Blending learning with experience

High angle of three creative designers working with 3D printer and discussing project plans standing round table with sample plastic models

Adam Ross has decided to frontload his adult life with experience rather than education. He expects to enroll in a four-year college eventually, probably earning an engineering degree. But first he’s going to work a few years for the company that has offered to pay his community college tuition in exchange for his agreement to work for them for two years after earning an associate’s degree.

“Nobody will hire you after college unless you have experience so I’m going to get my experience first and then go to college,’’ said the savvy 17-year-old high school senior.

Ross can manage this because he elected to enroll in the Engineering & Emerging Technologies (EET) program, one of nine career clusters offered by the Oakland Schools Technical Campus (OSTC) in suburban Detroit, Mich. He spends half of every school day at OSTC’s campus in Pontiac where he’s earning high school credits, college credits, and professional certifications that he can immediately take into the workplace. He sees his time at OSTC as a natural way to apply what he learned from honors and AP math and science classes at his home school, Lake Orion High School.

Last year, Ross worked with other students to design and build a small car for an auto competition in Detroit; this year, he’s programming a robot for another competition.

Although OSTC instructors come from industry — 4,000 hours of industry experience are required, as is a plan to earn a teaching certificate — they know that developing technical skills requires more than listening to lectures and reading books. “We don’t blast them with theory and tell them to wait to learn how to apply it until years later. We give them some theory, and then we have them jump right into a practical application. They get excited about that,” said Demetrius Wilson, an EET instructor who had a career in electrical technology before entering teaching and has since earned a master’s degree in education.

Every student I talked with at OSTC emphasized the individualized approach to learning. “This place is the best educational system I’ve ever experienced,” Ross said. “I really like learning here. It’s self-led so I’m always working on what I want to work on, and I can work at a faster pace if I want to do that.”

Although students acknowledge that there are slackers at every school, overall, the atmosphere at OSTC is different than at their home schools.  “Everybody is here because they want to be here, and they’re doing something they want to do. Kids here really work hard,” said cosmetology student Julia Walton.

Ross agreed. “Everybody in that room,” he said, nodding at the EET lab, “is very motivated.”

The school’s focus on career preparation also makes students more open to listening when teachers work with them on so-called soft skills. “The people who lose their jobs tend to be the people who lack the soft skills,” said Wilson. “One way our students stand out is their ability to articulate what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. They have portfolios of their work, and they know how to talk about it.”

Paul Galbenski, dean of the Pontiac campus and the only career-technical education teacher ever named Michigan Teacher of the Year, believes every student ought to experience some form of CTE education before graduation. “This should not be an either/or situation but an ‘and’ for every student,” he said. “Our goal is to make them ready for postsecondary learning wherever that is — four-year colleges, community colleges, the military, or technical training beyond high school.”

For himself, Adam Ross is pretty optimistic about his future. “Going to this school has opened up a lot of options for me. It’s put me a lot closer to my goal,” he said.


Citation: Richardson, J. (2015). The editor’s note: Blending learning with experience. Phi Delta Kappan, 96 (6), 4.

JOAN RICHARDSON is the director of the PDK Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools and the former editor-in-chief of Phi Delta Kappan magazine.

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