The piece that’s not known and hasn’t been publicized but is equally important is that David Weikart had this idea of active learning, which basically is now what we know about the science of learning. And his commitment was to not just use it to set up quality preschools, but to actually demonstrate that you could change the trajectory of young people’s experiences and life outcomes all the way up through young adulthood.

And so, he set up in the 70’s something called the HighScope Educational Camp for teenagers, in which you created essentially a residential afterschool program for eight weeks. That was setting up this kind of ideal learning environment in which a diverse group of teens, 12 to 18, would come and then they would go forth. Later on he basically attached that active learning residential experience to schools. He got schools to basically identify talented, but underserved performing teams who were low income teams. Those teams and their teachers would have a two week experience as a group to really recalibrate themselves as a learning group. And that’s really what they were doing. Even as young people were coming into high school, you were giving them an intense experience and giving their teachers an experience to see what they could do.

That group then went back into their regular high school without further intervention and their life trajectory has changed. They were more likely to go off to college and more likely to complete college. So we can do this. But it really isn’t about whether the environment is in school or out of school. It’s about the quality of the learning environment, and that’s what the science is telling us. So then, practically we have to ask where are the places where young people spend their time where we have the most flexibility to create that quality learning environment quickly? That happens to be in the community versus in the K-12 system just because of the level of accountability for academic outcomes and the way those are currently being spelled out in the K12 system.

Chris Riback: Learning happens everywhere, and to be able to change life trajectories like you just described, I would assume that that that’s at the heart of what it’s all about. Quickly, I want to ask you about policy, and public policy, and how these types of things get scaled. Because you mentioned earlier in this conversation it requires funding. The House Appropriations Committee, I know you know, recently released its fiscal year 2020 bill, which includes $260 million for a social emotional learning initiative that will support SEL and whole child approaches to education. How significant do you find that? And even if it’s not enough. How important is it to just establish that level? And if you talk as well, just a little bit about evidence based policy and how you and the Forum support policymakers in efforts to build and use evidence in the policymaking process. And maybe that was even used to help impact this, this funding bill.

Karen Pittman: It’s hugely significant because it basically, from a policy perspective, puts our foot in the door. It names the importance of investing in social emotional learning and it names the importance of investing in this whole child approach, which means essentially we have to pay attention to all of the competencies that young people need to have, not just their academic ones.

The challenge that we will have with that, even coupled with the wonderful work that the commission, the National Commission, did and the powerful work that’s coming out of the full initiative, the proof will be in the pudding about how that is used. Several years ago we had [the Every Student Succeeds Act] come out and the “fifth indicator,” which allowed schools to name a nonacademic indicator. And this is another opportunity for us to begin to say, “There’s something more that should be happening inside of these buildings than just the strict promotion of academic success as measured by grades and test scores.” But we have a lot of room to define what that is. And so, while these, the dollars and the message is that we should pay attention to this, we’re going to have to quickly go down to the state and local levels and make sure that it’s being defined in the way that really leverages the science as much as we can.

And that leads directly to this conversation about evidenced based policy. We have two messages there. One is that evidence should be used to improve and not to shut down. But for the most part when policy makers use evidence, they use evidence to basically do a thumbs up, thumbs down vote on whether a program should be continued or discontinued. And that often happens and that has happened over time – has been threatened over time – to shut down the 21st Century Learning Centers program around afterschool because the evidence says X. The way that we really need to be using evidence is for improvement, not just for proof of whether something should be there or not.

And that’s a different kind of an approach. It’s a more nuanced approach, which means that we need to be using public evaluation dollars to not just ask whether a specific branded program worked or didn’t work and therefore should be replicated, but actually bringing in processes to help systems and organizations assess what they’re doing against standards, and then find, identify ways to improve them, and then demonstrate that they have improved. And if they can improve, then individual organizations should be eligible for our funds. And if we can do that in a large enough scale, we know that we have a program from a federal perspective of a bunch of dollars that are directed towards a goal that really should be continued.

