Learning How to Learn at Work: Lessons from Three High School Programs

Publication December 1997

During the 1990s, work-based learning has gained prominence as one element of local, state, and federal school reform strategies. Federal legislation passed as the School to Work Opportunities Act (STWOA) of 1994, for example, calls for redesigning educational programs to include both school-based and work-based learning (WBL). STWOA defines work-based learning as a planned program of work experience linked to school. It further specifies that WBL include training on the job, supervision by workplace mentors, and instruction in general workplace competencies and “all aspects of the industry.” Successful completion of paid or unpaid work experiences (paid experiences are preferable under STWOA) should lead to a portable certificate. A recent evaluation of states receiving funds under STWOA indicates that developing work-based activities are the top priority.

Not surprisingly, the renewed interest in WBL raises questions about its effectiveness. Previous research provides some information about student outcomes associated with cooperative education, school-based enterprises, and other types of programs that incorporate WBL, but our understanding is sketchy at best, particularly for newer programs promoting broader purposes. While research suggests that the quality of work experience matters, there is little systematic information about quality across programs or even consensus on how to define it. Hardly any attention at all has been given to the actual experiences of students during WBL or the ways those experiences contribute to, or hinder, their intellectual and occupational development.

Research Approach and Questions

This exploratory study adopts a different approach than previous research by focusing explicitly on the workplace as a learning environment for students. It draws on research on learning at work from a sociocultural perspective to characterize the sorts of instructional activities and learning tasks that students encounter. The advantage of this approach is to draw attention to the teaching and learning process itself–the process that teachers in school or at work have the most ability to shape.

This study aims, first, to understand these workplaces as learning environments for young people. Specifically, it examines the social means by which work tasks are established and accomplished by students. It characterizes teaching at work–Who does it? and How does the community of practice support teaching and learning?

Our second main objective is to understand what students learn from WBL, including technical, generic, social skills, and work-related attitudes. The study does not measure learning formally, but, rather, asks what opportunities are presented for learning different skills or attitudes and what students appear to learn from these opportunities, based on our observations and their own reports. We also explore the relationship between school-based and WBL in these programs, since this link is crucial to ensuring WBL quality.

The study examined WBL in three different types of programs in Los Angeles, with an emphasis on the students’ perspective and experience. The three programs operate in the same large, metropolitan school district and serve similar populations of mostly minority students. About 170 students participate in the Transportation Career Academy Program (TCAP), which emphasizes preparation for both entry-level jobs and careers in transportation-related occupations. During their junior and senior years, students can participate in an eight-week, paid internship in a transportation-related field. We observed two students performing internships at engineering construction firms. Students’ work was primarily clerical, but in some cases it was related to technical areas.

The Medical Magnet High School (MMHS) provides unpaid internships in a variety of medical settings. The school emphasizes a college-preparatory curriculum for grade 10-12 students, with internships primarily provided for the purpose of career exploration. Students rotate in several placements for one morning a week throughout the school year. Students receive elective course credit for their internship work. We observed two students who were hired to work over the summer as laboratory assistants in the science department at a local university. These students assisted in conducting neuromuscular research projects.

At the School-Based Enterprise (SBE), forty student-owners sell their own salad dressing and produce from their garden. The SBE is housed on a high school campus, and students work after school for a few hours, odd hours over weekends, and over the summer. Students learn all aspects of running a business, with an emphasis on entrepreneurial skills. Students receive points for their work, which are exchanged for the dollar value of company shares upon high school graduation.

At each site, students completed a survey about their WBL experience. The study team interviewed teachers, mentors, employers, and other adults associated with the programs. We also observed students at work and interviewed them to gather in-depth information on WBL.

 Characteristics of Work-Based Learning 

Following work by Moore (1981) and others, the study attends to the social context for learning and working and examines certain characteristics of WBL. Our analysis first focused on the social means by which tasks are initiated, accomplished, and processed, as this is when the process of education is set in motion. Then we examined the pedagogy of worksites and the community of practice that students encounter.

 Social   Means To Support Tasks

Our analysis of workplaces as learning environments shows, first, that the types of tasks students engage in and the means by which they are established, accomplished, and processed, varies markedly across the three programs. The SBE gives the most latitude to students with respect to choosing work tasks and even work times, while work at the other two sites was more closely monitored and scheduled.

