When I work with learners in career prep programs, one of my favorite opening activities is asking them to reflect on what they’re good at doing outside of class.
Every learner has unique strengths and abilities. And after each student identifies her own expertise as a musician, cook, basketball player, poet, or gardener, I invite members of the class to discuss the ways they developed these skills.
During these conversations, participants consistently describe variations on similar learning processes: being mentored by people who know them well and who establish caring relationships with them; getting coached by people with unique expertise in relevant career fields; receiving structured and consistent opportunities to practice skills that matter over time; developing talents in challenging but safe environments; persevering while gaining new abilities and learning from mistakes; and reflecting on the successes, challenges, and personal connections that accompany their emerging expertise.
Most educators and learners agree that people learn best by doing, but the contexts and environments in which this might occur vary tremendously across career and technical education programs. Such programs should make career preparation, feel as challenging, supportive, and meaningful as the way learners described developing their skills outside the classroom.
Here are four of the most important things to look for in career and technical learning opportunities that I’ve learned working for YouthBuild USA, an organization that has helped build communities with learners from low-income backgrounds since 1990.
1. The context for different types of learning is important.
The best career and technical education programs contextualize learning by recognizing that basic skills, sector knowledge, and technical professional skills all matter and must be sequenced to meet the unique developmental needs of all individuals.
Great programs provide curricula where technical skills provide a context for learning basic skills (like math, writing, and computer literacy). These skills can and should be taught simultaneously, but the balance should be appropriate for individual students and the way they learn.
Education researchers Estrada and DuBois explain the significance of balancing the general context of basic skills alongside professional micro-level skills. Using the health care field as an example, these skills include therapeutics and diagnostics.
Acquiring very specific technical skills without foundational basic ones or without knowledge of how they fit into a practical, industry-specific context creates confusion and frustration. Conversely, overemphasis on basic skills for more advanced students or dry explanations of a given industry without opportunities to practice hands-on learning will make students lose motivation.
Great career and technical educators understand that professional context certainly matters, but what matters most is balancing the needs and readiness levels of diverse learners.
2. Meaningful relationships matter as much as technical expertise.
Learners want and deserve relationships with adults who deeply understand them and with coaches who understand the careers they are pursuing. Career and technical education experiences should provide the right mix of deep relationships and professional/technical expertise. In your research, ask about both mentorships and on-the-job training. Having a close relationship with an instructor will provide motivation to do well, but it’s important also to be learning from someone who really knows her field.
Employers should work with talented counselors and educators, specifically those who understand the unique needs of learners from low-income backgrounds. At the same time, educators and youth development professionals should work closely with employer partners to create curriculum training approaches that prepare learners for the reality of what employees need to succeed in real jobs.
For example, YouthBuild’s partnership with Starbucks provides students with a customer service excellence training program similar to the exemplary training that Starbucks partners (employees) receive. The training model for YouthBuild students addresses both personal and professional strategies, and includes core youth development, student supports, postsecondary readiness preparation, community service, and leadership development activities.
3. Relevant, hands-on practice works.
When you’re looking into career and technical pathways, it’s essential to find a program that provides you with considerable time working in a hands-on learning environment that is both challenging and well-supported.
It may seem obvious, but the things we practice most we know best. Many educators, however, make the mistake of confusing career exploration with relevant career practice. Hearing a guest speaker from a local hospital or experimenting with a stethoscope in a high school classroom are fine examples of career exploration, but they’re not relevant career practice.
Direct on-the-job training is very effective. YouthBuild’s students spend at least 40 percent of their time during the school year working on a job site for a stipend. Students practice real work and develop relevant skills, but they also have the ability to learn from their mistakes under the supervision of job site coordinators who know their students and the professional competencies they need to succeed in their field.
4. Instructors should be on the same page.
It’s important to ask about the ways in which classroom educators collaborate with on-the-job educators, and find out whether they work together to establish a culture that proves consistent across academic and workforce settings.
When instructors attempt to integrate classroom work with hands-on job training, they often envision Eureka! moments in which students recognize that the Pythagorean Theorem they learned in math class can determine a measurement on a construction site. This sort of learning is both powerful and difficult, and it requires considerable coordination between academic and vocational instructors.
An easier place for many programs to start is working toward greater consistency between job sites and classrooms in norms, routines, and culture. If brief reflective writing assignments or exit assessment cards work in the classroom, then teachers should encourage job site supervisors to implement the same strategies. Basic rules for punctuality should be made clear and enforced in both environments.
Establishing community norms and expectations — and enforcing them in different spaces — helps instructors and students alike know what to prepare for and how to engage productively in work. This consistency also helps students to recognize the real connections among success in the classroom, at college, or in career pathways.
A Final Note
When people are fully engaged in the hands-on work of building something tangible, they expand their thinking and develop habits that transfer to classrooms as well as careers. When programs execute this kind of training properly, people learn how to solve problems, ask constructive questions, and organize their thinking in ways that apply to the real world. Exemplary career and technical education programs can build working hands and working minds simultaneously.