This new research about skills (Stasz et al., 1996, and Stasz & Brewer, 1999) is limited to only a few occupations and cannot account for the skills needed for all technical jobs. Nonetheless, the study provides a rich picture of skills in context, especially the relationships among academic skills, work technology, and desirable workplace behaviors and dispositions.
Students Learn to Improvise
It is clear, then, that context matters, especially in the sense that specialized training is often necessary for technical occupations, and in the exact mix of academic skills that workers draw on for their jobs. But context matters in another sense as well: A work setting determines the way employees use workplace skills like problem solving to facilitate a task. Paradoxically, although the way these skills are tapped also varies, exposing students to learning situations that mirror some of the exigencies of work (the need to recognize a practical problem, determine a means of addressing it, and carrying out a repair) may help prepare them for such challenges and responsibilities in many lines of work.
The reason is, simply, that technical work is often improvisational. To succeed at it, workers need to master a repertoire of skills and draw on them as they become needed. Because teaching students by way of authentic tasks is likely to help them develop the confidence to improvise on textbook learning or on terse job guidelines, classes designed around apprentice methods may be beneficial for all students, both those heading to college and to work. In short, learning the process of feeling one's way through a work problem to a solution can be used in many situations. Teaching this ability will help students understand and respond to particular contexts.
What are the essential components for framing high school courses and/or programs around authentic tasks and apprenticeship methods? Through extensive case studies, surveys, and ethnographic observation, NCRVE researchers examined the shared qualities of classrooms where the teachers succeeded in using a contextualized learning approach (Stasz, McArthur, Lewis, & Ramsey, 1990; Stasz et al., 1992). They found that these classrooms were similar in instructional goals, classroom design, teaching techniques, and school context. Table 5 describes the instructional model resulting from this research.
5: Instructional Model for Teaching the Universe of Skills
Perhaps the most telling characteristic is how teachers designed their "courses" so that students learned skills and knowledge by performing tasks that reflected the complexities of real tasks performed by adult practitioners. Typically, after an introduction to the "basics of a field," the students engaged in long-term projects rather than short activities. In most cases these projects were "situated" within a specific professional context, such as an electronics design lab, or a interior design business. However, in one class researchers observed an English teacher who created a successful framework for authentic practice by having students view themselves as college students required to do independent thinking and research. The classrooms promoted a culture of expert practice, simulating actual working cultures to varying degrees.
This contextualized approach was supported by broad instructional goals and by a master-apprentice relationship between teacher and students. Course goals exceeded delivery of academic or vocational training and included instruction (and encouragement) in complex reasoning, problem solving, and teamwork. The traditional authoritative role of the teacher was substituted with a looser hierarchy in which teachers assumed the role of experts who guided students through problems. In turn, students accepted the role of capable practitioner. Teaching techniques varied markedly from the lecture model. Since teachers were positioned as experts, they demonstrated their own approaches to tasks, coached groups on an as-needed basis, and offered limited assistance and advice. Consequently, students were more self-motivated; they realized that they controlled their success. An example of an apprenticeship electronics classroom is described in the following box.
An Electronics Apprenticeship
Mr. Benson, a vocational and math teacher at a comprehensive high school, designed his year-long electronics class using an apprenticeship approach. Although this class fulfilled an elective requirement for graduation, students received no academic credit for it. Students taking the class included ninth through twelfth graders. Because the number of math and science courses they had completed varied, the students did not have the same amount of background knowledge to prepare them for the specialized subject matter.
Mr. Benson's primary purpose was to teach electronics by integrating math, physics, and various forms of technology, including computers, robotics, stereo components, and circuits. He viewed electronics as an "integrated" discipline, drawing from academic subjects, specialized electronics knowledge and skills, complex reasoning skills, work-related attitudes, and cooperative skills. His instructional goals included training in all of these areas. He used electronics concepts and facts as stepping stones to project work, but did not emphasize disciplinary skills over generic skills.
The course labs and projects required students to develop complex reasoning skills by analyzing problems, generating solution paths, troubleshooting circuits and computer programs, and repairing broken or malfunctioning equipment. The course developed students' work-related attitudes by having them take responsibility for their actions, by asking them to work in pairs, and by encouraging them to pursue personal interests in their projects. These instructional goals set into motion conditions under which students thought about and practiced electronics at both basic and complex levels.
During the first semester, the class divided into pairs and trios of students who practiced the "basics" of electronics. These lessons were organized around individual labs that produced simple electronic devices. In the second semester, students worked on advanced projects that required students to use their basic skills and develop an interest in particular technologies. Their projects included advanced work on a robot using computer programs and remotes, further examination of basic lab experiments using advanced electronic workbench software, designing and building a sound system for use at school events, and designing and building electronic locks.
During the advanced phase of the course, Mr. Benson taught as a master to a class of apprentices. He often asked students to articulate how they were approaching problems as he "made rounds" among student groups during class. He modeled solutions to difficult situations and used examples from industry and from his own extensive hobbyist-level experience with electronics. In addition, when students were "stuck," he offered them frameworks (scaffolding) to help them find a solution and removed himself from the discussion (fading) once he felt students were back on track.