What Is Missing From Our Curricula?

Opinion | Project-Based Learning

What Is Missing From Our Curricula?

By Matt Greenfield and Katrina Stevens     Sep 4, 2018

What Is Missing From Our Curricula?

As Atul Gawande, a surgeon and New Yorker writer, walked by his hospital’s newest construction project, he wondered how something so large and complex could possibly be managed. He had once constructed a bookcase that instantly fell apart. If a structurally sound bookshelf already proved hard to build, how can one ever manage the construction of a modern high-rise building with its intricate and interlocking web of requirements for structural support, safety, disaster preparation and project management, to name only a few of the complexities?

The answer, as he explains in “The Checklist Manifesto,” is a multidisciplinary profession known as structural engineering. The structural engineer in charge of construction for Gawande’s hospital shared with him that he has to factor cost, esthetics, physics, and even organizational behavior into his planning. He had to be ready to help resolve unexpected problems, and he had to be sure that his solutions wouldn’t create new problems. Where and how do young people learn these skills?

Learning by doing has been a thread in U.S. schooling for young children since John Dewey’s time. But for teens, and even most younger children, “seat time” is literally the customary unit and method of learning. The management of ultra-complex projects is not learned through sitting down in class for a specific amount of time, and is one of many things under-emphasized in most school curricula.

Many of these skills naturally appear in career and technical education (CTE) classes such as 3D design, carpentry, game design, or extracurricular activities such as theater, journalism, and through internships. But how can we integrate more of these skills into core academic classes such as English, algebra, physics and social studies? One approach is to incorporate more project-based learning and real-world connections into classrooms. The Buck Institute for Education, for example, has been supporting project based-learning across schools and organizations for 20 years.

Some organizations, including JFF, are working with schools to more explicitly illuminate and strengthen connections between school and work. We identified several dozen of these organizations in the recent JFF Work-Based Learning Scan, which included an examination of the landscape of tech-based programs and tools that offer opportunities for students to experience virtual workplaces and have access to the kinds of skills they would learn on the job.

For example, Nepris, a Houston-based company, connects professionals in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) fields to classrooms to give lessons related to their jobs. An ornithologist or an engineer, for instance, might use a videoconference to help teach a math lesson. Students can also take virtual field trips to learn about professional work settings like car factories, blood labs, or tech startups. LifeJourney is another organization that provides real-world examples of STEAM professionals sharing how their course of study equipped them with the skills they need for their current careers.

While our school districts tout a focus on college and career readiness, most educators believe there is a meaningful distinction between CTE and college preparatory education. Reinforcing that distinction, however, divides and impoverishes both.

Work-based learning can be a valuable solution to bridge this divide and enrich student learning. At its best, work-based learning integrates academics with real-world application of knowledge and skills to provide paths to educational and career advancement, while also building students’ professional networks and employers’ talent pipelines. This approach holds especially great promise for low-income and lower-skilled youth and adults, who all too often lack equitable access to high-quality work-based learning experiences that can serve as stepping stones to increased economic opportunities.

While the best way to learn how to be a structural engineer is interning or apprenticing in a workplace, at this juncture the demand for workplace experiences far exceeds capacity to provide them in real time for high school students. Yet the startup space is exploding with innovative solutions that might expand access to work-based learning programs. To support this momentum, JFFLabs, the innovation engine of JFF, is accepting applications for its Work-Based Learning Accelerator through September 21, 2018, with the aim of helping these companies grow and succeed.

It’s also important to note that we need to broaden our definition of success beyond purely academic measures and contextualize work-based learning within adolescent and adult development. Work creates the opportunity to increase a sense of belonging and purpose, as well as develop confidence in one’s identity—all important aspects of healthy human development. Self-direction is also important for general well-being.

As we broaden our definition of success, we simultaneously need to design innovative assessments that capture more than academic outcomes and which realistically match real-world challenges. Traditional high-stakes testing does not capture a student’s ability to handle complex projects such as managing a construction site, or even putting together a small robot.

These are better ways to demonstrate capabilities than transcripts filled with colorless, contextless grades. Truly rare are those careers where employees advance based on their ability to regularly answer multiple-choice questions correctly!

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