By and large, the tasks students had to accomplish required little creativity, although a few SBE students had opportunities to be creative. Most of the time, students simply followed directions to complete a variety of tasks. Their coworkers, supervisors, or mentors provided the social supports students needed to learn and do their jobs.

Although students received ample feedback on task performance, they were not always sure what was expected of them. Two programs, MMHS and TCAP, incorporated formal evaluation procedures between the worksite and the school and students were conversant with the frequency and nature of the assessment process.

Pedagogy of Worksites

A second characteristic of the learning environment concerns the pedagogy of worksites. Not surprisingly, training for the TCAP students, who worked in private,
for-profit companies, followed a “show and tell” model. This approach seemed suited to the level of student work–primarily clerical. One firm was also dedicated to training and staff development, and their intern had more learning opportunities unconnected to productive work. In contrast, the MMHS students were apprentices in a university science laboratory where teaching is embedded in nearly every activity. The mentor had extensive teaching experience, and she created a curriculum tailored to the students’ needs. Likewise, the SBE advisors had a strategy for teaching students the skills they needed to make a positive contribution to the business and, more generally, to be successful in academic pursuits and in life. To accomplish a variety of learning goals, the SBE utilized a talented mentor pool, outside conferences or workshops, free advice from experts, and opportunities to practice in a fail-safe environment. The two sites located at educational settings incorporated educative purposes for WBL, in addition to having students engage in productive work.

Student Participation in Communities of Practice

The communities of practice that students entered were also strikingly dissimilar. The TCAP students were “junior” employees and, for all practical purposes, treated as such. They were there to make a productive contribution to the work and were included in all business activities appropriate to their position. MMHS students had a more difficult time, as they lacked status in the research laboratory and had no real means to acquire it. To be successful, they had to interact in a complex, sometimes unfriendly social environment. They were included in social activities, like basketball games, but not in the weekly meetings that dealt with the lab’s program of research. They were peripheral participants in this community. The SBE students created and fully participated in their community of practice, with guidance from their advisors. These students worked in a nurturing environment, where their biggest social challenge was to learn to work with one another.

Opportunities for Learning

The study also determined the opportunities that WBL presented for learning technical and social skills, work-related attitudes, generic skills (e.g., problem-solving, teamwork, communications), and broader knowledge of industries or careers. Since school-based learning and WBL are meant to complement one another, the study also addressed the extent and depth of that connection.
Technical, Personal, and Social Skills and Work Dispositions

Of the three sites, the MMHS students were most challenged–they had to learn highly technical knowledge and skill and identify their place in a complex social milieu. Students in the other programs were less challenged socially, and their work was not always demanding. SBE students could develop fairly sophisticated technical skills, if they so chose. All students learned valuable personal lessons about their current career interests and their capabilities.
Students also learned a lot about what it means to work. They learned to take responsibility, to work hard, to meet deadlines, and to be persistent. They learned how to dress and act appropriately to their work situation. The more relaxed SBE environment did not provide as many opportunities as other worksites to develop some valuable work habits, such as being on time or knowing when to dress more formally.

Problem-Solving Skills

By and large, these worksites did not develop students’ problem-solving skills around substantive, technical matters. Most of the problems students encountered had to do with the procedural aspects of their work and were easily solved by themselves or with assistance from others. Although the MMHS program’s science fair project might have been an opportunity for students to engage in more substantive problem solving, it was unfortunately structured in such a way that students did little of the work on their own. SBE provided some interesting problem-solving events, but these were not available to all students. Since SBE students decide which activities to volunteer for, and since it is hard to tell in advance where complex problems might emerge, the opportunities to develop some skills are left to chance.
SBE students developed some teamwork skills, although teams were loosely organized and their makeup varied across activities. TCAP and MMHS students worked independently, for the most part, but learned about job and task interdependencies. SBE students utilized a broader array of communication skills because they had more interactions with external audiences and had to communicate for more varied purposes than students at other worksites.

Opportunities To Learn about an Industry

TCAP and the MMHS program had explicit career awareness or exploration goals, and these students enhanced their understanding of the transportation and science fields. Individuals at the university lab displayed a strong interest in motivating minority students to pursue science careers and in some ways went beyond the program’s expectations. While the MMHS program views student as volunteer interns, the lab hoped to turn them into productive assistants and to make efficient use of their time during the school year. At the SBE, students had opportunities to learn all aspects of running a business, but we were not able to determine how many students took advantage of these opportunities.

