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Careers and Callings: Four Ways to Reinvent Adolescent Learning

CONTENT WARNING: This piece raises issues of mental health and suicide. Cora, the name used here, is a pseudonym.

I met Cora when she was 19 and on the cusp of earning her diploma at West Brooklyn Community High School. Though her path to graduation was tortuous, it brought her to her calling: the dream of becoming a psychologist. Cora told me how this happened.

It began with struggles in high school. Falling in with the wrong group of friends, she began skipping classes, then skipping school altogether. Soon, she was failing all her classes, her relationship with her family frayed. She began to feel desperate. She attempted suicide.

But her story took a better turn. With help from nurses, counselors, and health care professionals, she began a road to recovery.

That road brought her to the small, caring high school where I met her. But this interaction with professionals also brought her new insight into herself and her future. When I met her with this harrowing journey behind her, Cora told me that she wanted to become a psychologist.

“Why?” I asked.

So that she could help others on that same journey, she explained.

Cora was lucky; her path could have gone many ways. For some students, these challenges are overwhelming, and too often adults do not have the training or knowledge to help adolescents through them.

What Cora had discovered, both through and in spite of her educational journey, was a vocation. A career is what you do, but a vocation is what you are called to do. Though “vocational education” has different connotations these days, finding a vocation is in fact far more meaningful than “career-readiness” or “college-readiness” or, frankly, any “readiness.” It is true, educators must ready students for the world as it is. But great educators engage with students to find a calling to make the world what it could be.

In her return to school, Cora benefited from a group of adults who treated her differently than others had, in a school that treated education differently than many high schools. Here are four ideas from that experience, for educators and policymakers to reinvent education.

1. Start by being inspired by adolescents. Adolescents have an itch for social justice, but sometimes adults see only a challenge to authority. A great vocational education harnesses the adolescent yearning for a better world, especially among adolescents who have experienced the trauma of a broken world.

David Yeager suggests teachers motivate adolescents by framing lessons around constructively challenging authority: persuade your member of Congress that policing tactics are unjust; generate a proposal for the principal to redesign the school’s energy system. Ellen McWhirter found that critical consciousness to investigate and question inequity and racism helps students to succeed in job placements, in particular students of color and students living at or near poverty, students, in short, whom society has implicitly or explicitly taught to doubt their capacity to succeed.

2. Break out of the 45-minute classroom. If there is one thing we have learned from the last year of schooling, it is that online coursework offers both challenge and possibility. One of the greatest possibilities comes in career exposure — the possibility of a school where students learn not just in seats in a classroom, but in a kitchen cooking, or on a construction site building, or at a computer coding, sometimes seeing it online and sometimes doing it in person.

But there are obstacles: rules that students have to have 60 hours of “seat time” to have learned, or traditions like class schedules that divide the day into 45-minute periods. Can next year be an opportunity to give this a new try as well? Places like Big Picture Learning, City As School, Here-to-Here, and the BEAM Center have been leaders in helping New York students get educational credit for efforts that get outside the classroom and into workplaces, learning framed more as journeys and experiences than course grades.

3. Rethink rituals and milestones for adolescent advancement. Rituals define experience. Recognizing growth and celebrating accomplishments are the punctuation marks of learning. High school is governed by rituals like completing courses and earning diplomas. These rituals are valuable, but they are also constraining. Here are some other kinds of rituals to mark growth:

  • Apprentices pass through levels of mastery of a trade.
  • Social maps celebrate networks of people we have connected with across multiple communities.
  • Promotions and professional titles reward completing projects and exhibiting skills.

These are just a few examples. There are many other ways to think about rituals and milestones for learning. If we can convey something less about “graduating” and walking away with a “degree” and more about a “quest” that reflects “mastery” of the skills and capacities that scholars and professionals actually need, then we are setting youth up for true vocations.

4. Create the field of Upper Education. There was a time when transitioning from youth to adulthood meant leaving school and entering a job. No longer. As youth make their way through high school, they are often also getting familiarized with the workforce, taking college courses; as they are enrolling in college, they are also getting credentials in an industry. The systems designed to help 14- to 24-year-olds find their vocation too often run in parallel, and sometimes in conflict. Weaving them together has been the work of various pioneering efforts. Propel America has led with new ways of smoothing the path from high school to work and community college, and Linked Learning Alliance is doing interesting work to help districts rethink pathways. At the Gates Foundation, Sara Allan is leading a new Pathways team that weaves career, college, and high school. At the Center for American Progress, Laura Jimenez and Livia Lam are advocating coordinating federal resources between college aid, workforce development, and high school design.

Rather than treating Secondary Education, Higher Education, Vocational Education, and Professional Training as separate paths, these efforts aim to combine these into one field.

If we can name this field (how about, say, Upper Education), perhaps it is one more step towards reimagining it. Why do we have things like 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades before a bumpy transition into post-12th grade? Why do we use one set of tests for high school graduation and a completely different one for employment and citizenship? Why do we turn to teachers to assess learning one way, the state another, and colleges still another?

What would most define such a field would be a set of measures, very different from the current smattering of state standards or workforce credentials, that define the competencies that employers, colleges, education professionals, and upper education all agree on. Researchers at the Aspen Institute offer a framework for adolescents that is not too different from what the National Association of Colleges and Employers offers for work readiness: skills like collaboration, self-monitoring, self-advocating, and setting goals. These skills are all but absent from many K-12 accountability systems.

It is not just a matter of asking the questions. It is time we redesigned the system.

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Michael Rothman

Michael Rothman

Founder of Eskolta School Research & Design. Education reformer, husband & father living in New York City.