The power of reverse mentoring in education

In the business world, a growing number of companies are turning to their youngest employees to help train older executives in areas such as technology and work culture. Called “reverse mentoring,” this hot trend is also making its way into education, and it’s no wonder, given that students are often more tech savvy than their teachers. The Digital Harbor Foundation in Baltimore has been at the forefront of the reverse mentoring trend: It’s dedicated to fostering innovation, tech advancement and entrepreneurship by helping youth develop digital-age skills.

Andrew Coy, executive director of DHF and a former high school teacher, helped found the organization, which involved converting an old recreation center in inner-city Baltimore into a tech center for after-school programs and more. Youth who are interested in tech fields such as Web development, mobile development and digital fabrication come to the Tech Center to work with staff, mentors and tech coaches on individualized tech projects. Students in the program then work with real-world clients on Web or app development and lead instructional sessions as reverse mentors to adults, educators and parents in the community.

Amplify talked with Coy about why reverse mentoring is a powerful tool and how he hopes to change education.

How and when was the Tech Center started?

About two years ago, the mayor of Baltimore announced plans to close down nearly half of the city’s recreation centers. At the time I was a teacher at a school that was about two blocks away from one of these rec centers, and I had been doing a lot after school to teach interested students Web development. Then, in November of 2011, I was part of the first Education Hack Day in Baltimore, and I happened to lead the winning development team, which led to a number of meetings with local entrepreneurs and technologists. Each time I met with folks, I spent most of my time talking about education in general and the changes I wanted to see made to the whole system. The app I made was interesting, but was a micro-solution to a specific problem and not a holistic one for the macro-problems we face in education. I was interested in solving the larger problems, and the more I met with folks, the more interested and willing to support me they became. Before the end of the school year I had jumped into making real my vision of converting the old rec center into a new tech center, focused on leveraging education technology for technology education.

What has it evolved into now? How have you been able to expand it? What are your goals for Tech Center in the future?

From my perspective as an educator in inner-city Baltimore, I knew where there were major cracks in the system. I saw firsthand gaps in professional development for teachers around technology, gaps in up-to-date curricula and a wholesale disconnect between education and the in-demand technology jobs popping up all over Baltimore’s burgeoning tech economy (which was recently named number four out of 10 new tech hotspots by Forbes). I knew these problems were interrelated as they created a negative feedback loop that meant few if any students from Baltimore inner city were finding their way into countless vacant jobs right in their hometown. To solve this problem, we set out with lofty ideals and ambitious goals. Since that time we have provided a cohort of teachers with intense ed-tech professional development experiences, have reopened the closed-down rec center as the Digital Harbor Foundation Tech Center and have developed a blended-learning model tech curriculum, STEM Core, with national partners, which will be distributed across the U.S. this fall.

Students in our programs are building real skills—both hard tech skills like Web development, app development, 3-D design and 3-D printing, as well as soft skills such as grit, determination, communication, presentation, and convergent and divergent thinking. The true measure of our success will be the improved prospects our students have for high-paying jobs using technology. To achieve that long-term goal, we are developing a series of metrics for measuring student interest hours, badges (micro- and macro-certifications), portfolio development and internships.

While we are not particularly interested in attempting to expand the number of Tech Centers under our management, we would love to support the expansion of models that work. Our recent partnership with BattelleEd and Arizona State University to create STEM Core, a Common Core-aligned, blended-learning model curriculum focused on technology education, will allow for us to expand our reach while maintaining our geographic focus. Our Tech Center is perfectly situated to become a research and development destination, especially as we continue to try out new products, approaches, strategies and innovative approaches to learning. Our goal is to become a leading “ed-tech for tech-ed” lab, where anyone who wants to create a program or curriculum can come and learn how.

You’ve said that you want to “institutionalize reverse mentoring” within school systems—what makes the concept so valuable?

Reverse mentoring instantly makes learning real by adding real-world value. By flipping the tables to make the student the teacher you empower the student with responsibilities, which, in turn, have the potential to inspire them with ownership. The act of instructing also gives students valuable practice to develop soft-skill sets such as presentation, explanations and communication skills. For the adults, there is likewise immediate benefit as they are able to receive focused support and mentoring from a “resident expert” who can easily be called on for future needs as well. More of these kinds of win-win outcomes should be explored and developed throughout education. The students themselves are untapped resources in schools across the country.

How does the Tech Center help urban youth forge a pathway to success?

The students who come to the Tech Center develop real-world tech skills as well as soft skills. More than anything else, they want jobs with real opportunities for financial stability and meaningful contribution. What they learn after school and on the weekends does more in a shorter period of time than anything else they experience to develop these abilities, all while providing a safe physical, emotional and mental space.

This article is commissioned by Amplify Education Inc. The views expressed are those of the author and sources interviewed, and do not represent those of Amplify Education, Inc.