Education Opinion

Tearing Down the Wall

By Susan Graham — August 15, 2010 2 min read
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News Flash from the San Francisco Chronicle:

While state standards for high school education are rigorous, and rightly so, too many students remain unmotivated and disengaged. After years of disagreement, however, there is a growing consensus around how we can finally tackle this problem - and make sure more of our kids are prepared for success both in college and in their careers.

Notice that says in college and in careers. It does not say college or careers. Where did we get the idea that preparation for work and preparation for college were separate goals? The truth is that while a small percentage of people learning simply because they thirst for knowledge, the vast majority of us seek education for the purpose of preparing for careers and may develop a taste for learning that extends into other fields. We are not scholarly aesthetics, we are educated pragmatists. And that is why

When their schoolwork comes to life, students perk up, stay engaged - and graduate.

This sweeping high school reform effort, which the state's superintendent of public instruction has called "one of the most promising high school transformation strategies we've seen in decades," allows teachers to change the way core academics are taught by combining classroom learning with real-world, work-based experience. The idea behind Linked Learning is simple: To make it easier for students to stay engaged, they need to be more motivated. Their coursework has to be relevant - or "linked" - to their aspirations. Those all-important figures standing in the front of classrooms, in other words, have to be able to answer the age-old question: "Why does this matter to me?"

WOW! You mean to tell me kids will be more motivated to learn if the content has some practical application? Brilliant!

BUT....At the risk of being of being a real kill joy, and bursting some education reformer’s bubble, this is not a new idea. It’s sort of like the oldest education concept in the world. We acquire knowledge in order to solve problems. We develop systems to record that knowledge so that we can access and share those solutions. We refer to those banks of codified solutions to refine and build better ways to solve problems in the future. We can gather up our young and give them access to that accumulated information in an organized fashion in schools. As that body of knowledge has expanded and become more complex, schools have invested more deeply in communicating the information and less on practical application.

The distance between what we learn and what we do with that learning has continued to stretch. In 1940 the median years of education for American adults was 8.6 years. In 1999 one fourth of the adults had completed college. The current proposal of college for all sets an expectation of 17 years of “purely academic” education before learning is connected to vocation.

In an advanced culture much which has to be learned is stored in symbols. It is far from translation into familiar acts and objects. Such material is relatively technical and superficial. ...There is the standing danger that the material of formal instruction will be merely the subject matter of the schools, isolated from the subject matter of life-experience. The permanent social interests are likely to be lost from view....This danger was never greater than at the present time, on account of the rapid growth in the last few centuries of knowledge and technical modes of skill.

That’s from John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, 1916. As a philosophical and personal pragmatist, he was concerned that education not become a “purely academic” exercise that was disconnected from life learning that addressed the needs and interests of the learner.

Whether it is labeled Linked Learning, or Chicago and Miami’s Career Academies, or the Southern Regional Education Board’s High Schools That Work or some other catchy title these programs are a reinvention of Career and Technical Education, formerly know as Vocational Education.

Vocation: from the Latin vocare--to call. 1.A regular occupation, especially one for which a person is particularly suited or qualified. 2.An inclination, as if in response to a summons, to undertake a certain kind of work, especially a religious career; a calling.

Somewhere during the second half of the 20th century we built a wall between vocation and vocational education. Somehow we decided to pursue an academic education to prepare for a vocation was high minded; but that enroll in vocational education where those concepts are applied to real problems was to inferior and low brow. I would argue that wall that separates academics from vocational education hall in our schools is a false construct that frustrates our students and constrains our teachers.

If we are to be successful in preparing our students for the world, we need to continue to work at breaching the wall, because when education remains “purely academic” it is a barrier to be scaled before real life begins. When the wall comes down and becomes a pathway to a vocation, “a regular occupation, especially one for which a person is particularly suited or qualified,” it answers the question “Why does it matter to me?”

Wall Image: National Institute of Standards and Technology

Path Image:Creative Commons License photo credit: Stéfan

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.