Lens on Learners – Capturing K-12 Non-Formal Learning Achievements

Continuing our Lens on Learners series, we come to one of the most challenging and perhaps most important topics of all, yet one of the most difficult to navigate. We talk about the skills gap, the need for soft skills and ways to quantify, measure, and document them when it comes to universities, trade schools, and even adult learning, but what about starting even earlier?The difference comes down to the goal in primary and secondary education, which is often to prepare students to pass – and dare we say excel – in standardised testing. One of the many reasons this is the case is because of its ties to school funding, which usually comes from a government or accrediting body standard. Rather than being taught marketable workplace skills like teamwork, active listening, or how to learn, outcomes are measured in grade point averages, pass and fail rates, and comparisons between similar institutions.

And it’s not that educators, employers, and students don’t know that skills-based learning is the answer. But legacy frameworks make this difficult to overcome: unapproved changes in curriculum can result in the loss of funding or worse. However, there are a couple of things happening that can help. First, there is learning happening outside the formal frameworks, similar in nature to some of the work happening in the adult learning space. Second, there are alternative and private schools around the world attempting to make skills-based learning a focus while still meeting the standards outlined in legacy frameworks.

We’re going to tell you about a few of them by starting with a story.

Background on the Charter School Program

For those of you not familiar with the United States school system, primary and secondary public schools are set up by zip code: where you live determines where you go to school. In recent years, this system has come under fire because funding is often gathered through property tax levies: therefore the higher the property tax values in any given area, the more funding a school district receives.

This creates a disadvantage for those in poorer neighborhoods, highlighted by issues in large cities like Detroit, Chicago, New York, and even medium-sized markets like Boise, Idaho and Sacramento, California.

Enter the Charter School program. These schools are still publicly funded, but students can either elect to attend these schools, often qualifying through academic achievement or entering a waiting list for the limited number of spots available. The curriculum differs in that while standard subjects are taught, students have opportunities for career specific learning, soft skills training or dual enrollment in both college and high school classes, making it possible for them to graduate high school with an associate degree or at least a significant number of college credits towards one.

Many of these schools are so popular, you have to enter a lottery program to get accepted and students are only accepted if their number is drawn. Others offer a first-come, first serve selection system along with often lengthy waiting lists. But they do serve as a model for other schools, illustrating what is possible through alternative education methods.

This is the case with two different schools we interviewed students from: the Met in Sacramento, California, and Renaissance High School based in Boise, Idaho.

Meet Meisum Naveed

Meisum Naveed is a junior in high school, the equivalent to a Year 11 year student in Australia or the UK. A couple of years ago, his only possibility of attending a standard high school in his neighborhood, was to apply through a Standard High School lottery. Which he lost. With the start of the school year fast approaching, he searched frantically online for other options and by chance stumbled upon the Met Sacramento High School, a small (relative to other local high schools) innovative charter school in which students work at active internships with local businesses two days a week for school credit. There were a few openings left in the program, and he managed to snag one of them.

Students work with an advisory program starting from day one. They are encouraged to talk to their advisor about their skills and interests, to align their learning and internship experiences with their career goals. They can also take concurrent college and high school classes to get a head start on their college degree. Advisors make sure students are on track through monthly meetings. Contrast this with other high school students, who might talk to their advisor once or twice a year.

How did this come about? “I was in a science fair in eighth grade,” Meisum told us. “I originally wanted to be a scientist, but the idea of selling a product interested me.” So he started to learn about business, and early in his internships found that businesses needed help with online and digital marketing. “I’m on social media all the time,” he told us. “So it seemed like a natural fit to combine business with something I was already doing.”

Since then, Meisum has developed his own business, complete with a list of clients he provides digital marketing support for (Edalex included for some short-term projects) along with his regular school work. There are some keys to the success of this program: smaller schools and class sizes, recognition for achievements, and easy access to advisors that ensure students are on track.

Of course, this kind of education is not for everyone. Some students enter the school thinking it will be easier if they only have to attend school three days a week: but the opposite is true. There is less ‘busy’ work, more learning packed into fewer days, and this style of learning requires a lot of self-discipline and motivation. Over 50% of students leave after the first year. Those who stay tend to be either strongly motivated, or if less motivated at least committed to their education. Even if they don’t put in the effort of star students like Meisum, they are exposed to internships, advisors and are forced to look at both education and the future differently.

The difference this real-world learning approach has made to Meisum’s mindset is startling. “While my friends from normal high school are looking for work, they’re applying to fast food restaurants and for retail jobs. I’m applying at investment banks,” he told us. “My opportunities at school have changed my thinking – it’s not just about earning a dollar, it’s about passion, job satisfaction and having a plan for the future.”

The Met is not the only such program. Renaissance High School in Boise, Idaho offers similar programs, and a similar format. “A different approach to school definitely set me up for greater success in college,” Maxwell Patenoude told us. “In one semester, I had my associate degree and I already knew my major and what field I want to pursue a masters degree in.” Rather than a typical college job, Max is working a remote IT job for Washington State University while attending the University of Idaho, where he will graduate a full 18-months ahead of most of his peers.

What about those students who are more career bound than college bound? Well, there’s an answer for them as well.

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Vocational High School Programs

Just down the road from Renaissance High School is yet another alternative high school, Meridian Technical Charter High School. Students learn about software, coding, web development, hardware, and media through both classes and internships that prepare them for technology-based careers straight out of high school. The school shares a campus with the Meridian Medical Arts Charter High School, a school designed to prepare students for careers in the medical field or even a head start on college, if that’s what they want.

