Education Opinion

The Power of a Simple Idea: “Learn by Doing”

By Anthony Cody — April 18, 2010 5 min read
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Career and College Readiness is the latest buzz-phrase in school reform. After spending the last ten years or so obsessing about student test scores in reading and math, educators are taking a couple of steps back to get a handle on what our schools are actually producing. One of our most important goals has got to be to get as many of our students as possible prepared for successful careers, whether they go to a four-year college or not.

A few decades ago, vocational education became a dirty word. It was seen an educational backwater, a series of dead-end classes for students who couldn’t succeed academically, so they could be trained in various trades. There was definitely some tracking going on, and de facto racial segregation as well. As a ninth grader in Berkeley public schools, circa 1972, I signed up for an all-boy “Chef class.” I was called in by my counselor, who looked at me with embarrassment and said, “You know, it’s all Black kids in that class.” He was sure I had made a mistake, and would not want to waste my time on a class designed to give the less academic students an easy elective. I was taken aback by his assumptions, and insisted the class stay on my program. He was right about one thing - I was the only white kid in the class, but that was good experience for me as well.

In high school, I took machine shop, and then at community college took classes in welding, along with some more academic choices. Before long I was working in a foundry, where I was a grinder and welder for the next five years or so. Luckily for me, taking a class in machine shop or welding did not prevent me from taking courses in history or science. My brain was not stunted by labor. And my years in the foundry did not prevent me from succeeding at community college, and making my way to UC Berkeley, where I graduated a few years later, with a major in environmental education and a minor in political activism.

Although we are told that we must send every single student on to a four year college, less than half of them are able to follow this path, for a variety of reasons. And though a college degree still confers some advantages on a student, many jobs require a different set of skills not found on the liberal arts campus. Recognizing this, there is a new vision being offered by those in the field of career and technical education that declares our mission to prepare students for careers as well as college. The Association for Career and Technical Education has just released this report, “What is “Career Ready”?,” to explain this concept.

Here is the core idea:

Students must also be able to apply academic knowledge to authentic situations they may face in their careers, a skill that takes practice and intentional instruction that may need to be tailored to a student's specific career goals. For example, students preparing to be nurses need to be able to calculate and apply ratios, proportions, rates and percentages to determine drug dosages, while construction students need to be able to apply geometrical principles to design and implement building plans.

What a concept! It is not enough to learn something in an academic framework. We need to also learn how this works in the real world.

Some educators have been at this for a while, and have some great ideas about how it can be done very successfully.

I spent Friday with my son visiting the beautiful campus of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, on the California coast, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. I was struck by the power of the school’s simple motto: Learn by Doing. The faculty here have decided that this credo will guide their studies, and it shows. Students are given design projects in many of their classes, and actually build working models to test out their theoretical knowledge.

Seniors must come up with a major project in their last year, and there is an entire building devoted to giving them space and support for this. Student-led clubs enter and often win every design competition offered in the country, building steel bridges, water reclamation systems, or a concrete canoe. A group called Engineers Without Borders has students working to develop a water project in the hills of Thailand, and building a medical facility in Nicaragua. Students take time in the summer to travel to these places to work with local villagers to build the facilities they have designed. They not only are learning how to apply their knowledge, they are also gaining great experiences working as a team, and leading others to accomplish great things.

A month ago I visited a high school in Las Vegas with a similar approach. The Southwest Career and Technical Academy is a magnet school that draws students from all over Clark County. It has two major divisions; the Design Academy and the Professional Services Academy. Within the Design Academy there are programs devoted to Video Game Design, Web Design, Entertainment Engineering, Interior Design, and Fashion. In Professional Services, there are students focused on Culinary Arts, Nursing, Hospitality, Dental Assisting, and Respiratory Therapy.

Like Cal Poly, this high school has a strong emphasis on student projects. They follow the Project-Based Learning model developed by the Buck Institute for Education (disclaimer - I am on the faculty of the Buck Institute and occasionally help lead workshops with them). In my visit I saw students doing projects learning to use social media like Facebook for commercial marketing, and developing their own newscast. The school has strong connections with local industry, so students know that what they are learning will be useful in their future.

In my own district, Oakland Unified, there is a strong movement in this direction as well. There are a number of career-focused academies at high schools, and next year even more will be launched. Oakland Technical High has led the way, and offers academies focused on Health, Biotech, Engineering, Green, Performing Arts, and Computers. I am pulling together a team of science and history teachers to work on a new Project-Based Learning collaborative project, designing and implementing projects in our classrooms across the district.

If my seventeen year-old son is any indication, this is a winning approach. He has not made his final decision yet, but it looks as if Cal Poly may be his favorite. When students can connect what they are learning in school to the real world, then they can make that connection apply to their own future. Then our schools are truly preparing our students in a meaningful way.

What do you think? Are you seeing success through a “Learn by Doing” approach?

Photo credit to SignalPAD, used by permission, Creative Commons.

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