During a recent conversation with my nephew, a researcher at Colorado State University, I asked him what he would tell current students in the high school he graduated from in Idaho.  His response was “get away and experience the world.”

He explained that when he enrolled at Tulane University as a freshman he realized that many of his cohorts had experiences outside of school that provided them a different orientation to the world and a skill set different from his.  Some of his cohorts spent a year living in another country; others engaged in work or service projects; and others engaged in civic initiatives addressing social problems.

My nephew felt he had an adequate high school experience but as he interacted with his fellow Tulane University freshman recognized that he was merely exposed to subjects rather than engaged in meaningful experiences that increased his knowledge and skills.

As I examined my own high school experiences that were very similar to those of my nephew I believe we and many other students were exposed to content but not really engaged in activities to gain/enhance skills as well as knowledge of the academic subject.

Of course, not every student and their family can provide some of the engagement opportunities experiences by my nephew’s freshmen cohorts, but each school can move from a focus on exposure to engagement and in fact many schools are integrating and sustaining such practices.

This difference between exposure to content and engaging to build skills is important for several reasons, namely:

  1. Most states, districts and high schools in their mission statement identify a successful graduate as an individual well prepared to contribute as a global citizen.
  2. Workplace requirements focus on skills (often referred to as soft skills) of graduates to be effective and efficient workers.
  3. The expected characteristics of successful high school graduates include a combination of the following attributes:
  • Critical thinker
  • Effective communicator
  • Effective team member
  • Good Decision maker
  • Self-directed learner
  • Community Contributor
  • Problem solver
  • Quality producer
  • Effective and ethical user of technology

From my experience students who are engaged in school and community-based activities intentionally focused on skill building have a greater opportunity to acquire and enhance their skills to be successful in higher education, in their career and as a productive citizen.  As a result they better understand relationships and the consequences of their actions making learning real, meaningful and generalizable beyond the school setting.

There are many options schools integrate that effectively engage students including:

  • Project-based learning
  • Service-learning
  • Internships
  • Work shadowing
  • Cooperative education

Kolb (1984) and others advocate for a learning system that relies on concrete student experiences (engagement), reflections and conceptualization to build content knowledge and skills.  In addition engaged learning develops and nurtures relationships core to success in school and in life.

Think about how we integrate technology into schools and the difference between exposing students and engaging students in corresponding activities.  How much would they learn if they researched technology, learned about how it works by reviewing resources and watching videos about how others use technology?  Now compare those strategies to actually engaging students to use technology; learning from their experiences and simultaneously building their knowledge and skills.  This is but one of many examples of the competencies that students acquire/enhance through high-quality engagement, but easily makes the point of the difference between exposure and engagement.

Russ Quaglia and his colleagues measure and advocate for student engagement and find positive results from students being engaged in their schools.  They also remind us that: “Schools must foster a learning environment for students and adults where they can experience fun and excitement. Adults and students alike need opportunities to be creative and act upon their curiosities, while taking healthy risks, free of fears typically associated with failure or success.

This focus on school climate is often missing as school’s attempt to implement innovative strategies, assuming the existing quality and character of the school nurtures and sustains innovation.  This is rarely the case and schools need to focus on ensuring (1) safety, (2) positive relationships among all education stakeholders, (3) appropriate and effective teaching and learning strategies and (4) corresponding physical environment so that each student is engaged in each classroom and throughout the school.

In summary, schools that focus on engagement and create/sustain an engaging school climate better provide opportunities for each student to acquire and enhance academic, social-emotional, civic and career knowledge and skills.  These strategies ensure high school graduates arrive at higher education institutions and the workplace better prepared to be successful through their experiences.

Kolb, D. A. (1984).  Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Terry Pickeral
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Terry Pickeral

Terry Pickeral, has extensive experience in policy development, advocacy, education reform, youth leadership, teaching and learning strategies, education collaborations, evaluation and civic development. His commitment is to ensuring schools create and sustain quality teaching and learning environments for all students to be successful in school and contribute to their communities as active principled citizens.
Terry Pickeral
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