In the next city over, Boise High offers programs like culinary classes, diesel mechanics, automotive, small engine repair and other trades. And they are not alone. Programs across the state and internationally do the same. In Victoria, vocational skills are taught in years 11-12 through VCAL courses that can be tailored by each student to meet their individual needs and wants. That’s only part of a program called Youth Central, one that concentrates on helping those aged 12-25 find work, move away from home, find the right training options for them and more.

At Beenleigh State High School located in a low socioeconomic area of Queensland, Australia, hospitality courses and barista skill gives students credit into TAFE Queensland, preparing them for jobs, not just for college. While this program technically operates outside of and in addition to the regular school curriculum, it offers yet another opportunity for students who want to enter the jobs market sooner rather than later.

Non-Formal Learning Outside of School

In reality, a lot of the soft skills kids learn come from programs outside of school. From the Scouts to the Guides, from Surf Life Saving to sports, students learn a lot about leadership, teamwork, listening and more from what they do in their spare time. In fact, this has driven many employers to understand that video games help students develop many of the soft skills they need to survive in today’s job market.

The key is often that students are just having fun and don’t even know or understand that they are learning at the same time. The unfortunate consequence is that these things – by their very nature “extracurricular” – aren’t perceived with the same value that classes, projects and “grades” are.

But the Scouts and other organisations are looking to change that. In fact the global Big 6 Youth Organizations just released a joint position paper strengthening their investment in non-formal education initiatives.

Formed in 1996, the Big 6 Youth Organizations are an alliance of leading international youth-serving organisations that include: World Alliance of Young Men’s Christian Associations (YMCA), World Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), World Organization of the Scout Movement (WOSM), World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award Foundation. The reason this is so important: first of all, these six organizations combined reach over 250 million youth around the world. The second?

In a statement released by the Scouts, they make this statement: “The joint position emphasises that non-formal education is an equally essential form of education and calls for more balance between the different education and learning dimensions. Non-formal education, best suited to help young people acquire life skills, values, and resilience to social changes, is often underestimated.” (Emphasis added)

As with adult education, as we have explored with education at a university level in this series, much of the learning and the shift in the way we look at it, will come from outside traditional education frameworks.

In Lifelong Learning, Everything Counts

What does this all mean to our Lens on Learners? There are a few key takeaways in this space, and there is room for a much larger discussion than what can be contributed here. Let’s look at a few of them:

First, while charter and vocational programs offer some hope, they still must operate within or alongside traditional frameworks. For those programs to be adopted on a wider scale, we must re-examine funding for education. Such programs are expensive, require more staff and resources and can’t be adopted everywhere for every student.

Second, and related to the first, funding is always a primary issue in educational change, and is one reason reform takes a long time even when the need for it is clearly apparent. The source of that funding comes almost exclusively from outside interests like industry, philanthropic organisations and others who are more likely to support and even initiate informal learning programs than attempting to change the existing system. This is often seen in private education, schools that require tuition or philanthropic support rather than public funding.

Third, we also need to change the viewpoint of learners on their own education. Everything counts: sports, Scouts, summer camps, gaming, and more. It all works toward their overall, lifelong education. There are a number of ways to do this, including offering micro-credentials and documenting those skills, but also through teaching learners not only what they are learning, but both the intrinsic and extrinsic value of it.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Realistically, we don’t have all the answers. Changing the education system from the start, with primary and secondary students, is hard. There are some things we can say, even though in many cases they raise as many questions as they answer:

  • Educators are trying to do things better, but the system has not been able to keep up – the amount of effort it takes to steer the ship in a new direction is huge. This doesn’t mean we should stop trying, but it does mean we need to have realistic expectations of what can and cannot be accomplished and the time it will take
  • For many K-12 students and educators, the focus is on passing a test, not learning skills. For this to change, a significant shift in thinking is required first
  • Standardised tests remain, despite the fact that we know how ineffective they are. Even in alternative schools, due largely to the way funding is structured, the “pass/fail” rates of students on these tests (especially in the US) can make or break a school budget
  • Alternative schools are an option, but an expensive one. Again, as we stated above, funding is one of the primary issues
  • The fundamental challenge is in creating a decentralised yet rigid framework. While a decentralised and more universal system is the goal, the framework must still be in place to maintain control

How do we accomplish these things? There are no simple answers. As we focus our Lens on Learners, this becomes clearer and clearer. The one thing we do know, is that it is time to engage as many stakeholders as possible in the conversation. The more questions we can ask, and answer, the greater our progress will be.

Tell us, what are some of your ideas? What can we do to bring more value and meaning to learners in the K-12 space? What does fundamental education reform really look like? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Stakeholders in the Modern Credential Marketplace

In this blog series, we will focus on the key Stakeholders in the Modern Credential Marketplace – who they are, what drives them and what challenges and opportunities they face.

  • Edalex Blog Series - Stakeholders in the Modern Credential Marketplace Lens on Learners – how can micro-credentials help today’s learners achieve their education and employment goals?
  • Lens on Educators – if micro-credentials are driving a shift in how education providers approach skill development, how are they responding and what impact does it have?
  • Lens on Employers – how are companies responding to the need for work-specific skills and how are micro-credentials impacting on their ability to verify candidate skills?

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