Driven by globalization and new technologies, changes in the U.S. economy will require firms to reorganize in ways that demand workers with new and different skills. Many recent school reforms are motivated by the need to equip students with the skills necessary for success in this new economy.
Reformers believe that schools should teach "generic skills" in addition to skills and knowledge specific to a single academic discipline or occupational field. Basic skills like reading, simple mathematics, and life skills (such as how to fill out forms) are often needed to carry out more complicated tasks requiring higher level skills. Complex reasoning and problem-solving skills, which include both formal and everyday reasoning skills, are especially needed in new "flexible" work arrangements (Berryman & Bailey, 1992). In addition, students need teamwork and communications skills and improved attitudes toward work. Because complex reasoning skills and work-related attitudes are critical for workplace success, researchers at the RAND Corporation studied how these skills were taught and learned in academic and vocational classrooms (Stasz, McArthur, Lewis, & Ramsey, 1990; Stasz, Ramsey, Eden, DaVanzo, Farris, & Lewis, 1993). We conducted intensive research in eight vocational and academic classrooms, taught by four different teachers in three comprehensive high schools. (The schools were in both urban and suburban communities, with students from a variety of socioeconomic and ethnic groups.) The classes were in interior design, English, electronics, architectural drafting, manufacturing, landscape/horticulture, and chemistry (two classes). This report concentrates on those classrooms that "worked," that is, based on our observations and on student perceptions, those that successfully imparted generic skills and attitudes.
To facilitate discussion of classroom practices, we developed an instructional model that has four components:
Teachers in our study had a mix of instructional goals for students, including subject-matter knowledge and skills, complex reasoning skills and problem-solving strategies, work-related attitudes, and cooperative or group skills. Each teacher emphasized different goals.
Because student cooperation was an instructional goal, the classes that worked had many group projects. Most successful groups were self-managing. Cooperation was necessary because skills were distributed across the group, and no one person could complete all the tasks by himself or herself. Cooperation was thus a powerful motivator.
Example of Modeling: Mr. P models how to generate a topic from one's own experience: "If any of you were moved by Dances with Wolves and the trashing of a native culture, then transfer your thoughts and feelings about this to One Hundred Years of Solitude: Start with your own personal interests in order to make your paper a consuming interest rather than work."Thus, through modeling, the teacher reveals his own thinking process in generating an idea.
The following example illustrates scaffolding, where the teacher provides enough support to get students working, then withdraws support (or fades), until the students are on their own.
Example of Scaffolding: A student (in manufacturing) is trying to figure out the radius of the circle that forms the wheel well of the toy model. The radius is not recorded on the drawing. Mr. B asks him if he remembers how to find the center of a circle using a compass. The student does not remember. Mr. B reteaches the method of drawing two secants, using a compass and a ruler, and then finding where the lines cross. The student uses this method on his problem, with Mr. B providing just enough assistance to accomplish the task.A second group of techniques--articulation and reflection--were used to get students to focus their observations of "expert" problem-solving and gain control of their own problem-solving strategies. Finally, teachers used exploration techniques to encourage learner autonomy in carrying out problem-solving processes. Students in electronics were "turned loose" to identify a project, set their own goals for it, and carry it out. Teachers also encouraged exploration by refusing to answer students' questions when they knew students possessed the skills for finding their own solutions. Since students have different degrees of skill and are not proceeding in unison, teachers had to be ready for flexible interactions. Rather than follow lesson plans, they followed the progress of individual students. In this sense, teaching was opportunistic rather than planned.
In sum, teachers in classrooms that worked established a "master-apprentice" relationship with students, acting as the students' coach or guide in the learning process, or as a participant in that process. Teachers did not hold the "master" role authoritatively, but rather conveyed the message, "I am here if you need me." These teachers rarely lectured or used other techniques that implied that teachers were the sole source of knowledge.
Access to knowledge refers to the extent to which schools provide students opportunities to learn. Access is influenced by basic resources, such as time, materials, and staff, and by course assignment practices. All three high schools in our study tracked students, and tracking practices influenced class enrollment. The English class was a required course for college-bound seniors. The vocational classes that worked were elective courses and attracted a mixed group of students who were interested in the subject area, and in some cases, could use the class to fulfill a graduation requirement. College-bound students may actually have less access to these classes simply because they need a certain number and type of credits for college enrollment. Thus, they lose an opportunity to learn the generic skills that are taught in vocational classrooms.
The resources available to teachers varied considerably. The interior design class had extra resources because it was sponsored by the state's Regional Occupation Program. Extra funding enabled the teacher to purchase materials needed for the class projects. The other vocational teacher and the English teacher, who taught in the same school, had fewer resources. The English teacher used his own money to purchase copies of the novels and was not able to take the whole class on a field trip to the local university library. But resources, by themselves, are no guarantee of success; the classroom with the most resources (landscape) was the least successful.
