What Work-Based Learning Has Taught Me about the Classroom, Work, & the Spaces Between


In the state of Georgia, we have a work-release program for students aged 16 years or older coined Work-Based Learning (WBL). Essentially, if a WBL coordinator at a school uses the program well, WBL becomes a bridge for students from academics to the work force through meaningful internships. Most states have this sort of program and while I have learned more about it over the last three years, this is the first year I find myself in the coordinator position (along with a few other distinct roles). A coordinator is responsible for piles of data, including, yes, grades, attendance, applications, but also, inputting information into a state database, maintaining your own database, evaluations from various businesses, maintaining and developing a roster of businesses, sign-out sheets–the list really does go on and on. The amount of paperwork can certainly be justified. We’re talking about real work, real businesses, adolescents and adults working together for a common good. That all translates to a need for accountability from everyone involved.

In the opening weeks of this school year, my eyes have been opened to the challenges my upperclassmen face and the realities they face in the world waiting for them after high school. If you follow my blog, there is a good chance you know I am an advocate and proponent of using the classroom space as one where not only is content taught but soft/21st century skills are practiced as well. Hence, my strong belief in project-based learning (PBL) as a viable and important instructional method. The WBL program is meant to support growth in these areas as well. Really, before a student even qualifies for WBL at 16 the hope is they have taken at least one course in Career and Technology Education (CTE) where many of those skills are to be focused on continually. What has become apparent in the last few weeks is despite CTE, or even exposure to some PBL, many of WBL students really do lack the soft/21st century skills necessary for their success beyond the confines of high school.

First, to be clear, my school’s WBL program is one I inherited, so I don’t quite have my thumbprint on the program yet. The students I have this year are a genuine mix of students truly pursuing a career-interest related internship, and students that are working your prototypical, part-time retail and food service jobs. Now, I do believe any job brings valuable learning experiences, but I intend to develop the program into one where each student is in a genuine internship, garnering experience with leadership and the tools of the business. That said, I definitely had expectations that most of my seniors in the program would be work ready. After all, they had three years already of being a PBL-focused school with several CTE courses to choose from. That simply have not been the reality.

Also to be clear, these students are not incompetent. Far from it! But they are ignorant in the most true sense of the word; they simply lack the knowledge needed to navigate the complexities of work and, honestly, the nuances of independence and responsibility. But before I get into what I have been learning that concerns me, I need to share with you what is going well.

Some of the students in the course are absolute go-getters who, despite having a serving job or retail position originally, have gone out and obtained jobs at local clinics or offices that expose them to their interests in healthcare, finance, management, and even construction. As I help grow the program, I will work to help students land these coveted internships before the summer of the following school year rolls around. In the meantime, I have been inspired by how a few of my students really took matters into their own hands and had little trouble overcoming being told ‘no’ and cold calling businesses to be given a chance. They clearly have developed some skills in communication. This, however, is a minority of the 40ish students in the program.

What I have observed from most of my students–even those who have solid internships–is a general sense of ‘I-can-figure-this-out-on-my-own’ or ‘I’m-just-doing-this-to-leave-school-early’ or ‘I-am-scared-to-death-to-become-an-adult’ from each of them. This may not surprise you. If I’m honest though, those attitudes and concerns surprised me. I want to believe these students–most of whom I’ve known from their freshmen year–had been prepared for this moment. That somewhere along the line, they had encountered instruction and experiences that embedded essential communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills. I now know that I, and really the world of modern education in the United States, have a long way to go in preparing and inspiring our young adults to truly feel equipped to ‘adult’. We certainly have been trying to prepare students, but without going down a rabbit hole, suffice to say we are missing the mark somewhere.

This brings up some age-old philosophical arguments about who in our culture is to teach a child these soft/21st century skills and what time in their development? I refuse to get into that argument now. Rather, I want to just accept that my job is the one that must help prepare students for life after their secondary education, but I don’t have to take on that task alone. What I feel I’m starting to unpack is the desperate need to partner with families and community more and more often. I have always felt this was important, but now I feel it is necessary. The success of my current students in this WBL program appears to hinge on how well I coordinate their experiences with my conversations with their parents and employers. I don’t mind the demand–I’m scared I don’t have the capacity!

So what helps alleviate this fear moving forward? Well, for this year, I need to invest in who I have in front of me and lean into their concerns and work to open up authentic forums for them to voice and discuss how they are processing their transition from adolescent to young adult. (I think this also means I have some academic reading to do from a sociological point of view and more recent research on defining adolescents and young adulthood in the United States and elsewhere in the world.) These authentic avenues will, unfortunately, be difficult t build. I only interact with them as a group about once a month, and my site visits are often short due to needing to see several students in a single afternoon. Still, when I do have them, I need to build in ways for inquiry to lead to curiosity and to build connective tissue among the students to explore who they are at any particular moment and what they are always in the process of becoming. I want to use these explorations and discussions to critique and investigate communication, collaboration, and critical thinking, especially in the context of the work place.

As for the future, I would like to build-in more meaningful exposure to these same conversations with students during their first two years of high school. I want to collaborate more purposefully with my CTE teachers and other departments to bring an intentional emphasis on students unpacking the nuances of communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. Honestly, I’m ‘simply’ talking about metacognition, but there is certainly nothing simply about pushing a developing, adolescent brain to take up that inquiry in meaningful ways. So per what I have come to expect as an educator, there is nothing simple or clear about next steps, but I see more clearly than ever the importance supporting identity work in classrooms in the sense that work could very well help with the development of soft/21st century skills.

I am hopeful I can share some meaningful practices I use later as this year progresses. Today’s post is almost entirely a mixture of venting and acknowledging to a wider audience my ‘a-ha’ moment this first month of school. I think at this point in The Empire Strikes Back Yoda would remind me I have much to learn.

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