Connections to School Learning

Since school-based learning and WBL are meant to complement one another, we hoped to see strong links between school and work. TCAP seemed to do a good job of preparing students to enter the workplace. They conducted workshops for students to help them adjust to an adult working environment, and the school program gave them solid skills that employers could use. But since the work experience is not concurrent with school, the students are left to make these connections on their own. In this case, then, school learning appeared to enhance learning at work.

The MMHS program incorporated several structural features for connecting school and work, such as agreements with resource sites that listed learning objectives for students, and requirements for students to write journals about their work experiences. The students working at the lab, however, were paid employees, not volunteers. The lab work was so advanced that students had little prior knowledge from their school science classes, but found some opportunities to apply math or chemistry knowledge. Somewhat ironically, the science fair project requirements took precedence over real experience. In this case, work appeared to enhance school learning, but was otherwise unconnected to it.

The SBE was perhaps the best kept secret at the high school. The only teacher connected to the program was one of the SBE’s original founders. It does not receive school or district funds. Indeed, the enterprise’s primary connection to the school is its location on school property. Although the students’ school classes were not connected in any way to the SBE, the SBE strongly supported academics. Student-owners could be tutored in any subject, receive preparation for SAT and ACT testing, and get personal assistance to apply to college. Doing well in school and raising academic aspirations were as important as running the business. The SBE clearly enhanced school learning and overall academic achievement: nearly all the student-owners go on to college, compared to fewer than half of the graduating seniors in the same high school.

Implications and Further Questions

Overall, we conclude that most of what we learned in examining teaching and learning opportunities in these programs was quite positive. The longer-term, fairly intensive WBL experiences studied here provided opportunities for students to learn many work-related skills and attitudes. Students were generally satisfied with their work experience, although, on average, felt work was not very challenging. Although the programs varied with respect to opportunities for learning specific skills, the WBL experiences generally met each program’s goals. However, the study does raise some questions and implications that we offer not as criticisms of the programs, but as general lessons to consider when developing educationally valuable WBL opportunities for young people.

The report discusses several implications for the design and delivery of WBL programs. First, to adequately prepare students for their work experience, it is important for program staff to understand the social context of the WBL setting. The implicit or explicit model of pedagogy and the firm’s views of training can affect the kind of student who can succeed, as can the expectations that employers have for students capabilities. Training opportunities and expectations can vary considerably with work settings.

In addition to preparing students for work, program coordinators need to carefully match students and worksites. Although this suggestion may be self-evident, even those coordinators who worked closely with employers did not always make a good match. In addition, programs use irrelevant criteria, such as grades, to determine where to place students. Program coordinators might make better matches by considering whether a student is suited to a particular social context–and vice versa–in addition to making placements on the basis of knowledge or interest.

Third, students need skills to learn how to learn at work. Students must know when to ask questions, take initiative, have the confidence to solve problems, and know how to work together. Students must take responsibility for their own learning. Unfortunately, we heard numerous stories that schooling does quite the opposite. Students told us that learning at school means listening, not asking questions. It means working alone, not with other students. It means asking the teacher what to do, not figuring it out for oneself. In school, a good excuse is all you need to get out of doing something. This situation leads to very different implications: (1) provide WBL experiences for more students because that experience will likely provide the best opportunities for students to learn how to learn at work; and (2) improve school-based teaching to produce active, engaged learners who can work alone and with others, and who will be better prepared to learn how to learn at work. Either remedy entails a serious, and costly, school reform strategy.

The study also raises some important questions for further research and consideration. First, who teaches at work? The work-based learning sites in this study were very different with respect to teaching strategies and expertise. This study suggests that much more serious attention be paid to providing appropriate training to worksite mentors and to monitoring their performance as teachers.

This study corroborates other research on school-to-work programs in finding that school and work are often only loosely connected and that any connection is difficult to establish. But the study also shows that students learn many valuable lessons and develop many skills where connections between school and work are weak. This raises questions about the nature of connections between school and work. What types of connections are possible, and which are most necessary for achieving high-quality outcomes?

Stasz, C., & Kaganoff, T. (1997, December). Learning how to learn at work: Lessons from three high school programs. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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