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Youth, Education and the Role of Society

Rebecca Forbes

Rebecca Forbes is TASC's Research Program Assistant.

Youth, Education and the Role of Society Cover

In his new book, the director of the doctoral program and chair of the research council at the Erikson Institute in Chicago makes a powerful case for giving every high school student a chance to learn outside of schools as they’re currently configured. In this Q & A with TASC, Robert Halpern briefly explains why that’s important.

You argue that career and technical education (CTE) should have a larger part in secondary education so that students can gain hands-on experience in learning opportunities like apprenticeships and internships. What would be the greatest benefit of making this a viable high school choice?

Robert Halpern

CTE closes the gap between young people’s diverse strengths, propensities and profiles and the lack of diversity in high school offerings. Its pedagogical approach fits what we know about good teaching and learning, and how young people learn best. It provides a vehicle for linking schools to the world outside them. And it provides the start of a constructive pathway for millions of young people for whom four-year college is not a sensible next step after high school. For all this, the most interesting and compelling value of vocationally-oriented learning is personal. It fosters maturity, nurtures a sense of personal competence and of having a place in the world. As one tentatively identifies oneself as a chef or engineer or dancer, one is motivated to explore what this means. For some young people vocationally-oriented learning in high school opens a pathway that can continue well into adulthood.

As you describe learning outside of school, you offer examples of immersive enrichment experiences like the ACME Animation online program or UC-Berkeley's Y-PLAN. What interpersonal skills are these students learning in such initiatives?

Young people acquire the patience to stay with a task until it is complete, and they learn to work with care within a discipline, planting the seed for a more general disposition to do so. Young people develop a greater capacity to invest in tasks and desire to make meaning from them. Young people learn to work under different kinds of pressure—many tasks needing to be done, time pressures, competing priorities. They learn to balance “planfulness” with openness. Not least, in such initiatives, young people develop new capacities to work collaboratively with others, and to work as part of a defined community. They learn to contribute and commit to shared goals. They learn also how to provide and how to take feedback constructively.

You note that young people in work-based learning programs in other countries seem to make choices that have the unintended consequence of perpetuating class and racial inequities. What are the lessons there?

Many countries have a history of rigid and rigidly separated learning pathways through adolescence that, though putatively meritocratic, closely mirror social class and parents’ occupations. Recent critiques find a variety of kinds of subtle discrimination present. For instance, although vocational-technical learning is respected in many countries, it tends to serve disproportionately working class youth. Within vocational education there continues to be differences in access to work-based learning opportunities, based on family background (e.g. parents’ occupations and educational attainment) and ethnic origin. Immigrant youth and those from ethnic, religious and racial minority groups are especially likely to be led into less prestigious apprenticeships. These kinds of subtle discrimination are viewed as compromising social democratic ideals. To address them, some countries, such as Finland, have re-committed to a common core or universal educational experience for all youth through age 18. Others have focused on strengthening work-based learning opportunities for disenfranchised youth, especially immigrant and migrant youth. No country has been able to resolve a central conundrum: Regardless of how education is structured, the structures themselves end up reinforcing inequality and discrimination.

Why should not only businesses, but also government and community organizations partner with high schools to prepare students for the future?

In my book I argue that discrete learning experiences, no matter how rich and interesting, must add up developmentally, intellectually and vocationally. A variety of institutions, with different missions and concerns, must feel jointly and deeply responsible for young people, without feeling that they own them or the right to define what they need. Stakeholders in young people’s learning will have to tackle broad cultural assumptions and develop specific inter-institutional mechanisms. To create a foundation for greater coherence, diverse institutions and sectors will have to work to develop at least some shared vision of good learning, its personal and social purposes, means and resources. Here we can turn to other countries which offer ideas for a broadened set of purposes, for instance addressing social inclusion and social citizenship, and the valuing of all kinds of work and diverse cultural contributions.

We often talk about developing life-long learners. What’s your favorite way to keep learning outside of work?

Reading and having conversations with my wife and children. 

What did you do when your school day ended at 3 PM? Anything that had a memorable impact?

I usually went to the playground (Playground 11 in Stuyvesant Town) and did sports with friends—mostly punchball, basketball and football. 

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