Summary: Contextual Teaching and Learning uses brain research to show the important role of meaning and connections to learning a specific lesson. I’ve been exploring how “meaning” may impact the overall level of learning in school as it affects students’ engagement in school and overall achievement in preparation for what they do after they leave the secondary education system and get a job, seek post secondary job training or go to college. I believe that we are wasting our time and money if we think we can improve student graduation and academic scores without shifting resources to life, career and academic planning activities that give our youth meaning to why they are going to school and help them to increase their intrinsic motivation to learn. The following post shares some of the work I’ve done on this topic. In a future post I’ll address a related call to action to change the way parents are integrated in to the education system.
Soon after returning to Alaska in 1999 I joined the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) as the director of the Applied Technologies Program that included the MS Vocational Education (later CTE – Career and Technical Education and now integrated with other ed programs). During the period of from 2000-2003 I was involved with a inspiring group of people all working on the early Tech-Prep programs, program articulations and CTE pathways projects. I was particularly impacted by the pedagogical approach of Conceptual Teaching and Learning (CTL).
After leaving UAA I served as the Chair and Executive Director of APICC (Alaska Process Industry Careers Consortium) and was the program manager for the North Slope Training Cooperative. I continued to be involved in issues related to workforce development, youth safety (at risk) and CTE including designing a pilot program to improve the academic advising and career/college readiness of students at Steller School where my son Russel attended 7-12 grades.
My earlier introduction to CTL made me aware of the importance of “meaning” to learning and I found many students I met at schools or through our kids’ extracurricular activities did not have a strong attachment to why they were going to school and by 12th grade, that many struggled with believing they were learning anything of value. If there was no value or meaning, it would then be expected from the CTL research that learning would stop. From my perspective, it’s no surprise today that we continue to struggle with poor high school academic achievement, low graduation rates and the need for most first year university students to take some college prep classes to meet first year standards. (Back when we had the 10th grade high school exit qualifying exam, I wanted the entire test thrown out and replaced with one question…
What is your plan for getting to where you want to be in life five years after high school graduation?
I’m certain the answers would be a wake-up call for educators, administrators and parents, and far more valuable than all the gyrations adjusting the passing bar of the exam’s academic questions before abandoning the effort.)
Contextual Teaching and Learning (CTL) emphasizes the brain’s processes of capturing and retaining knowledge through meaning and connections. CTL fit closely with CTE because of the values of integrated and experiential learning, project and community based learning. Eventually this led me to conclude that helping students find personal “meaning” in their education was the greatest challenge and opportunity we had, and that we still must work on. To a large degree I find that we expect parents to fill this role, without any preparation or resources for them to help their kids. If the schools are not providing structured life, career and academic planning that give meaning to the educational expectations to graduate and prepare for life after graduation; and parents don’t know how, is it a surprise when students don’t value education?
To that end I worked with a couple teachers in 2013 at Stellar to pilot a program we called “Futures” that took advantage of the unique advisory class and scheduling at the school. This was no biased for college bound students. It was intended to help plan for the next year in high school, as well as a job after graduation, the military, an apprenticeship, or college – whatever would give meaning to learning and being prepared for the future. The test program used material already developed and available from the Matsu School District. One of the teachers run the pilot through the year, but nothing more was done after the transition of principals and the graduation of my son. Yet I remain convinced that if we could do two things to change the impact of school on preparing students for what comes after 12th grade (assuming we kept the 12th grade), it would be to invest in helping students find meaning in their education and their future, and a subject for a different post, change the way we engage and educate parents together with their children. Here is what the “Futures” program included.
Steller’s value-driven environment incorporated parental involvement and self-directed learning that required a unique approach to academic and career education. The hypothesis of this pilot program was that some students may not develop a clear vision of their long-term learning or career goals initially, and that it would be beneficial to offer guidance and support to students during their entire time at Steller. The program was designed to engage creativity, strengthen critical thinking skills, provide opportunities to learn through experience, and develop a commitment to lifelong learning as students explore and prepare for their future.
The goals of the program were to help students build self-awareness, explore options, and prepare for a chosen academic and career paths over the course of their years at Stellar. Current academic and career activities consisted of short term advising for the next semester (choosing classes from what was offered) and preparation of college and financial assistance applications. With no long-term comprehensive program in place, I felt that Steller students were missing vital opportunities including:
Pursuit of self-directed learning opportunities and complementary programs of study inside and outside of the Steller core curriculum offering.
