Our current assembly-line education system needs a modern day makeover. I believe that by implementing project-based learning and a more apprenticeship-like curriculum, we can better prepare our students for the workforce and the real world.
My Apprenticeship Experience
I moved to New York City in early September 2012 to start my apprenticeship at Holstee, a sustainable design and lifestyle company. Through a program called Enstitute, I lived with 10 other apprentices, who each worked for various companies such as Bitly, Thrillist, and Unified Social, to name a few. Each of our individual apprenticeships were different, but they all had one key thing common — we were all getting a very in-depth look into how startups actually work and seeing into the day-to-day of the entrepreneurs who run them.
My apprenticeship led me to travel to Mexico for a month, help launch a Kickstarter, and gain exposure to things and concepts that up until that point, I had only read about in class. I sat in on pitch meetings with VCs. I helped interview new hires and took notes during exit interviews. I saw what it was like to take a product from a sketch in a notebook to a physical prototype. I even apprenticed under another entrepreneur in Dublin for six weeks and learned how business can vary from culture to culture. The year-long apprenticeship adventure set me up for success by teaching me real-world, marketable skills.
See A Problem, Fix A Problem
My apprenticeship experience changed my career trajectory. So, why aren’t we starting students out with real-world learning much earlier?
Education, at all levels, needs to be revamped for the modern world. The current, outdated system created for a different time period no longer makes sense in our modern, faster-paced society. Too often students learn facts and interesting anecdotes without any real hope of practical application. This lack of opportunity forces students to stress over marks on multiple choice tests in lieu of manifesting creativity. This outdated system leads to stunted career paths and increased student loan debt.
I was the kid who sat in the back of class on his laptop, reading blogs by Tim Ferriss and Gary Vaynerchuk and occasionally answering a question or two to keep the teacher off of my back.
The class met once per week for three hours, where we went over 100 PowerPoint slides each class period. My brain was fried, my classmates were exhausted from working all day, and most of us didn’t fully understand why we were there. I once pressed my professor for an example of how we could apply the day’s theories in the modern workplace. The response was startling.
Eventually, she concluded, “It’s not my job to provide relevant examples, it’s simply my job to present the material.”
What good is information with no practical application? Why are we as students forced from the age of five to memorize facts, dates, and definitions without any route to attempt application of what we are studying?
I believe that classrooms need to better simulate the real-world for which they are supposed to be preparing students. We need more learn-by-doing lesson plans. We need to implement apprenticeships and hands-on learning into modern education.
Capstone Projects: A Step In The Right Direction
My last semester of college, my main focus was my Senior Capstone project — a real-world simulation where a group and I actually performed experiments on the freshman (muhahaha). The experiment focused on finding relationships (or lack thereof) between a certain type of memory and key characteristics of depression. We administered surveys, performed interviews, ran statistical models, and presented our findings to numerous faculty and students, who then subjected us to a tough line of questioning. The project brought my engagement up to a whole new level and opened my eyes to the hands-on education I had been yearning for over the last 18 or so years. We need more classrooms settings to follow this same line of thinking and teaching.
High school students explore lots of different subjects in order to find out what they want to study in college. But outside of Student Council and clubs, most classes don’t actually enable students to “do” anything. Teachers lecture, students read, tests are taken, and then the process is repeated.
What would happen if every time a student wrote a paper, they were then required to use that paper in order to teach what they had learned to the other students? I bet the content would shift dramatically, and the depth of learning would be that much greater. if the goal went passed simply trying to obtain an “A” to real-world application, perhaps students would finally be truly engaged and intrigued to learn more.
Too often, students are simply aiming to check off boxes on a grading rubric. “Did you write at least 500 words? Is the paper in proper MLA/APA/etc format? Are sources properly cited?” Who cares?
Preparing Students For 21st Century Life
Assignments should focus on preparation for the future, not completing rote tasks. Assignments should focus on actual learning. Grading rubrics should instead address topics like: “Did you obtain a firm understanding of the material, so much so that you could then use this knowledge to infer and devise solutions to future problems?”
Now, I’m an entrepreneur. In fact, I have been ever since I was a child, it just took me a long time to come to this realization. No one told me “where companies come from” or that the creative solutions I was coming up with could potentially turn into a career. I always have multiple, simultaneous side projects in action, some of which currently include a digital marketing consulting company, freelance resume and cover letter writing services, and a business making skinny ties. In order to scale each of these ideas, I need to hire savvy people to help me out, and the task has proven difficult in the past.
As an entrepreneur, I’m not looking to hire walking dictionaries and encyclopedias. I’m looking for people with grit, tenacity, problem solving and reasoning skills, who can think creatively. We need people that can actually get things done and that aren’t simply aiming for an “A”. The skills listed above are only a handful that I picked up in multiple apprenticeships through Enstitute, a learn-by-doing program for young adults (which I mentioned above). My hope is that by addressing the lack of practical application in the classroom early on, others will not have to wait as long I did to truly start learning.
I believe that we should start implementing apprenticeships and project-based learning into our high schools. Any major change into the education system will be met with tons of pushback and will have to get through layers of red tape, so we should start with ideas that are more progressive and open-minded. I believe that high school apprenticeships can solve a lot of the issues we currently face in education, namely lack of engagement and real-world connecting, and I believe it’s possible to make apprenticeships work systemically. This type of learning should not be limited to after-school programs, such as the one I self-selected into, but should be an option for all students interested in getting their hands dirty.
Header image courtesy of Holstee