Why High School is the Perfect Time to Introduce Students to Experiential Learning

High schoolers with exposure to experiential learning are at an advantage when applying to college and securing internships during their time at university.

Tamara Mathias
February 2, 2022

Although COVID19 has made this year extremely challenging for high schools, the crisis has also shone a spotlight on the cracks in our education system and sparked more conversations about the best ways to impart teenagers with the knowledge and skills they need to transition to and beyond college.

A few forward-thinking educators are looking to address some of the drawbacks of a traditional American education right at the high school level, by being flexible about how students can demonstrate competency to graduate.

“As we see it, the credit system is an accounting system, not a learning system,” explains David Ruff, a founding member and director of the New England Secondary School Consortium.

“At the high school level, many schools count internships and externships as extra credit. We’re working to make those things count as actual credit and with COVID, we’ve really been doubling down on that strategy.”

Ruff explains that personalizing education pathways to allow students to pursue learning opportunities that appeal to them is very much the future of education.  For example, whether a student elects to do an internship and showcase a portfolio of work, or chooses to spend extra time on algebra classes, they will be allowed to graduate as long as they are able to demonstrate they have built skills that meet grading criteria.

The shift to competency-based learning

By recognizing the value of experiential learning, educators acknowledge that the onus of helping students build career-ready skills falls to professors, rather than managers at their first jobs. This is the first step towards a broader adoption of experiences that provide real-world training, from co-ops to field trips and remote externships in favor of classroom-focused education. 

“There are historical factors that play into the traditional practice of de-emphasizing career preparedness in high schools,” says Sade Bonilla, assistant professor in the college of education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“In the past, vocational education would typically target students from underserved backgrounds who couldn’t afford college, so many schools shifted focus to provide college preparation services over career preparation services.”

However, Bonilla notes that career pathway initiatives, particularly in states like California and Tennessee, have gained popularity over the past few years. Through programs supported by the state, students are encouraged to take multiple thematic courses and spend time at local businesses to meet the requirements of a capstone project in high school.

“For example, a student might take courses in anatomy and physiology and get a certified nursing assistant certificate and they might also get to work at a local hospice to build up practical skills,” she explained.

“However, efforts of this sort do have to be integrated into the regular schooling experience for them to become mainstream.”

On the other side of the world, Dulwich College International, a group of leading international colleges and high schools in Asia, actually saw the disruption caused by the COVID19 lockdown as a chance to give students their first taste of corporate life via remote externships.

“COVID-19 may have impacted the learning experience of students around the world, but at Dulwich, we see an opportunity to think out of the box to continue to deliver holistic and experiential learning,” said Sian May, the group’s Director of Senior School.

Through a series of initiatives targeted at their Year 11 and Year 13 (10th and 12th grade) students, Dulwich College International rolled out a comprehensive program to provide a variety of real-world experiences that would allow students to apply skills beyond the classroom, including remote externships through a partnership with Paragon One.

While the challenges of remote work and social distancing have triggered considerable innovation in higher education and consequently career preparedness efforts, some experts warn that COVID19 could also widen the opportunity gap for students from underserved communities, because it has laid bare the digital divide that exists, even in developed nations like the United States.

"A lot of young people don't have internet access and broadband and I was unpleasantly surprised to learn that this is not just a problem in rural areas. Students living in urban centers are less likely to have broadband in their homes, and during the pandemic, not having access to public wifi has been problematic,”  said Dr. Stephanie McGencey,  Executive Director at the American Youth Policy Forum.

“Digital equity is more than schools distributing laptops to students. In all likelihood, if a student needs to be given a device, then the likelihood of them or someone they live with knowing how to connect it to the internet, create profiles and log into and navigate e-learning platforms to complete assignments is very low.” 

McGencey highlights an important reason why more non-profits that work with teens from low-income families should be investing in experiential learning programs that give them the chance to gain real work experience, particularly those that help them build digital skills that are now integral to every modern career.

While the pandemic has put many educator-employer partnerships on hold, schools and non-profits can still leverage virtual career mentorship programs to recommend remote internship opportunities for teenagers in their final years of high school. A remote internship at this stage of one’s academic career can help high schoolers get a taste of what it is like to pursue a career in a particular industry and even prevent them making expensive mistakes by choosing majors that they later feel disillusioned by in college.

High schoolers with exposure to experiential learning are also at an advantage when applying to college and securing internships during their time at university.

Melissa Zak, an undergraduate admissions officer at the University of Nottingham in the UK, says that high school graduates who list remote work experience on their resumes when applying to college are generally regarded to possess skills like independent learning and self-motivation. 

“In terms of future applicants, those who can show they have the capacity for independent study, through activities such as remote externships, will be viewed positively,” she said.

“These skills not only help to develop an applicant’s profile for university, but will highlight to future employers the applicant’s adaptability to changing circumstances.”

Tamara Mathias

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