Access to performance scholarship funds available through the State of Alaska
Completion of courses needed for college and vocational school entrance
Building connections to local businesses through on-the-job experiences
Collaborate with complementary initiatives such as Be the Change, community experience through mentorship and volunteer opportunities, and an education hub listing of available classes and resources outside the school.
The “Futures” Individual Career and Academic Planning (ICAP) Program Elements assumed that teacher schedules were full – adding something would mean giving up something. Steller’s governing model allows for the ICAP program to occur at the Advisory Group level. So, to avoid asking more of teachers the program intent was to use the existing advisory classes and then empower students to become peer leaders in the program with faculty and parents providing guidance. Suggested major activities of a three-phase approach covering the six years a student might be at Stellar included:
Career Awareness (Grade 7-8) – Connecting personal goals and careers to lifelong societal contribution – Begin career exploration through interest inventories, purpose discussions, and past successes. Lay foundation for building a 6-year academic plan with potential self-directed learning activities and questions to explore aligned with AK Performance Scholarship requirements. (Note that traditionally career awareness would occur in grades K-5/6, but Stellar only offered a 7-12 curriculum.)
Career Exploration (Grades 9-10) – Exploring career choices – Reflect on learning, update questions and areas of interest. Begin exploration of career preparation options and focused academic activities to determine impact on 6-year plan, class load and scheduling. Develop personal mission statement and purpose. Study career pathways and fields, explore and experience off campus opportunities, update 6-year plan and draft 5-year post-secondary career map.
Career Path Preparation (Grades 11-12) – Preparing for one’s chosen career or post-secondary plan of study – Continued reflective assessment of interests and skills, post-secondary study and career options and connection to potential community-based learning opportunities. Personality testing and development of team work skills. Identify skill gaps and develop individualized learning goals and focus. Begin college or secondary training program selection process and prepare to serve as leaders and mentors to younger students in the Futures ICAP program. Update 5-year post-secondary plan with funding component.
Number of students involved in advanced 12th grade post-secondary preparation activities and student teaching
Number of students involved in self-directed learning activities while in 12th grade
Number of students with a 5-year post-secondary plan (job, occupational training, military, apprenticeship, CTE/college, University..)
Student confidence level in being prepared for the future with an academic and post-secondary plan
Parent participation and confidence in student academic and career plans.
Number of advisory groups using the system (long-term study only)
The pilot program was designed to include, but did not actually fully implement the following plan:
Design Phase (Fall 2013) – work with All Community and other work groups to design program and link to other plans (hub, volunteer, mentoring, passages…)
Pilot Phase (Spring 2014) – create linkage to other activities and test program elements, timing, and draft tools
Pilot Evaluation (Late Spring 2014)
Program Design (Summer 2014) – fund 1-2 teachers to work with a CTE UAA faculty or ASD CTE coordinator to develop program materials for students, teachers, and parents
Program Training (Fall 2014) – Offer UAA/APU professional development course to Steller teachers to study the Steller Futures IACP program and career education models and develop plans for advisory group integration and monitoring/metrics collection tools
Program Evaluation (Spring 2015) – data collection and analysis
Program Revisions & Reporting (Summer 2015) – teachers/faculty receive stipend to revise materials and publish results
Results were inconclusive with one advisory group teacher incorporating some of the material in to their advisory class, but with changes to the school and administration and cuts to district wide career education and counseling, nothing more happened with the program. This program does require that students have some time for this program. Stellar’s advisory class was a once a week class that uniquely provided this time to work on the Futures activities and uniquely brought together students from all grades in to the same class through their years at Stellar to build community and consistency in a home-room experience.
Over the nearly 20 years I’ve worked on this topic. the Anchorage School district has increased and decreased their support for career and academic counseling and with the new leadership that I’ve reached out to, I don’t know what may be coming. The new superintendent is from the Matsu School District which has been a leader in CTE and career education over the years, so I am hopeful for Anchorage. However, funding challenges have left career guidance resources an easy target for cuts. More recently the state has increased its focus on career and technical education with more funding for vocational programs. However, I believe that it has been a good but limited approach focused on providing relevant education for some, rather than the deeper approach of giving meaning to education that I believe would improve the academic and outcomes for all students, not just those looking for more occupational preparation. The state does have some good resources and continues to support the AKCIS system for career development, but I view this all as passive and that the effort still lacks the focus and priority it should have to impact student achievement.