A factor that did affect success was press for achievement, the pressures that the school exerts to get students to work hard and achieve. The schools in our sample communicated different expectations and values about achievement to their students. Obviously, any school that tracks students does not hold the same achievement standards for all students. But it appears that individual teacher standards can also make a difference for students. The successful vocational teachers, for example, had high expectations for their students despite the school's generally lower expectations for vocational students.
The teacher who taught both English and landscape had different expectations for each group. With high expectations for his English students, he offered the class interesting and meaningful activities and a high-level culture of practice. In landscape class, however, he had few expectations for student learning and focused on behavior. This attention to behavior led to highly structured activities and boring tasks (e.g., weeding, digging ditches, pruning roses). While the landscape students were of lower academic ability and some had behavior problems, we observed some of the same students functioning more effectively in other classrooms where teacher expectations for learning were high for all students. Expectations for students shape decisions about instructional goals, classroom design, teacher roles, and so on, that influence both access to knowledge and press for achievement.
Teaching conditions can empower or constrain teachers, and define how schools function as workplaces for teachers. Although all the teachers in our study said they had autonomy in the classroom and felt supported by administrators, the vocational teachers faced fewer constraints than academic teachers. Since these schools emphasized college preparation, vocational classes and students were marginal to the administrations' concerns. As long as teachers enrolled enough students and served the needs of students who proved least successful in the academic curriculum, school officials were satisfied.
Academic teachers' classes came under more scrutiny. The vocational teacher also taught algebra, but he asked us not to observe this class because the required content constrained what and how he could teach. In other words, the requirements focused his instructional goals on domain knowledge in algebra, and he had little leeway for including generic skills and work-related attitudes.
When teachers designed classrooms that situated learning in a culture of practice, students actively used knowledge and skills in an applied way, often in multiple contexts. They were engaged in projects that required problem-solving and exhibited several generic reasoning skills: problem recognition, problem analysis, generation/evaluation/monitoring of solutions, repair and reflection (cf. Stasz, et al., 1990). Cooperative learning and problem-solving was evident, with students sharing knowledge and skills or trying to help each other overcome difficulties. Students appeared engaged in their work and could work independently.
Student discussions in focus groups corroborated our observations. A common theme in the vocational classes was the students' gradual acceptance of the class as a place where students had to work to succeed but could expect the teacher's help in exchange for personal effort. Students who had initially taken the class for an easy grade or to fulfill a requirement became enculturated, that is, they were sold on the teacher's conception of why the subject matter or classroom experience was important for them. Many college-bound students were uncomfortable at first because they were accustomed to performing for grades according to criteria set by the teacher. They commented that the English class taught them to take responsibility for their own learning, including trusting their own thinking and ideas.
Classrooms that situated learning were clearly motivating and engaging to students. Students who were uncooperative or bored in one class that did not challenge them with meaningful or interesting activity became engaged and cooperative in a classroom that worked. Teacher expectations affected their instructional and classroom design decisions; teachers with high expectations were more successful. Unfortunately, many schools still sort students in ways that affect which classes they can take, what they can learn, and how they are taught. These practices can undermine school reforms aimed at improving teaching and learning of generic skills and better preparing all students for work and education beyond high school.
The successful teachers in our study were experienced teachers with a deep, personal interest in their chosen domain. The interior design teacher was a practicing designer. The English teacher had taken a one-year sabbatical to study writing at a local university and used that experience in designing his literary criticism class. The other vocational teacher had designed and built furniture and homes. These experiences gave these teachers a frame of reference for establishing a culture of practice.
Current teacher training regimes follow the baccalaureate model, which emphasizes subject-matter preparation with the addition of courses in teaching methods. Vocational teachers are more likely to have relevant experience in the world of work. Generally, teachers have little opportunity to come in contact with expert practitioners in business and industry or in college departments who are engaged in a culture of practice. As we move toward programs that intentionally integrate academic and vocational education and blur the distinctions between school-based learning and work-related learning, new models of teacher training and staff development must be devised.
Collins, A., Brown, J.S. and Newman, D. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the craft of reading, writing, and mathematics. In L.B. Resnick (ed.), Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Oakes, J. (1989). What educational indicators? The case of assessing the school context. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 11, 181-199.
Stasz, C., McArthur, D., Lewis, M. and Ramsey, K. (1990). Teaching and learning generic skills for the workplace. Santa Monica: RAND (R-4004-NCRVE/UCB) and Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education (MDS-066).