Real-World Lessons

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In a recent story on the front page of my local newspaper, students and teachers from a nearby high school raved about a new "senior year project." One teacher called it "a life-altering experience" that "literally saved my career." Students talked about how it sparked fun and learning and how they now were thinking differently about their lives and the future. Although many seniors were initially reluctant to participate in the project, 80 percent pronounced it worthwhile afterward.

Testimonials abound about the success of programs that take students into the real world and give them mentors as teachers.

So what is this exciting addition to the high school curriculum—a curriculum that a majority of American students find boring? It's not a new discovery but an old, tried-and-true idea: learning by doing, integrating ideas with action, linking the classroom to the real world. The senior project is a descendent of the apprenticeship—the most effective form of education ever invented. It is cousin to the on-the-job training that business has always relied on.

At my nearby high school, seniors are required to learn about something they've never studied before. Working with mentors from outside the school, the students do at least 15 hours of field research, write a substantial paper with a hefty bibliography, and demonstrate mastery of new skills and knowledge in a year-end exhibition before judges who are teachers and community representatives. The project counts as their final exam in English.

One young man spent an afternoon each week in the offices of the American Civil Liberties Union assessing the constitutionality of student conduct policies and regulations. Reading through district handbooks, he got excited as he discovered the fun of applying knowledge to real problems. He did significant work and felt useful. Now, inspired by the ACLU lawyers, he wants to pursue a career in law.

Wow. Isn't that what we hope will happen to all students? They'll wake up; they'll become engaged in real work that stimulates their curiosity and motivates them to learn and do more. Shouldn't that be what school is about? Most educators apparently don't think so—only about 300 of the nation's 21,000 high schools offer senior projects. These are undoubtedly rare because they take time away from the prescribed curriculum, which generally is more about covering material than promoting understanding. Yet the knowledge and ideas embodied in a good curriculum become real and powerful only when they are connected to each other and to life. Memorizing information to do well on tests is not learning and not worth the time and money we spend on schooling. Learning in context, where ideas and experience connect, is far more likely to endure in students' lives and prove useful.

It's not a new discovery but an old, tried-and- true idea.

Testimonials abound about the success of programs that take students into the real world and give them mentors as teachers. In California, a teacher who has done senior projects for 10 years says former students testify that the work prepared them for college better than anything else they did.

The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Providence, Rhode Island-a school that I've been associated with for several years—has embraced projects as the core of its curriculum. An innovative public high school, the Met has a student body that reflects the socioeconomic diversity of the city. Each of its 200 students (not just seniors) designs an individual learning program in collaboration with a parent, a teacher, and a mentor. The program takes them out of class part of every week to work in banks, offices, hospitals, restaurants, universities, and the like. The Met doesn't have a traditional curriculum, but students do research that requires a range of knowledge and skills. They also take courses in nearby colleges.

By mid-April, all but two of the Met's 48 seniors had been admitted to universities, including Brown, Tufts, and Northeastern—quite an accomplishment considering that it is likely that many of them would have dropped out of a traditional high school. Such success offers key lessons. Many new high school graduates will say that their most important educational experiences didn't always take place in the classroom; they learned about themselves—and their classmates—in myriad ways that wouldn't be classified as "academic." That should tell us something.

—Ronald A. Wolk

Vol. 11, Issue 8, Page 6

Published in Print: May 1, 2000, as Real-World Lessons
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