Young People Want More Exposure to What Professionals Do

May 16, 2013 • Kim Farris-Berg

This post was originally blogged on the Education Week Of, By, For blog.

Young people can be very ambitious and are capable of great achievements. Consider these stories of teens’ achievement from a different time, as described by Newt Gingrich in Business Week:

“At age 13, Benjamin Franklin finished school in Boston, was apprenticed to his brother, a printer and publisher, and moved immediately into adulthood. John Quincy Adams attended Leiden University in Holland at 13 and at 14 was employed as secretary and interpreter by the American Ambassador to Russia. At 16 he was secretary to the U.S. delegation during the negotiations with Britain that ended the Revolution.

“Daniel Boone got his first rifle at 12, was an expert hunter at 13, and at 15 made a year-long trek through the wilderness to begin his career as America’s most famous explorer. The list goes on and on.”

In their time, Franklin, Adams and Boone were able to transition seamlessly from “child” to “adult.” If they were living as teenagers today, however, they’d be spending their time at school. There are many reasons why “adolescence” came to exist, some well-intentioned, but as acceptance for it grew, so did the idea that we could control teens’ activities. Case in point: We’ve made school attendance and rigorous coursework compulsory, with high stakes, slowing teens’ progress toward making the kinds of achievements that young people have made in the past. We presume teens will comply because of our assurances that education, as we now offer it, will yield a promising future.

Yet for many teens, our assurances are not enough. They want to know the connection between their coursework and their potential life’s work. Their human instinct to pursue achievement in the way that Franklin, Adams and Boone did has them wondering, “What exactly IS a promising future? What is it that adults do all day in their various professions, and which profession is for me? Where will I make my mark? How will school help me, and why should I commit to it in order to achieve my goals?”

In a 2011 Citizens League Students Speak Out project, students reported that exposure to professionals to learn about jobs and careers is a major missing piece of their education, both inside and outside of school. Students pointed out that there are college fairs, but no career fairs. They perceive that their school counselors’ job is to help students make academic choices that keep them on track for college. Teachers’ job is to teach academic content so students are ready for college. Students wondered: Could it be someone’s job to ensure students’ exposure to many career possibilities so they can identify their purpose for graduating from high school and going to college OR another post-secondary option of their choosing?

More and more students are expressing this idea. Project Tomorrow reached 319,223 K-12 students and 25,544 teachers in its 2007 national Speak Up survey. Among other things, the survey sought to learn what would interest middle and high school students in pursuing STEM careers. Choosing from 12 possible factors, the students clearly indicated that interactions with professionals and professionals’ job environments would be among the most influential. Yet just five percent of teachers surveyed indicated that they introduced students to science professionals as an instructional strategy.

Chapter 8 of the 10-part video series A Year at Mission Hill documents how the teachers at Boston’s Mission Hill K-8 School know that learning academic content and having real-life, professional experiences alongside adults need not be mutually exclusive. In the position to collectively make the decisions influencing whole school success, these teachers have consciously decided to expose students to the world of work as part of the learning program.

In one project, students researched and practiced how to interview adults from a wide range of professions in ways that would draw out the information they wanted to learn. Later they conducted the in-person interviews and wrote up their findings in engaging, first-person essays, as if they were the professionals. These students worked with writers from the nonprofit 826 Boston to produce and publish a compilation of their work, called A Place For Me In The World, discovering what it is to take on a project from start to finish. This takes “learning writing standards” to a whole new level. These students don’t have to wait to make “adult” achievements. They are published authors!

In Trusting Teachers with School Success, my colleagues and I found that teachers who call the shots often prioritize giving students the opportunity to regularly connect with professionals and try their hands at professional-level work. These teachers put middle and high school students in the position to design and manage their own learning activities using guidelines that include making strong connections with community members who work in their chosen areas of study.

Student Holly Marsh, as a senior at Avalon School in St. Paul, did a capstone project on education policy. She spent 800 hours working on the project with various education policy professionals in and around the Twin Cities, cited 262 sources in her 45-page research paper, attended 32 legislative committee meetings, lobbied 27 politicians, co-wrote five reports, and gave testimony four times. All of this contributed to the revision of one state statute and the enactment of another. These activities weren’t a side effort for young Marsh. They were experiential learning, alongside adults, for school credit! Marsh is now employed as a legislative assistant for Minnesota Senator Bev Scalze and is also a student at Metropolitan State University. (Notably, for an earlier project Marsh worked as an interpretive park ranger for the National Park Service, but learned that career path wasn’t for her.)

Students who attend schools like Avalon and Mission Hill are learning what their lives will be post-graduation, and what it will take to pursue their professional ambitions. School work and the world of work are interconnected in their minds and in their experience. For these students, outside-of-school achievements are in the realm of what’s possible now – professional achievements aren’t something obscure and unknown, delayed until some point in the future when they will finally be adults. If we want more students to stay committed to the pursuit of a promising future, then perhaps we ought to consider doing what the Avalon and Mission Hill teachers have done. That is, let the students experience tomorrow today.

Kim Farris-Berg is an independent education policy consultant based in Orange County, CA and a Senior Associate with Education Evolving.