Leaving to Learn

I recently spent a day on -the-road as I traveled to visit two students who are seniors in high school and spending time off campus in internships. My first stop was at a family-owned automobile repair shop and towing company. The student plans to take over that business once he earns his college degree. My second stop was at a shop where a dozen (or so) computer and software engineers were writing code to create and manage data for use by clients around the world. The student working their plans to study engineering in the fall.

Three things became very clear to me as I spent time with these students at their places of work-based learning:

  1. The most important skill or proficiency or outcome for students is the ability to learn. For a generation, educators have been focused on “meeting standards,” and we see a never-ending list of skills and knowledge students need. Different groups use different terms to describe these lists, and we adopt the next when the last is no longer acceptable, but none changes students’ experiences in noticeable ways. What was very obvious in both the repair shop and the programming shop was the amount of learning that the individuals and the group was engaged in. In both spaces, professionals were solving problems they had never solved before and were applying what they know to these unfamiliar tasks. Time and energy in classrooms that does not prepare students to be learners beyond that environment is wasted.
  2. Motivation matters… a lot! While we cannot expect every student to find every activity in every class to be interesting and intrinsically motivating, educators do have a responsibility to demonstrate (not simply to describe) the relevance of lessons to their lives. If  this is not established so they students make the connections, then classroom time and energy is wasted.
  3. The most productive professional environments are those in which cooperation and collaboration mark all interaction. In both shops, I observed people working together on a common goal– fix the car (to get paid) or write the program (to get paid). It is an unfortunate reality that education is marked by so many disparate and contradictory goals. Until you find a faculty committed to the same goal, our profession will be marked by saboteurs. (Saboteurs is not a term of derision– there are many educational leaders whose ideas should be sabotaged. It is the responsibility of each professional to recognize when they feel the urge to sabotage; once you feel it, you must leave and find a community more aligned with your personal vision.)