Exploring experiential education and student voice to support school transitions
By Colleen Knechtel
Post-secondary education (PSE) decision-making is an extraordinarily complex process (Mueller, 2008) that forces young people to consider not only their personal attributes, values and interests, but also compels them to think deeply about the life they want to lead, and make choices amidst seemingly endless possibilities. Transitions from school-to-work and from high school to PSE often take students on extended, sometimes winding roads that most often eventually lead to technical training and higher education programs (Alberta Advanced Education, 2016). Post-secondary aspirations begin to emerge by age 15 (Alberta Advanced Education) and are considered to be important predictors for future PSE access (Christofides, Hoy, Li & Stengos, 2008; Motte, et al., 2008). While the flexible and diverse nature of experiential education programs is known to provide open spaces for students to reconnoitre their strengths, values and interests, allowing students to become the author of their own story (McGowan, 2016; Baxter Magolda, 1998, 1999, 2004, 2008; Kegan, 1982; see also Lehmann, 2007; 2016), these programs are also underexplored avenues to support students in their PSE explorations.
Experiential learning opportunities link education, work and personal development. Such learning is best conceived not in terms of specific outcomes, but as a continuous process that creates knowledge grounded in experience (Kolb, 2014) involving both personal and social aspects of development (Dewey 1938). It is well established in the research literature that community service-learning and other experiential education programs such as internships and leadership opportunities enable students to gain practical knowledge and skills, as well as important personal and social understandings.
An essential consideration for the design of such programs is student voice, a traditionally neglected aspect within school culture. It is critical that educators work alongside students to understand their perspectives and find ways to empower young people to actively engage in authentic explorations of their interests, curiosities and aspirations to support preparation for PSE decision-making. One example of such a program is a four-day internship created for students interested in learning about architecture. Instead of attending school, a group of students went to work at a local architecture firm. Not only did these students job shadow the architects to learn about what they do in their workplace day-to-day, they also were invited to actively participate in design meetings where they were asked to contribute their ideas about ways our local downtown public library (currently under major redesign construction) might create welcoming spaces for young people.
In this internship, student voice was honuored, first by the option to choose to participate in the program, and secondly, by being invited into authentic planning conversations. Together, experiential education program design and student voice are important approaches to support students’ PSE planning and decision-making in preparation for school transitions.
(Colleen Knechtel) After counselling and supporting disadvantaged and injured workers, I began in 2009 to lead collaborative projects to empower students in schools. These collaborative school-based projects created questions that I am now exploring in my graduate studies at the University of Alberta. My research interests involve experiential education program design in secondary school communities that support students’ explorations of post-secondary aspirations, options and decision-making at the intersections of student voice and school transitions.
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