Inside Out

The Atlantic has had particularly outstanding ed coverage of late, and last month published an excellent article entitled “Where Kids Learn More Outside their Classrooms Than In Them”

The article contextualizes that amidst various reform initiatives to reinvent our country’s high schools, initiatives that connect students more directly to their individual interests—and tap into their innate motivations—are gaining popularity (hallelujah!) It rightly cites New Hampshire as one of a handful of states at the forefront of efforts to promote flexibility in how students learn and how that knowledge is measured thereby serving as a testing ground for innovations in school improvement.

New Hampshire is a pretty inspiring example of state-wide innovation that is very much up my alley.  The state has put a premium on "extended learning opportunities" that can take the form of workplace internships, volunteer work, individualized study, or one-on-one instruction. Students earn credit in English-language arts provided their plan meets Common Core Standards and academic standards as outlined by the New Hampshire Department of Education.  

The article profiles a small, formerly-failing 7-12 school in Pittsfield that embraced "student-centered learning" and extended learning and note these as the key to the school’s turnaround and rising graduation and college-enrollment rates.  The coordinator of the school’s extended learning program Sheila Ward captures why this is quite well: "How students do after graduation is a better measure of the success of a high school than just standardized assessments—tests don’t measure life skills.  Our kids are developing relationships out in the community, they’re seeing connections between what they’re learning and where they want to go. Instead of just adding to their academic transcripts, they’re building resumes."

And, I would add, they’re building life experience—priceless.  

In order to truly understand what extended learning is, it’s important to understand what it is not. Pittsfield’s educators emphasize that their program isn’t a shortcut toward earning course credit or a means of removing students from classrooms or a substitute for school teachers (something that the union gets VERY concerned about). Students are expected to fulfill rigorous guidelines demonstrating what they’ve learned, maintaining a journal detailing their activities, completing assignments, undergoing multiple assessments, and creating a final project and presentation.

While the program is voluntary, it’s become an increasingly popular option. Ward estimates that 75% of participants are currently working in or pursuing postsecondary studies in related fields--a pretty amazing statistic and a credit to Ward's ability to truly make matches for just about every career field students have requested, from dental hygiene to graphic design.  Creativity is needed of course: some students have had to travel to bigger cities or do some of their activities via videoconferencing.

The article references a 2012 report by researchers at George Washington University’s Center on Education Policy comparing outcomes for a wide array of school programs intended to boost student motivation and learning. The researchers concluded that when students see a direct connection between what they are learning and their own interests and goals, they are likely to be more motivated—which in turn often means they’re more likely to comprehend the material, have higher self-esteem, and graduate. While this is not one iota surprising, it’s valuable to have research to substantiate what we know intuitively and experientially.  Although the study cautioned that duplicating a program can be difficult because students’ needs vary so greatly, research suggests that successful programs often incorporate community service, offer project-based learning, and encourage students to be independent thinkers.

The most meaningful part of the article to me comes towards the very end, when USC psychology professor Daphna Oyserman is quoted emphasizing that student motivation requires demonstrating relevance and citing the need for teachers to show students that their futures are actually closer than they might think. "You want kids to see there’s a path from now to the future, that the path involves school, and that current choices to invest effort and keep trying in school matter for future options." Oysterman rightly notes the dangers of structuring a learning experience too narrowly or rigidly, and thus risking undermining motivation of kids who don't yet have any sense of what career path is right for them, while quoting students who have already pivoted in their professional aspirations several times based on internship and other experiences and feel ahead of the survey for when they enter college.  Being better informed and equipped to make choices about and during the all-important first year of college is huge and I’d love to surface research or statistics on the long-range outcomes for students in program's like Pittsfield and New Hampshire at large.

Coming soon: a closer look at challenges and opportunities career programs are facing in partnering with employers.