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When It Comes to Education, Let's Be The Jetsons Not The Flintstones

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I can already hear my two-year-old daughter as a teenager mimicking my words back to me, "Back in my day, we didn't have robots teaching us Mandarin ..." Okay, that might be an outlandish scenario, but with each passing day I'm less certain that it is.

As a kid, I regularly watched cartoons, and included among my viewing rotation was The Jetsons -- a Hanna-Barbera original about a family living in the year 2062, aided in their daily routines by robotic contraptions and curious inventions. I'm sure I wasn't the only big-eyed youngster who watched this animated time ahead and imagined possibilities for my own adulthood; I fully anticipated growing into a future similar to the one enjoyed by young Elroy Jetson.

That hasn't come to pass exactly, though I'm in no way knocking these still-early years of the Internet. Research scientists and sociologists have already opined about this wondrous creation and its impact on everything from learning to logistics to revolutions. I'm sure they're right. But I'm equally convinced that we're accelerating toward times remarkably unlike our own. We may look back upon these days as still being more like those of the Stone-Age Flintstones than the futuristic Jetsons.

In fact, I hope that's true.

For my daughter's sake, I hope it's true that she won't graduate from a traditional brick-and-mortar high school 16 years from now, just as I did 20 years ago. Not because she's untalented and incapable, but rather because her class (and her classroom) has moved on from an Industrial Age-approach of teacher-to-student instruction to one that activates her learning and rewards her mastery of skills differently. That shouldn't mean that she won't be surrounded by all sorts of teachers, mentors and caring adults along the way -- she'll need them. Instead, it should also mean that she's immersed in settings in and out of school -- such as libraries and museums -- that interest, test and provoke her to learn.

If I am going to prepare her -- if we are going to prepare her -- for a world in which people are already using 3D printers to make edible food and artificial body parts (what?!), then we are intellectually and morally called to remake learning.

I'm not so naïve to think that classrooms as we know them will -- poof -- disappear. My daughter will probably receive grading reports from a teacher and a diploma from a school, but she might also earn a digital badge from a museum, certification from online tutors and other credentials that are valued and validated by higher education, workplaces and families.

So, what gives rise to such amateur prophecy? Glimpses of the future are taking hold in schools, museums, and libraries across my hometown of Pittsburgh.

Look first to the Elizabeth Forward School District just south of Pittsburgh, where district leadership has reinvented some of its learning spaces. Its middle school was the first public school in the nation to install a SMALLab embodied learning environment in which digital games are projected onto a classroom floor and engage students in learning subject matter ranging from fractions to prefixes. Its high school is among few nationwide to transform its library into a multimedia lab complete with recording and production studios, coding stations, and digital equipment. And the district is the first anywhere to introduce graduate-level courses inspired by Carnegie Mellon University that teach game design to high school students. The courses combine STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) with the Arts (STEAM) to teach interdisciplinary thinking.

Why should we take notice? Because corresponding with these investments, Elizabeth Forward has almost completely erased its dropout problem, raised math and reading proficiency levels and increased enrollment in summer enrichment programs by 500 percent. The school district has reignited its students' passion to learn.

Look next to the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. Its MAKESHOP is a rich and supportive informal learning environment for children and families to make actual "stuff" alongside teaching artists and technologists. Activities include woodworking, sewing and circuitry, as well as such technology-infused tasks as computer programming, laser cutting and stop-motion animation. MAKESHOP represents authentic hands-on, project-based learning. It's a place where kids can tinker, play and invent -- imparting problem-solving skills and persistence.

Finally, look to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where librarians are re-inventing what a trove of books might mean to kids. In the Library's LABS, teens can create and share digital media like never before. Books, of course, are still central to achieving literacy and fluency, but so too are cameras, robots and software. Librarians now mentor teenagers in interest-driven projects as the teenagers themselves become curators and producers.

What the Elizabeth Forward School District, the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Library share in common is their participation in Pittsburgh's Kids+Creativity Network. More than 100 schools, libraries, museums and out-of-school programs in this network - from West Virginia's Mingo County to Pittsburgh's urban neighborhoods -- are remaking learning and changing what it means to learn. Together, they are integrating maker practices like those of MAKESHOP with digital practices like those of the LABS while weaving in the arts and sciences just as Elizabeth Forward School District, to bridge the technical left brain with the artist right brain so that kids develop skills necessary for navigating futures we can't possibly foretell.

While still building kids' skills in the tried-and-true subjects of reading, writing, and arithmetic, today's innovators -- like those in the Kids+Creativity Network -- are simultaneously attending to learning that helps kids develop critical thinking, tenacity, and resourcefulness. They're thinking more like the Jetsons and less like the Flintstones. So, goodbye "yabba dabba doo" and hello Elroy! Our kids deserve that future.