During the 1990s, work-based learning--a planned program of work experience linked to school--has gained prominence as one element of federal, state, and local school reform strategies. The federal School to Work Opportunities Act of 1994 (STWOA), for example, calls for redesigning educational programs to include both school-based and work-based learning (WBL). A recent evaluation of states receiving funds under the Act indicates that developing work-based activities is a top priority (Hershey, Hudis, Silverberg, & Haimson, 1997).
Work-based learning has a long history in American education and is provided in many different types of programs. Cooperative education, the most common form of WBL, has been recognized by federal authority since the 1917 Smith-Hughes Act. WBL is also provided through career academies, school-based enterprises, youth apprenticeships, and occupational focus high schools. Programs vary in intensity and duration, and in the goals of the work experience. Job shadowing experiences, for example, are typically of short duration and primarily serve career awareness and motivational purposes. Longer-term paid or unpaid internships provide opportunities for learning general or specific knowledge and skills related to employment.
As more students take part in school-supervised WBL experiences, it is important to gauge program effectiveness. Most research on WBL has examined a range of outcomes associated with learning, schooling, and employment. Recent reviews of the research show mixed results. On the positive side, WBL provides opportunities for students to learn a variety of skills and to develop other competencies that may prove valuable at work or in pursuit of higher education and training. Participation may also improve students' grades and course-taking patterns, motivate them to stay in school, and inform their career or higher education choices. Students in cooperative education may enjoy an immediate labor market advantage if they continue to work for their employer after graduation. On the other hand, WBL participation is also associated with negative outcomes, such as poorer school performance, dropping out, or forgoing higher education. Methodological and conceptual problems with the research on WBL, and the sheer variety of WBL experiences that students may have, limit the ability to draw strong conclusions about its effectiveness overall. (For recent reviews see Stasz, 1997; Stern, 1997; Urquiola et al., 1997).
An important question that remains unanswered concerns the quality of work-based learning opportunities and the ways these experiences affect students' intellectual and occupational development. Research has not addressed the process of learning at work or the quality of workplaces as learning environments for young people. To begin to fill this knowledge gap, researchers at RAND studied WBL in different types of programs in Los Angeles: a transportation career academy (TCAP), a school-based enterprise (SBE), and a medical magnet high school (MMHS) (Stasz, 1996; Stasz & Kaganoff, 1997). The study adopted a sociocultural perspective for understanding learning at work. At each site, students completed a survey about their WBL experiences, and the study team interviewed students, teachers, mentors, employers and other adults associated with the programs. Researchers observed students at work to gather in-depth information about WBL from the students' own perspective. We were interested in two main questions: (1) What are the characteristics of workplaces as learning environments? and (2) What do students learn in them? This brief addresses the first question and discusses implications for policy and practice.
In terms of task establishment, research suggests that greater autonomy and discretion over work tasks enhance motivation and help develop decision-making capacities. The SBE gave the most latitude to students with respect to choosing work tasks and even work times. Work at the other two sites was more closely monitored and scheduled, but students had some leeway over the sequencing or pace of their work, within a specific time frame. At the research lab, for example, the design of the experiments often dictated the order or priority in which student tasks were assigned, thus necessarily constraining the degree of task autonomy.
To successfully accomplish a task, students need information and resources in the environment, and may also need social skills to interact with others and enlist their help. If they can readily find what they need, the work is easier to accomplish. Conversely, if resources are not accessible, work can be slow, frustrating, or unsuccessful, especially if the task is difficult or challenging. By and large, the work environments the students encountered in the three programs were very supportive; material resources were generally available, as were coworkers or other students who could provide needed assistance. Many tasks given to students were also fairly easy to accomplish. They were straightforward and only required following instructions. MMHS students, however, experienced some difficulties because some lab staff did not want to be bothered with helping high school students.
Successful task accomplishment also depends on provision of performance expectations and feedback. Problems may arise if expectations are unclear or if students' work is not monitored. Providing appropriate guidance can be a complicated undertaking, since mentors must provide enough information and feedback for students to proceed with the task, but not so much that the task presents little challenge or no longer provides an opportunity for learning. In this study, we found that students generally received ample feedback on task performance from supervisors or coworkers. Some tasks, particularly computer-based work, provided real-time feedback that could help students gauge their own progress. Appropriate completion of simpler tasks, like copying, was self-evident. On the other hand, students did not always know what social behavior was expected of them. The university laboratory, for example, was an active and busy environment where people worked hard, for long hours. Students had to learn complex rules of behavior and were scrutinized by lab staff, who might report any off-task behavior to their supervisor. Students at the SBE, by contrast, created their own social environment and rules, and there were clearer procedures for dealing with lackluster performance.
