Some answers are so obvious that they elude us. Some answers are devastatingly apparent but require a new set of eyes to see. Take the classic conundrum that we all face: How best do we learn? What cutting-edge, flavor du jour will have us whittling away our time at the next professional development stint? What rip-the-top-off-and-dump-it-in practice works best?
There are volumes upon volumes on learning styles. There is even more available on "how to" teach, classroom management, lesson planning and reaching higher levels of learning. What if the answer to that enlightenment for which are searching can be found where we least expect it? What if we are already doing it?
See It. Do It. Teach It.
I am a cook by first trade. As I entered the profession, I learned by doing. Whether in the kitchen of Cappy's Café on Walnut St. in hoity Shadyside, by Carnegie Mellon University, or in my own kitchen of my little one-bedroom apartment, or in my parents' backyard, I learned by cutting, grilling, mixing and burning. Once on the job, it was learn-by-osmosis. Or fail. And failing in the kitchen means something different than failing in the classroom. Failing in the kitchen meant a barrage of profanity, thrown sauté pans and the questioning of, say, a not-so nice relationship with my mother. There was a lot to learn.
I brought a lot with me from the industry when I started in the classroom: Learn it by doing it. "See it, do it, teach it" is the mantra of our class. Teaching it, we know, grounds learning as well as creates the opportunity to discover. So, getting students to use what they are learning and, maybe, teach it to others is the leap in achievement for which we are struggling to discover. Sharing what our students are exploring with the community may be a ray of light in the sometimes dismal outlook of the public perception (and even our own) of student achievement. Sounds a lot like service learning, if you ask me.
The Corporation for National & Community Service defines service learning as:
"a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities. Through service-learning, young people, from kindergarteners to college students, use what they learn in the classroom to solve real-life problems. They not only learn the practical applications of their studies, they become actively contributing citizens and community members through the service they perform." (National Service Learning Clearinghouse)
So, that magic bullet, one of many in the burgeoning arsenal, can bring value to the community and enhance the growth of our students. I'm not talking about cleaning up the litter on the side of the Delaware River. While there is something noble about doing so, that is not service learning. Rather, service learning is having the students remove the litter and using their, say, engineering skills to construct stop-gap measures to prevent trash from further entering the waterway as well as tracking the impact they have had by building such a control. Imagine the boundless possibilities for students to apply theoretical geometry while assisting Habitat for Humanity? Or business students developing a functioning budget for the local animal shelter while Drafting students design the outdoor homes that the Carpentry students construct for feral cats. Look at that learning! This is not just about technical education. These are portable skills that employers need and our competitive edge in the world market demands. We are flexing problem-solving muscles, evaluative thinking, team dynamics' management and fiscal accountability, just to start.
Case Study: 10,000 Cookies
I am a braggart. Let me tell you about a project my students did in December. Two days' prior to leaving for winter break, the crew of fifty students stayed overnight to bake cookies for every police officer in the state. A token offering as a way of saying thanks for our law enforcement officers' commitment to keeping us safe, the students have done this for three previous years.
The logistics of producing 10,000 cookies in one marathon baking session are staggering. There are boxes to be procured, assembled and decorated. There is the calculating the quantities of ingredients and their arrival from the various sources. There are the provisions necessary to feed fifty teenagers. There is the delivery of said cookies. There is the calculating the mixing-scooping-baking-cooling-packaging rate to ensure we hit our targeted production. There are the donations needed to offset our fundraising efforts already flexed. Did I mention they invited the Governor of Delaware to launch the evening's activities? The students also suggested partnering with a local middle school to include the "next generation" of bakers to assist with cookie scooping and boxing? And, tragically, we lost a county officer on duty in September. The students coordinated a visit from the officer's brother to put a face on the reason why we were staying up all night to bake cookies. Each cookie box was to carry a dedication to the fallen officer, explaining that this year's "Bake the Night Away" was performed in his memory.
Does what the students did translate to achievement and growth on a test? Maybe. There was some math involved as well as written communications and cost analysis. The learning, the real, honest-to-goodness learning came through teamwork, time management, using the baking skills they have honed through their time in class, resource management, fiscal operations and effective communications. And probably a whole lot more. The answer to getting the students to learn more about their profession is grounded in academic wherewithal and exploded when put to test. Not that test. But the test that matters. There was a tangible result as a product of student learning, leadership and skill. And so we come full circle; they see it, they do it, they teach it.
Just this weekend, Gov. Martin O'Malley on Face the Nation proclaimed ". . . we need to do a better job in terms of career and technical education. The bottom line is that the more highly skilled we make our workforce in every way, the better they will be able to earn salaries and provide for their families."
There are real solutions when we teach applied skills in real world contexts. Indeed, we can both increase transportable skills while we serve the communities around us. There is a collateral benefit of bringing applied achievement to the neighborhood that we can only imagine.