'Academics and Life'

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The idea that effective and exciting learning can happen throughout the community, not solely in the classroom, is enjoying something of a revival in American education. The school-to-work movement, national and community service, and service learning are integral parts of this rediscovery.

While there are differences among the three mini-movements, they share several important fundamentals: Young people prefer, are motivated by, and benefit from active rather than passive learning environments. Various community institutions--families, employer workplaces, local government, nonprofit citizens' organizations--offer possibilities for powerful learning experiences. These structured experiences in the community can make real and meaningful the academic content of formal school-based learning. Practicing elsewhere what one learns in school is the best way to enhance and reinforce classroom learning and to call it forth when it is needed in later life.

In the words of Hilary Pennington, the president of Jobs for the Future, the Boston-based workforce-development group:

"We see service learning as a close cousin to work-based learning, one which shares many of its benefits. For example, service learning is one of the few opportunities for students to experience what it means to contribute to society--to make a difference--especially during a period of adolescent growth when this experience is very developmentally important. It reconnects the student to his or her community, and the school (if the effort is school-based) to its neighborhood. Moreover, service learning, like apprenticeship experiences, contextualizes the student's learning, whether that learning stems from the classroom, the workplace, or the service project. Service learning, if done well, provides the environment in which students can gain organizational, team, and problem-posing and -solving skills, and other attitudes and capabilities necessary to future work and learning."

These three mini-movements should be viewed through a broader prism than that of schooling. Their philosophies approach young people as resources who are capable of contributing now, not merely in later life. Rather than regard students as helpless and empty vessels into whom teachers pour information, adults in experiential education see themselves as partners and guides, helping to produce healthy, self-affirming, and productive lifelong learners. Young people are also full partners, taking substantial personal responsibility for directing their own learning. By helping young people grow through various forms of doing, these adults offer the essential respect that many of these youths find absent in their lives. Focusing on practical results and outcomes, experiential learning leads young people toward competence, responsibility, and success. For the participating adults, such experiences bring great professional and personal satisfaction.

People do not learn solely from experience. (If we did, we would not repeat our mistakes so often!) What we do learn from is reflection on our experience, that is, integration of the new information with our previous learning, our personal values, and our life situation. When experience "fits" what is perceived to be important, useful, and valuable, this is true learning--not merely a rote exercise to pass an examination or other ephemeral hurdle. In other words, effective learning has to answer the student's inevitable question: "Why do I need to learn this?" Our usual answers won't cut it anymore: "You're going to need this someday," or "Learn it because I'm telling you it's important."

Many proponents of higher academic standards would motivate students by instituting "consequences," or sanctions for failing to master academic material. Undoubtedly, some students would work harder at their studies if, for example, college admission, student financial aid, or entry-level employment were made conditional upon an assessment of academic success in high school. Fear is a powerful motivator for some people. Few leaders today disagree with the need for students to achieve higher academic performance. As educators, though, we should strive for positive motivation in the form of lively learning, rather than depend primarily on fear of "consequences."

That is where service-learning, community-service, and school-to-work programs offer a marked advantage. When I observe students learning in a variety of well-structured experiential programs, I have been struck by the enthusiasm, even the joy, of these students. When asked what they learn in the workplace or in community service, young people will generally exclaim: "I make a difference." "People depend on me." "Now I understand why school studies are important." "Excellence counts in life."

But experiential education is not without its critics. In a trenchant assault on service learning, Chester E. Finn Jr. and Gregg Vanourek reveal that they have yet to reconcile experiential education with academic achievement. Writing in the October 1995 issue of Commentary magazine, they conclude:

"Most troubling ... is that our schools, which are performing so poorly in their core mission of transmitting basic skills and essential knowledge, are now diverting time, energy, and money to nonacademic matters."

Far from being a diversion from academic achievement, experiential educators believe that their applied methodologies advance effective academic learning. Yet, the critics' challenges must be addressed.

Too many promising education-reform movements bear out the adage, "Founded on a hunch, dismissed on a negative anecdote." Experiential educators must be able to show that what they are doing lies at the heart of effective learning. Until responsible research backs up anecdotal observation and conclusively demonstrates that the experiential mini-movements can motivate many or most students to master "basic skills and essential knowledge" better than current practice, service-learning, community-service, and school-to-work strategies will remain beset by skepticism or under outright political assault.

The results of these programs speak for themselves. Whether bound for colleges or full-time workplaces after graduation, students are experiencing the relevance, the sense of connection, between academics and life beyond the classroom.

Youths who used to think of themselves as poor or average students have now decided they need and want further education. They have been turned on to the excitement of learning in the classroom--combined with relevant experience in the community or in a workplace.

Students in health sciences develop realistic plans for becoming registered nurses, physicians, and research scientists. Students in metal-working see themselves as future engineers, systems analysts, and geologists. One young woman studying to be a machinist says she has set her sights on no less than owning and managing the company in which she is apprenticing--and for that higher education is essential.

Success in learning is infectious.

Vol. 15, Issue 32, Pages 34-35

Published in Print: May 1, 1996, as 'Academics and Life'
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