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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

New Routes to Student Engagement: Vermont Work-Based Learning

I attended a large public high school in Southern California and had a very successful - but traditional - educational experience. I listened to lectures, took multiple-choice tests, and learned a curriculum that prepared me to succeed on state standardized testing. On the surface, the classic education system worked for me; I graduated as co-valedictorian of my high school and matriculated into my first-choice college. 

Nevertheless, when reflecting on my educational experience, I feel regret. I think that this regret stems from two causes - my obsession with grades and my lack of control over my own education. In my school, and many others like it, grades were everything. Good grades signified awards, the teachers’ respect, and admission to a prestigious college. This mindset translated poorly into my work ethic, as I often attempted to game the system by studying only what was needed to succeed on my teachers’ tests. Once I knew that I could secure a good grade, I stopped paying attention. As a result, the glorification of grades limited my investment in my education and stunted my personal growth. 

I learned geometry sitting in a classroom copying down the Pythagorean Theorem. Jackson Counter, a high school student in Vermont, learned geometry by plotting angles over acres of land and drawing blueprints for areas in his hometown.


This leads me to my second point of regret – the lack of control I had over my own education. Take my geometry class: the most memorable part of that class was not one of Ms. Custodio’s lectures; it was not the hours we spent doing proofs (In fact, I don’t have the slightest idea about the proper format for a proof anymore). Rather, the most memorable part of the class was chucking pencils at the plaster tiles in the ceiling. Looking back on my educational experience, my most prominent memories are of the actions that I took to escape the walls of the classroom. In my geometry class, my action was unproductive, but that wasn’t always the case: one of my favorite memories from middle school is a project that I did in my world history class. I chose to research the travels of Marco Polo, created an informative map charting his journey, and gave a presentation to my class from his perspective. That is the only memory that remains from a class otherwise filled with lectures and static note taking. The material that stays with me is the information I engaged deeply with, mixing my own ideas creatively with what I learned in class.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend a conference in Vermont as a member of CCE’s Quality Performance Assessment (QPA) team. Students and educators in the Vermont school system attended the conference to discuss the new work-based learning systems being implemented in schools. The students, who had participated in their schools’ work-based learning programs, spoke about their experiences on a panel and in roundtable discussions. Listening to the students, a few things stood out to me. Firstly, they had all participated in amazing, diverse work, from apprenticing at a recording studio, to working as a land surveyor, to helping provide educational programs for youth in the community. Additionally, on top of the soft skills that the students developed by working in the real-world, they were also all able to expound upon the “hard” skills that they gained from their experience. The students could effortlessly relate their work back to their more traditional classroom lessons, and most of them elaborated that they actually had an easier time learning concepts through their workplace applications than they did in the classroom. Lastly, the students seemed to be extremely connected to the work. 

To me, the most impressive aspect of the conference was the passion with which the students discussed their experiences. I’ve had lots of conversations about school with my friends who all came from traditional schooling backgrounds, and none have talked as enthusiastically about their work as these Vermont students. I think that the passion with which they spoke is a direct reflection of the agency students had in their own learning. The work-based learning programs were clearly a formative part of these students’ educational experience. 

Allowing students to participate in work-based learning helps me to combat my regrets about my own schooling. Work-based learning programs deemphasize the importance of grades by putting students into situations where their work can make an actual difference in the community, and the programs afford students greater control of their educational experiences. Work-based learning programs undoubtedly provide students with a higher quality of education than traditional schooling. And while some would argue that there are many instances where quality should be sacrificed in the name of ease, the education of children should not be one of them.  

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