04/03/2012 04:13 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2012

Fostering Talent: From Life-Long to Life-Wide Learning

Cities across the country are turning their focus to talent. To paraphrase Mayor Wharton of Memphis from his speech from last year's Opportunity Challenge, "A century ago mayors bragged about their cities' bridges, their architectural feats, their higher-thans and wider-thans. Then they boasted of the corporations they were attracting, their who's who of headquarters. In the 21st century, a city's great claim to fame will be its talent." So, how will cities foster talent within, and celebrate their talent?

Lots of cities spend millions wooing companies with tax breaks, and funding sports leagues with new constructions. CEOs for Cities, a network of mayors and city stakeholders, thinks cities ought to invest in people. Urban economist Joe Cortright studied city economics related to education and found that for every 1% increase in college degree attainment in a city, it brings approximately $1B into that local economy. In a city like Memphis, if 8,000 people graduated college it would bring a transformative $1B into Memphis. What would it take to get 8,000 more people to go to college and finish their degree? Mayor Wharton and his Talent Dividend team are working on that today.

In fact, 57 cities are competing in the Talent Dividend Prize. Launched in 2011, the Talent Dividend Prize is a $1 million prize to be awarded to the city that exhibits the greatest increase in the number of post secondary degrees over a three-year period. These cities understand that in order to achieve these college completion rates, local leaders must ensure a pipeline of qualified students that are capable of doing the work and motivated to complete a degree. That means more kids get access to early-childhood learning programs, more students engaged in education through elementary and middle school, more students graduating high school, more citizens capable of rigorous academic studies and creating viable careers.

Life-long learning is not enough. Learning is not linear, nor will everyone stay on the prescribed path. And if you've gone off the expected path, you might have been forgotten by the system, demoralized and defeated for not living up to system standards, or "labelled" for failure. To achieve the goal of being a Talent City, and ensure that all people life up to their potential, we must make a commitment to "life-wide" learning.

We are born to learn. (Here's a great video by Trevor Eissler that illustrates the point through the lens of a Montessori School parent.) The innate ability to learn is within us, regardless of our current situation. No one need ever be overlooked or written off. When we look at people on the street, do we acknowledge them as talented human beings with potential to grow, potential to contribute more, potential to teach?

HourSchool does. The online platform enables anyone in your community to create a class related to something they'd like to learn or something they have to share. These classes happen in cafes, homes, and offices around town.

HourSchool evolved from a research project that co-founders Ruby Ku and Alex Pappas conducted on homelessness while at the Austin Center for Design. They found that people experiencing homelessness lacked avenues to give back to the community. And yet, they very often have something to give -- whether it's sewing, or mechanics, or computer tips. People experiencing homelessness become disconnected from the communities in which they live, but what if we looked at people as net contributors? What if we provide the same avenue for retired folks and stay-at-home moms?

HourSchool is thriving in Austin, Ann Arbor, and a host of other cities where 80% of the teachers are first time teachers -- people who are incredibly knowledgeable and passionate on the subjects they teach, and never saw themselves as teachers. HourSchool believes everyone can and should teach. HourSchool's Peer Teaching Fund is currently fundraising to discover more teachers in cities across the country.

Perhaps becoming a Talent City is not just enabling every citizen to learn, rather also enabling every citizen to teach. And perhaps its time to "think outside the classroom." The city itself is the classroom, anytime, anywhere. Learning happens.