Work-Based Learning: A New Frontier for Schools?

Work-Based Learning: A New Frontier for Schools?

Work-based learning is an emerging, sought-after component of a 21st-century education. Indeed, a simple internet search for the term yields myriad news citations, with policymakers and politicians often calling for more work-related and work-based learning experiences for students—especially high schoolers. (Teachers can even get a work-based learning license at some colleges.) With frequent news reports on both the current low unemployment rate and the need for a more skilled workforce, it makes sense that educators observers are interested in maximizing skills- and work-based programming in the classroom.


Understanding work-based learning

So, what exactly is work-based learning? Simply put, it is schoolwork that includes a practical workplace application—or, as the United States Department of Education phrases it, an “instructional strategy that enhances classroom learning by connecting it to the workplace.” For those interested in learning more about the concept, the U.S. DoE website offers case studies, profiles of students engaged in work-based learning, and advice on such topics as how to create a “state work-based learning strategy” (including determining how detailed and involved a state’s education officials would like their programming to be and how best to train administrators and educators to implement job-oriented schooling). The department also advocates for a multifaceted approach to work-based learning by providing a framework built around academic support, mentorship, and skills training.

This fits well with a review of work-based learning conducted by the American Institutes for Research’s Policy Center (AIR). In 2016, AIR noted that although more Americans than ever are graduating from high school and pursuing some type of postsecondary education, “only 59 percent of students attending four-year colleges will earn their degrees within six years.” The numbers are even lower for those enrolling in community colleges; according to AIR, just 29 percent of students earn an associate degree in three years or less. What does this have to do with work-based learning? It highlights an important point: Simply graduating from high school or enrolling in college may no longer be enough to ensure future academic or job-related success.

Indeed, many employers are noting a lack of preparedness among high school graduates. AIR found that “more than three-quarters of employers reported gaps in recent high school graduates’ preparation for typical jobs in their companies; about half said the gaps were large,” with researchers concluding that “Educators, employers, and policymakers see the problem: the old either/or model of college-prep or vocational education is simply out of sync with the needs of 21st-century America.” Enter work-based learning, which AIR characterized as a “seamless system” in which high school and even middle school students can plan for their professional futures.


Work-based learning in action

In a work-based learning program, a high school student interested in, for example, the culinary arts could gain practical, hands-on skills and ideally construct a rigorous enough academic foundation to be able to pursue postsecondary coursework within the culinary field. The key here is to position academic instruction as a path to success in whatever career piques a student's interest.

What's more, this work can start long before high school. In a 2016 post about how to incorporate projects into elementary school classrooms, John Larmer, editor-in-chief of the Buck Institute for Education’s Project-Based Learning website, noted that “Projects create a meaningful reason for students to read and write and … build content knowledge that students need to comprehend texts.” Because such projects may be used to facilitate the practical application of literacy skills, they can thus function as an important component of work-based learning. Larmer presented the example of a “Pizza and the World of Work” project for younger elementary school students that encompasses a variety of essential and wide-ranging pizza-related literacy skills including reading, writing, analysis, and interviewing. Participating students may be asked to write up menus, interview adults in their lives about pizza-eating habits, and compose restaurant reviews, among other tasks—in short, they are encouraged to practice their emerging skills in the context of real-world scenarios. For older students, a similarly themed project might involve actually working at a pizza restaurant or taking culinary arts lessons while still in school.

An academic component

Many work-based learning programs emphasize academic skills as well as concrete job skills. In Ohio, for example, an initiative designed to introduce high school students to manufacturing jobs offers a detailed guide on how to implement a work-based learning model at the secondary level. This includes helping students “not only apply the theory and skills learned in the classroom but also to develop higher-level critical thinking skills, problem-solving, and decision-making in the complex work environment” present in many industries. According to the guide, teachers and administrators can tap into “greater student motivation” by connecting classroom work to paid internships or by realigning the curriculum so students are able to earn work-based certificates while still in high school.

Further, students in a work-based learning program may be asked to research and write about jobs that interest them, or to explain how school assignments have relevance beyond the classroom. They can further practice 21st-century literacy and communications skills by going on real or mock job interviews; writing thank you notes to potential employers; and actively analyzing, summarizing, and reflecting on their workplace experiences. (You can find helpful examples of some of these activities here.) The Texas-based group Workforce Solutions has also put together a curriculum guide for educators that comes with a wealth of practical exercises and prompts secondary school students to think of their skills from a variety of perspectives.

In the end, programs that constructively help students apply their academic skills through the lens of current and future job opportunities may truly achieve what AIR called "a new approach to both classwork and career training." Instead of addressing each element in isolation, work-based learning programs can help students practice important academic skills while also building career and workplace experience.

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