23 Jan 2023

Telling a New Story – Intergenerational Learning Communities

By Bobbi Macdonald, Education Reimagined.

The article is a part of the New Education Story Global Insight Series on Transforming Education.

Bobbi Macdonald. Image courtesy of the author.

Imagine what it would be like if our children played an essential role in the daily life of our communities, where they would be immersed in the life of our towns and cities. In these communities, learning would be happening everywhere—passion projects, internships, apprenticeships, mentorships, new collaborations between city and neighbors and children and businesses.

My work has evolved around these learning environments for more than 17 years. As a mother and early childhood educator, I worked with teachers and school leaders in lab schools, private schools, public schools. I experienced what it was like to be part of a community focused on creating something new—something that would be responsive to what each child needs—and something that required a process for imagining together. 

As a community, we created structures and spaces, and traditions based on valuing relationships and play as the context for learning and honoring every child and person’s inherent need to be Known, Loved and Inspired. I felt the power of being immersed in loving classrooms and strong communities. I designed and grew a network of schools in Baltimore called City Neighbors.

In my current role at Education Reimagined as the Senior Partner for Ecosystems Growth and Advancement, I imagine and inspire places of learning. What does it take to create inclusive learning communities?  

I’ve learned that it isn’t as simple as creating new platforms or credentialing learning outside school buildings. It is about telling a new story together. A story that lets go of the conventional model of “school” and instead creates a new kind of living system to enable equitable, community-based, learner-centered ecosystems.

In Baltimore, we took a stand for the essential relationship of families, and the significance of each child’s story, history, and identity. Together, we were crafting, weaving together, and telling the City Neighbors’ story. What we were doing was often at odds with the systems we were a part of. In fact, for the most part, the system saw us as unwelcome disruptors. The system valued standardization, compliance, and averages. City Neighbors didn’t align with those values. We spent time in those days both trying to partner and position ourselves to hold off the system—creating space for our school leaders, educators, families, and students to keep relationships at the heart of the work, no matter what the system wanted. And, that stand—being at odds with the system—became a part of our story.

We are in a time of great learning and heightened awareness. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed possibilities for alternative models when schools could no longer operate as usual. Families and communities stepped in to facilitate learning and care for learners.

One example we can learn from are the pandemic pods that formed during the pandemic to meet the urgent need for socialization and childcare. A recent report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) takes an in-depth look at families’ and educators’ experiences with pandemic pods, drawing upon 200 interviews and a national survey of 152 parents and 101 instructors who participated in a pod during the pandemic. CRPE found that two-thirds of the families participating preferred pods over conventional schools. Overall, the most commonly cited benefit was a belief that their child felt “known, heard, and valued,” followed by increased engagement in their learning. 

The research reveals that pods offered families, teachers, and students a new way to approach teaching and learning that surpassed expectations for what school could be.

Community organizations reported feeling inspired by the opportunities they provided  during the pandemic. Educators found new benefits for their own craft in pandemic pods, with 74% reporting they found more “freedom and flexibility” in their teaching.

While the pods clarified the great benefits that small groupings, individualized instruction, and using the community as a playground for learning bring to learners; CRPE’s findings also showed that families and educators missed the elements of support that being part of a system can provide. Supports that offer some stability, such as transportation, professional development, coordination of people, and the kind of functions that families rely on in day-to-day living. The study found that almost half of pod instructors (46%) said inadequate employment security was an obstacle to continuing with the pod model.

Knowing what we know, we fortify our purpose with new goals and clearer outcomes. We are standing at the crossroads of what we know learner-centered education can offer and the need for a public system designed to nurture and grow what works. Without a transformation of the system itself, we are being pulled back to the default—into a system designed to see children as fitting into averages, to be sifted and sorted and put on a conveyor belt ready to be released into the workforce upon graduation. Pulled back to a system where families are not seen as essential partners, and learning that happens out of school doesn’t necessarily “count.”

At this unique moment, we can ask ourselves: How do we create a system that values deep and connected communities over time? What kind of community-based system could we create that is biased toward the well-being of everyone involved? What new language, traditions, roles, and awareness do we need if we are to create equitable, community-based, learner-centered ecosystems?

These are the kinds of questions we must answer together if we are to transform our systems and tell a new story. Because, as Stephanie Pace Marshall puts it so eloquently, “A new story is waiting to be born, and we are its storytellers.”



Dr. Bobbi Macdonald serves as the Senior Partner for Ecosystem Growth and Advancement for Education Reimagined, a non profit organization dedicated to a transformational vision for education. Her previous work as Executive Director of City Neighbors in Baltimore sought to provide an answer to the question, “What would it take for every student to be known, loved, and inspired?” That question remains at the heart of her work today. Bobbi most recently completed her Doctorate in Education Leadership from Harvard University.

Back to News and Latest Ideas