The future of learning in cities - RSA

The future of learning in cities


  • Adult education
  • Skills
  • Vocational education

Amidst growing educational inequality and uncertainty about the future of work, it’s important to look at how we can create a climate of active learning that permeates the length and breadth of life and increases opportunity for all. As we reach the end of the first phase of our Cities of Learning project, it’s worth reflecting on what has emerged so far from our discussions with learners, educators and city leaders across the UK about how to make this a reality.

RSA cities of learning, digital badges,

The elevator pitch: Cities of Learning is a grassroots movement building learning networks across a city through a digital badging platform.

Learners can use the platform to discover learning opportunities in their city and earn digital badges that accredit the skills gained through participating in these activities. Digital badging connects learners to learning networks in their place whilst building up a profile of their skills and experience. This can help form pathways into further education or employment, open up new ways to pursue an interest, or simply get them thinking about what’s out there. The ultimate idea is to inspire a love for learning that empowers people to fulfil their potential and live better, broader lives.

The Cities of Learning movement originated in the US, and we’ve spent the last twelve months co-designing an adapted model for the UK in partnership with Brighton, Plymouth and Greater Manchester. Along the way we’ve heard brilliant ideas about how to enhance experiences of learning, as well as honest accounts of what renders education fragmented and inaccessible to many.

In particular what is needed is a more expansive idea of what learning is for, and where it happens. In accrediting learning activities as broad as volunteering, participation in sports, arts and youth clubs, coding clubs, maker spaces, work experience, and learning festivals, the Cities of Learning initiative recognises learning that happens outside of formal education; the sort that might not ‘feel’ like learning, but that develops valuable skills and builds up the collective capacity of a community or place.

Place and community

Importantly, the Cities of Learning movement is place-based. Place is important because it provides the most fundamental basis for social connection, shaping both our individual and collective identities. What people want to see from the learning opportunities in their city is closely bound up with the identity of their place – creativity, inclusiveness, industry, resilience, and innovation have all emerged as important place characteristics, and it matters to people that these are reflected in the local learning provision.

Place-based learning at its best connects people to the heritage and identity of their city, engendering a sense of community and civic pride, and this has been a recurring theme in many of the conversations we’ve had; it’s impossible to consider what we want from learning without addressing the wider question of what it means to be a citizen. Lots of people we spoke to see learning as part of a broader quest for civic participation, empowerment, and raised community capital.

Releasing untapped talent within a community through accessible learning is crucial not only for building a city’s collective assets but in broadening the meaning of valuable contribution. Many people, particularly the young and the elderly, can offer things to their communities that don’t register if contribution is understood only in terms of labour market participation, so it’s important that we look at how to make assets out of people outside of a work context.

One example might be a volunteering scheme pairing up tech-fluent young people with adults who want to improve their digital skills: young people can earn badges for teaching older people, who also gain accreditation demonstrating their improved digital literacy as part of a scheme that builds intergenerational relationships and trust. Urban artist Theaster Gates was singing from the Cities of Learning hymn sheet when he said, “by tapping into the existing, possibly latent talent within a community and putting it to use for the community, exchanges for transfer of knowledge reach across identities, roles, practices, disciplines, generations, and localities.”


Learning for life

Discussions about the Cities of Learning model have largely revolved around young learners, but the potential it holds for facilitating lifelong learning is significant. Uncertainty about the future of work coupled with longer and less linear career paths mean that access to learning and retraining opportunities for all age groups will be more important than ever.

Calculations suggest that those aged 20 today are likely to be working into their late 70s or even early 80s, and our learning provision needs to adapt. A career spanning sixty years during a period of such rapid technological change will take turns that are impossible to predict from where we’re standing now; some project that children today can expect to hold 40 different jobs across ten separate career paths over their lifetimes, and the current approach to learning and skills is too brittle too equip people for this. A pluralistic recognition of transferrable skills gained through a variety of experiences outside the classroom will facilitate learning across a lifespan and create a learning culture where people and skills are agile.

A challenge that lifelong learning faces is the lack of an adequate framework for articulating skills gained outside of a school context; without the language of formal qualifications, it is often difficult to express the value of learners’ experiences. Digital credentials can overcome this by offering a learning currency which has value between institutions and occupations, allowing people to demonstrate how their skills fit together to equip them for the future. They provide a means of recognition without the rigid standardisation that besets many formal educational settings.

Inclusive learning

The Cities of Learning movement is designed not to replace or replicate learning provision in cities, but to mobilise and connect what already exists. All the cities are brimming with opportunities for formal, informal and non-formal learning, but information and networks that link people into these opportunities is unevenly distributed across the learner spectrum. Something like an ‘inverse learning law’ exists whereby learning resources are disproportionately accessed by learners who are already more advantaged, and this asymmetry of access tracks a main difference between the ‘confident creators’ and the ‘held back’ identified in our report The New Digital Learning Age. When actively seeking out learning opportunities seems onerous or hard to navigate, less confident learners without encouragement from those around them may disengage. By bringing together an array of learning opportunities in one accessible platform, the hope is that this initiative will make learning more inclusive of those who could most benefit.

Equality and inclusion were at the forefront of our discussions about learning. Educational inequality maps onto patterns of disadvantage in other spheres of life, and widening access to learning opportunities is fundamental in tackling the deprivation and disempowerment that hamper both individual and collective progress. Giving people agency over their own learning – especially young people who are in situations where control over their own lives is low, such as the care system – can be an empowering antidote to the ‘deficit’ mind-set that perceives people in these situations as challenges rather than recognising them for their potential. The Cities of Learning model aims to give people ownership over their own learning and greater autonomy over the direction of their lives.

With a pilot phase planned for 2018, it will be exciting to see where the Cities of Learning project takes us. It’s been fascinating to observe how quickly discussions around learning become about what else matters to people, and how central they perceive learning to be in the effort to make life better on both an individual and aggregate level. Embedding a passion for learning into the culture of a city and creating an inclusive climate where learners have agency over their experiences will not only improve educational outcomes, but build robust, engaged communities with strong civic identity and optimism about the future.

Download the report: Cities of Learning in the UK prospectus (2mb)

Visit the Cities of Learning project page to find out more.

Follow the author on Twitter @phoebeowilliams

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