In a strong job market that values both experience and educational credentials, interest is growing in experiential learning models that fuse traditional academic study with real-world projects and work experiences.
In K-12, that has meant increasing popularity for project-based learning, or PBL, accelerated by various innovation initiatives, grants and start-ups. And beyond project-based instructional efforts, a growing number of K-12 educators and schools are now focused on broader notions of experiential learning that include collaboration with outside employers and industry partners. As these approaches continue to take hold, we will need a new array of partnerships, policies and networks to scale these models and to fulfill their promise.
But as experiential models gain momentum in K-12 education, what happens when these graduates who have been working with employers and immersed in authentic, real-world experiences move on to encounter the traditional, didactically oriented college and university system?
Corey Mohn, executive director of the Blue Valley Center for Advanced Professional Studies, a high school-level experiential learning program in the Kansas City metro area, refers to this scenario as “whiplash”–as students have already “fast-forwarded past high school, past college and into their first career.” He notes that it might be solved over time by continuing to send students who are experienced, curious self-advocates into the higher-education system. Similarly, Cynthia Burt, a humanities teacher at Tesla STEM High School in Redmond, Washington, says that her high school students are taking the perspective that the problems and challenges they’d like to address may take many years–or a lifetime and career–to solve, and that colleges will increasingly need to provide for the continuation of these problem solving efforts.
There’s a need for more coordination between K-12 and higher ed to bring a more holistic approach to experiential learning.
At Northeastern University last summer, we launched the Network of Experiential Learning Teachers (NeXT), in an effort to harness what we know about experiential learning and broaden its impact across the K-12 and higher education systems. NeXT’s inaugural event convened 75 K-12 educators and administrators from schools and districts representing 35,000 students across North America–with the goal of developing an international incubator in innovative K-12 experiential learning practices, supporting the development and growth of the model at schools and creating a space to advance new models.
One participant was Mohn of Blue Valley Schools. Started in 2009, the experiential program at Blue Valley, known as CAPS, is a complement to traditional high school education that immerses students in professional culture, providing opportunities to solve real-world problems and explore professional interests in partnership with actual employers–for example, serving as consultants to local businesses and nonprofits. Its success has led to the creation of an emerging national network of CAPS programs in other school districts. According to Mohn, “Students relate content knowledge to actual work opportunities and professional skills–the ones employers tell us are so important in entry-level employees: communication skills, team dynamics, project management.”
Burt, of Tesla STEM High School, was also a NeXT participant. Burt’s students have worked on projects that integrate the National Academy of Engineering’s “grand challenges” into their curriculum, across areas such as design, physics and biomedical engineering–including projects and internships in partnership with local companies. Importantly, despite the school’s explicit focus on STEM, real-world projects also provide an opportunity to bring the humanities to life. “The students have this incredible passion for English and humanities–to vocalize, to write, to be able to discuss ideas, which brings purpose back to STEM,” says Burt. “They want to make an impact on humanity, very often doing it out of concern for others, rather than just excelling in STEM because that’s where all the careers are right now.”
Northeastern is certainly not the only college engaged in experiential learning. A majority of U.S. college students participate in an at least one internship prior to graduation–and employers are hiring greater numbers of interns and co-op students. In the professional- education market, capstone projects that demonstrate that learners can apply the knowledge they’ve gained through online study are becoming a common element of many microcredential programs. And, the current federal push placing apprenticeships at the center of education and workforce policy is shining a spotlight on various other forms of “earn- and- learn” models.
But to truly scale experiential learning, one of the most fundamental requirements is greater awareness among employers–and closer collaboration between employers and schools. Many major employers have an interest in building their “employer brand” among students, and many are also focused on “early talent” recruiting strategies–efforts that could extend into high school, as various STEM and corporate philanthropy initiatives often do, for example.
Educators, school leaders and policymakers also need to be more aware of experiential learning’s variety of forms, its outcomes and the diverse settings in which it can apply. It is especially important that employer-aligned, hands-on learning is not stigmatized or automatically equated with “vocational” education in a political environment that is prioritizing the trades and is often skeptical of college. Experiential learning is at home and especially powerful in K-12 college-preparatory curriculum, or integrated into a traditional liberal arts education. Learning by doing may even be the key to developing the curiosity, understanding and intangibles that will help students and professionals thrive in the era of smart machines.
Experiential learning’s growth also presents a variety of opportunities for educational technology providers, given the rise of virtual projects; the need to match and connect students and employers; and the necessity to document and share information and artifacts related to competencies, experiences, and project outcomes. Like college transcripts, high school transcripts will also need to evolve to become more digitized and more portfolio-oriented—to account for the resume-worthy experiences that growing numbers of students are completing. Leaders of CAPS programs have found that such experiences and portfolios make their students stand-outs in the college admissions process.
The notion of “lifelong learning”–whose time has arrived in today’s economy–is inherently experiential. Rather than thinking about experiential learning predominantly as a “college to career” model, it is time to consider it across educational sectors and life stages, and develop the types of partnerships, foundational research and experiments, and cultural shifts that will be required to understand how it works, how to do it best, and how to scale it, from K-to-grey.