Working at Learning

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The pressure is on. National and community leaders are sending signals to schools to get with the program and find ways to prepare schoolchildren to address the needs of a changing nation.

It's up to schools to ensure that students are armed with critical-thinking and problem-solving skills to give the American workforce a competitive edge in the dynamic global economy. Schools must also introduce students to the world of work to ensure they become productive members of society. And they must teach students to be more civic-minded and oriented toward leadership as well as to claim more responsibility for their neighborhood development. Faced with such a mission, many schools look to school-to-work, community-service, and service-learning programs for curriculum strategies.

All three approaches subscribe to the philosophy of experiential education--learning by doing--to get students into their communities for active learning. Only their purposes are different. School-to-work programs prepare students for careers; service learning and community service seek to instill civic responsibility. And, while most agree with the broad intentions of these programs and with what they mean for shaping students, many disagree on the role that schools should play in delivering them.

Proponents champion the idea of schools forming partnerships with community-based organizations, pooling the efforts of neighbors and teachers, and creating "schools without walls" in the hope of instilling visions in their students' heads of their future livelihood. Equipped with such a sense of possibility, the theory goes, students will be more inclined to plug away at academics; they can see that their hard work will pay off down the road.

But critics argue that teaching job skills and engaging students in community-service projects are not a part of a school's core mission. Schools already struggle to simply teach the basics; teachers hardly have the time or energy to add yet another "extra" to their lesson plans. Moreover, some children simply are not ready for these experiential programs until they have mastered at least the fundamentals.

In this special section, one writer insists that educators must now look outside the "prism of school" and into other community-based organizations to educate today's students. Another writer, who played a key role in developing Maryland's high school community-service requirement, asserts that teaching such skills is a fundamental part of schools' missions. On the other hand, a concerned grandparent argues that such programs are unnecessary curriculum "add-ons" that schools should not be burdened with, especially because the strategies do not work for every student.

Finally, two high school teachers reflect on how they integrated school-to-work and service-learning projects into the curriculum--to the benefit of the students and the community.

This special Commentary report, one in a series examining crucial issues in education, is being underwritten by a grant from the Philip Morris Companies Inc.

Vol. 15, Issue 32, Page 33

Published in Print: May 1, 1996, as Working at Learning
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