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 and workshops, free advice from experts, and opportunities to practice in a fail-safe environment. Adult advisors were also experienced, skillful teachers. When worksites were located in school-based settings, such as the SBE or MMHS, the training and teaching had purely educational purposes in addition to enabling students to engage in productive work.
The MMHS program incorporated several structural features for connecting school and work, such as agreements with resource sites that identified learning objectives for students and required students to write journals about their work experiences. The teachers had little communication with the different worksites, except to monitor student attendance. The university lab work was so advanced that students had little prior knowledge from their school science classes, although they found some opportunities to apply mathematics or chemistry knowledge. In this case, work experience appeared to enhance school learning, but was otherwise unconnected to it.
The SBE's primary connection to the high school was its location on school property. The only teacher connected to the program was one of the SBE's original founders. Although the students' school classes were not connected in any way to the SBE, the program strongly supported academics. Student-owners could be tutored in any subject, receive preparation for SAT and ACT testing, and get personal assistance in applying 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.
First, such information can help ensure that students are ready for work. Workplaces have different policies and practices for training and learning on the job. Some expect students to work productively and learn how to do a job quickly, when it needs to be done. In this kind of setting, students need social skills to learn from coworkers, since learning on the job is very informal. In other settings, training may be more formal or planned. This was often the case at the university laboratory where MMHS students worked, and at the SBE when, for example, a mentor provided lessons on principles of accounting. Some settings demand more of students because the work is complex or difficult, or the environment is high-pressured.
An understanding of the social context can also help program coordinators better match students to work sites. Even when coordinators and employers work closely to identify appropriate students, they may fail to consider characteristics that turn out to be crucial in the work setting. At one TCAP site, for example, the previous summer's intern did not work out at all because, although she was a top student in school, she was also shy and worked slowly. Similarly, MMHS students were sent to the university research lab because they had high grades, but grades mattered far less for success than a student's social skills: the ability to pick up social cues, ask questions, and learn how to behave in a new social situation. Thus, program coordinators might make better matches by considering whether a student is well-suited to a particular social context in addition to assessing knowledge or interest.
This problem has two very different solutions. One obvious remedy is to simply provide WBL experiences for more students, because they will likely offer the best opportunities for students to learn how to learn at work. The problem, then, is scale-up: providing long-term, intensive school-supervised WBL to more students.
An alternative remedy is to 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. But this remedy will likely require significant changes in curriculum, assessment, teacher preparation, and staff development. Like the first remedy, this one also entails a long-term, and costly, school reform strategy.
It is curious that educators and the public often express concern when teachers teach with only emergency credentials or little formal knowledge of the subject matter, but seem oblivious to the qualifications of the adults who teach students at work. This study suggests that much more serious attention needs to be paid to providing appropriate training to work site mentors and to monitoring their performance as teachers.
Given the difficulty of making meaningful connections, it seems important to more precisely understand the value of work-based learning connected to school. Does the absence of a connection to science class--or for that matter, English, chemistry, or mathematics--make the work experience less valuable to students? What connections are important and necessary? How should they be designed to promote learning?
Perhaps the real power of the WBL concept is pedagogical: authentic work experiences should give students opportunities to apply knowledge in useful contexts. They thereby can gain a deeper understanding of both their abilities and the opportunities they can create for themselves through experience and/or education. In the end, learning is a personal, developmental transformation, so it is crucial to pay attention to whether that transformation occurs, as well as to the context that will enable such a transformation. It is this context that educators and teachers, in and out of school, have the most ability to shape.
This brief is a distillation of a paper by Cathleen Stasz and Tessa Kaganoff, Learning How to Learn at Work: Lessons from Three High School Programs, published in 1997 by RAND (RP-667) and the National Center for Research in Vocational Education (NCRVE), University of California, Berkeley (MDS-916).
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Stasz, C. (1996). What do students learn in work-based learning? Centerwork, 7(4), 2. Berkeley: University of California, National Center for Research on Vocational Education.
Stasz, C. (1997). Work-based learning: High hopes or dim realities? Paper prepared for the National Research Council, Roundtable on Work, Learning and Assessment.
Stasz, C., & Kaganoff, T. (1997). Learning How to Learn at Work: Lessons from Three High School Programs. Berkeley: University of California, National Center for Research on Vocational Education.
Stern, D. (1997, November). The continuing promise of work-based learning. Centerfocus, 18. Berkeley: University of California, National Center for Research on Vocational Education.
Urquiola, M., Stern, D., Horn, J., Dornsife, C., Chi, B., Williams, L., Merritt, D., Hughes, K., & Bailey, T. (1997). School to work, college and career: A review of policy, practice, and results, 1993-1997. Berkeley: University of California, National Center for Research on Vocational Education and Santa Monica: RAND.
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