And the final piece in that is that here at the Forum, not only are we fans of talking about improvement versus just proof of whether something should exist or not, but talking about continuous improvement at the front lines where the adults are who are working with young people. And doing that not by necessarily handing them a new curriculum to implement. That’s an evidence based program. We know that those are very hard to implement with fidelity especially if you don’t have the resources. But really helping practitioners take the science and understand its relevance for their practice, for how they make decisions about how they work with the group of children they have in front of them on a day in day out basis. And that means really helping them understand the science and understand the power that they have to transform lives rather than thinking that that power lies in a curriculum.

Chris Riback: So to close I hear you talking about practitioners, and policymakers, and educators, and scientists, and parents, and teachers, and community leaders, and all around this goal of changing the trajectory, improving the trajectory of youth’s lives, of children’s lives. And there’s this incredibly admirable contradiction that in doing these conversations I often come across and I, and I feel it with you and I feel it in what you are saying around all those different groups. On the one hand, you see some of the hardest parts of life. You see children who don’t get the benefit of the best of what learning and development should offer, who as a result don’t get fair access to opportunity, or growth, or even to health at times. And yet you and others remain, it seems to me, relentlessly optimistic. How do you do that?

Karen Pittman: That’s a good question. I am optimistic. First, I’m optimistic because again the science reinforces this, because of the incredible resilience that young people have. And so, we as adults can miss multiple opportunities to help young people reach their potential. But when we finally get it right and offer them opportunities, we know that they can take advantage of them and that they can often catch up and succeed. And so, the thing that we know now from the science which has just been validated is the wonderful resilience resiliency of young people. The fact that we can, and then science is behind this as well, we can change the odds for young people’s success at almost every point in the developmental process. And so this is not about if we don’t get to them by kindergarten or we don’t get to them by third grade, it’s over. We really constantly have to be looking for opportunities to increase young people’s potential by giving them this right optimal experience and entrust that they will take advantage of it.

So, I’m optimistic, first and foremost, because both of my personal experiences with young people who have been coming out of these situations, but also because the science tells us that if we manage to get it right as adults, young people can take advantage of it. The second thing that makes me optimistic is the fact that learning does happen everywhere and that as we bring the science, which is becoming both more powerful, but also simpler to explain, as we bring this power into a broader set of community organizations who can advocate for change as we broaden the definition of where learning happens.

So we can both acknowledge that the inequities that we thought were just in K-12 actually are exacerbated. When you look at access to quality learning experiences across broader settings and across broader times, we also have more people who are willing to step up and do this. This does not have to just be on the burden of schools. So let’s broaden the definition of where learning happens, but we also broaden the definition of who can contribute to young people’s learning and development. That makes me optimistic that fundamentally there are lots of folks who can contribute to this.

And I’ll leave with the one final thing, which is the national teacher of the year this year, he’s from Richmond. The national teacher of the year this year is a teacher, who is teaching in the juvenile justice system, teaching young people who are in detention. And while he has them for that short period of time that they’re in detention, he’s not just helping them with their reading skills and math skills. He’s also helping them build their critical skills to analyze how they ended up in that system, both in terms of personal choices but also in terms of institutional biases and structural biases. So, they’re leaving with a greater sense of understanding and agency. So, we know that learning happens everywhere and we know that there are dollars, resources, and people who are the bright spots who we’re helping young people wherever they may happen to find them. We just need to put a spotlight on this and we really do need to in some ways disentangle the idea of learning and development from our current perceptions of what schooling has to be.

Chris Riback: Yes. The gentleman that you’re talking about is Rodney Robinson and he’s, it seems yes, he seems incredibly inspiring in what he’s doing in Virginia. And if I can, you are certainly inspiring in what you have done throughout your career, not only probably in Virginia I assume, but everywhere else. So thank you. Thank you for your time today and for the work that you’ve dedicated your life to.

Karen Pittman: It was a pleasure talking to you.

Chris Riback: That was my conversation with Karen Pittman. My thanks to Karen for joining and you for listening. To learn more about how to transform 21st century education using 21st century science. Go to I’m Chris Riback. I’ll talk with you soon.