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FINE Newsletter, Volume VII, Issue 2
Issue Topic: Engaging Students in Afterschool Learning

Voices From the Field

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You are a member of the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning Research Network. What is connected learning?

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Imagine that a student is studying how environmental factors relate to childhood obesity. In addition to learning about this issue in a science or social studies class, what if that student could take the questions and content into other learning settings—at home or in an afterschool program? The opportunity for children to connect school learning with the world around them makes the topic of environmental impacts on childhood obesity more accessible, dynamic, and meaningful.

This is connected learning. It’s the idea that learning—whether in school, in afterschool programs, in online communities, in peer groups, or with the family—is most powerful when it is connected across the different settings where students participate. In connected learning, supportive mentors and like-minded peers motivate students to follow their individual interests to promote the development of skilled, passionate, lifelong learners.  



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What role do families play in the connected learning model, specifically for older youth, who are growing increasingly autonomous and independent?

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Families are a powerful resource in the learning lives of students. When parents spend time talking to their children about school and afterschool, it both connects them to what is happening in these spaces and signals to children that their learning is important and interesting. When parents are involved in school and out-of-school settings, they can cultivate a positive relationship with teachers, other parents, and the overall learning space. These relationships can lead to a host of resources, opportunities, and benefits.

In a connected learning model, the people in students’ lives—teachers, afterschool staff, coaches, parents, peers—are vital structures of support, collaboration, and engagement. When parents are able to connect a young student to different learning resources, children are more likely to reach their academic goals. Finally, when the home can serve as a rich and vibrant space for learning, through inquiry, curiosity, and play, the social and academic payoffs can be immeasurable.


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Your work with families and youth also focuses on issues of equity. Can you talk more about this?

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Social inequality is growing fiercer in the U.S. and around the world, with serious implications for education. Much of the literature on schools and families focuses on the differences between middle-class families and working-class families. It is assumed that middle-class families are more invested in their children’s educational development. This investment is usually measured in the form of enrichment activities and other supports (i.e., the use of tutors, coaches, and afterschool classes) that more-affluent parents are able to provide during out-of-school hours. 

In our study at Freeway High School, we wanted students to connect their learning in an afterschool program to their own community, homes, and families by using mobile devices to interview their family members. We wanted to understand how students and their families developed strategies to navigate the rapidly evolving worlds of education, learning, and technology. This project led us to cultivate a different perspective, one that we think counters some of the conventional wisdom about families, parenting, class, and the academic trajectories of students.


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What did you find?

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First, we found that parents in immigrant communities and lower-wage employment were just as invested in their children’s educational development as their more-affluent counterparts. Many immigrant parents in our study carefully emphasized the importance of education as a path to greater career choices and opportunities. Most of these parents came to the U.S. as children and were unable to continue their education. Still, they work to ensure that their children have access to decent schools and educational opportunities. Second, working-class parents worked hard to provide their children with access to technologies that they believed were critical to their children’s social and educational development. They made sacrifices to purchase mobile phones, computers, and Internet service; they were just as likely as more middle- and upper-income parents to view access to technology as a way up in our tech-driven world and knowledge economy.

What separates these parents from more-affluent parents is financial resources. While the parents in our study had similar aspirations for boosting their children’s educational progress, they severely lacked the financial means to reliably pursue specific kinds of resources. As a result of these and other related findings, my team is exploring how schools and afterschool programs could become a resource for families, and a more vibrant source of social capital for the students and communities that they serve.

About S. Craig Watkins:

S. Craig Watkins, Ph.D., studies young people’s social and digital media behaviors. He teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, in the Department of Radio-Television-Film and the Department of Sociology, and at the Center for African and African American Studies. He is also a faculty fellow for the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.

This Q & A was condensed and edited by Babe Liberman. Babe Liberman is a graduate research assistant at Harvard Family Research Project.

This resource is part of the FINE Newsletter on Engaging Students in Afterschool Learning. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family engagement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archives of past issues, please visit


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Published by Harvard Family Research Project