Learning and Life: rigor, relevance, and real-world application

Learning and Life: rigor, relevance, and real-world application

My mentor, a college professor leading a national demonstration project to instill dignity in work, and who offered me my first internship, had a handmade ceramic vase with the phrase “Work is Love Made Visible” glazed on its surface.  In the decades since, we have experienced several trends in the world of learning and work which have led us astray from this important sentiment.  

Many jobs have become denigrated and dehumanized, and many jobs have disappeared as a result of the forces of technological innovation, globalisation, and efficiency (think big box stores stocked just-in-time by ruthlessly efficient supply chains cutting all but the slimmest of profit margin devastating small businesses that could no longer compete). The remaining jobs either could not move offshore or could not be automated (just yet). At the same time, higher education has become viewed as the singular pathway to access fulfilling work valued by society, paying a living wage. Consequently, the mission of secondary school has narrowed to prepare young people for this standard of success – and should one not succeed, the options were limited and choices few.

And yet, there has been a steady drumbeat of innovation by teachers, innovators, and students pushing back on the limitations of a system that does not work for all.  

My career has spanned archaeology, education, and philanthropy. In education, I had the privilege of working in several school districts across the United States.

In Oakland California (across the bay from San Francisco) I led the district-wide implementation of career academies in the district’s six comprehensive high schools, building on some of the nation’s leading models for this “school-within-a-school.”

The district’s very first career academy began when a retired engineer approached one high school and asked if he could start a club with students to rebuild discarded computers from companies to make their own machines.  

Not only did the students make their own computers, the program grew, took over the entire basement of the high school, and became the Engineering Academy with a course sequence in the high school that included new coursework in coding and computer science. Students in the Engineering Academy made computers for their entire high school, and then we tapped this resource to provide computers for all the elementary schools in the district. The students were so good that local software companies provided them with pre-release software for them to test and troubleshoot. Oh, by the way, this was in the 1990s.

The Engineering Academy established a business advisory board that ensured the school-based curriculum connected to the requirements of industry – but did more than that. The businesses also provided summer internships for students to gain work experience, learn the soft skills of the workplace and explore different career options.

In another example, I recently visited a rural school in Alabama that partnered with the owner of a private airstrip and the local technical college to offer an aviation track for students. These students graduate high school with a private pilot’s license, their high school diploma, a technical degree in aviation, and the qualifications to earn a commercial pilot’s license. The student performance demonstration was flying me around the community in the single-engine training airport. No worries!

These examples reflect three design principles of rigor, relevance, and real-world application (an updated take on the three R’s of education: reading, writing, and arithmetic) that can transform how we approach learning. Content knowledge is paramount in learning but it must be engaged through real-world experiences that have relevance to the learner and the community. For example, the Engineering Academy established a course sequence culminating in Advanced Placement Calculus and Advanced Placement Physics, as well as the Advance Placement Computer Science. The learning journey pulled the students into academically rigorous coursework through engagement in the real-world significance of the study they undertook.

Unfortunately, it took a global pandemic to make visible again the meaning and contribution of so many jobs that had faded into the background of our lives:  the grocery clerk, the postal worker, the nurse, the childcare provider, teachers, the healthcare aid at the nursing home.

Author Arundhati Roy describes the pandemic as a portal, writing in a recent Financial Times that:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. 

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” 

Do we emerge on the other side of the pandemic and return to the prior system that works exceedingly well for some, but perhaps falls short of providing the country with a full measure of talented young people who will navigate a future beset with increasingly more complex challenges?

Or do we seize the moment and embrace the movement driven by passionate youth, parents, teacher, and civic leaders who are already at work crafting learner journeys?  We have much to learn from these learner journeys that already exist.  They are truly the product of inspired and heroic leaders struggling on their own to create alternatives to the current systems, fuelled only by their own passions and commitment to what they believe is best for young people.

This is love made visible.

Terry Mazany 
is an Educator & Philanthropist in the United States