Developing a strong workforce is critical to the success of our communities and the employment of everyone who wants to work. Figuring out how is crucial.
There is no better place to begin than within our school system. Students that go to schools where they are assigned project-based lessons learn far more than academics and technical skills. They learn to work as a team, how to hold people accountable, why diversity matters, and they develop vital social skills. These students go above and beyond because they don’t want to let their team down. As many of the projects involve real-world business or social problems, they learn what it feels like to make a difference.
Project-based learning is proving to be an effective path to developing a strong workforce and confident life-ready citizens. The good news is that this approach is taking root and spreading.
However, many educators are not prepared to teach this way. Classrooms are designed for students to learn sitting in rows with the “sage on the stage.” Learning to coach, working alongside practitioners from various workplaces, teaching on a team all require a change in mindset and new practices. What we hear from those teachers who have embraced these new practices is remarkable. Working on a team to achieve a meaningful purpose brings out the best in most people. It’s what makes companies, communities and classrooms the places we want to be.
This shift is not limited to the classroom. It is happening in workplaces too. Top-down leadership parallels the sage on the stage model. It is no longer effective. Change is too rapid. Facts don’t stay facts for long and data are overwhelming. Self-governing enterprises are the wave of the future.
Earlier this year, representatives of the San Joaquin Valley Manufacturing Alliance had a meeting with students and teachers at Phillip J. Patiño School of Entrepreneurship, an innovative high school in the Fresno Unified School District. They found the culture remarkable. It was clear that the students AND the teachers want to be there.
As part of the visit, students from Edison High School and Patino presented their projects.
Students from Patino were concerned about the health and well-being of their friends. They decided to put together a package of items to support them. They formed a company and named it Reborn, apt for their goals. Their excitement in forming their own business and filling a need were inspiring. An entrepreneurial mindset is contagious.
The students from Edison are proud “geeks.” Having the opportunity to focus on STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, Math—they wanted to make sure younger students understood the opportunities. They started a nonprofit with this mission: “Students are told to push themselves, to better themselves in a global economy where success is no guarantee. We students must do this dogma justice: we study, learn, act, work and play with this maxim as we strive to become our best selves.” On our journey of self-improvement, however, many of us forget to bring up our community along the way.” Check out their website here. Clearly they already understand the importance of civic stewardship.
The Democracy Schools projects, facilitated by the Civic Learning Center, are chosen by students in grades 5, 8 and 11. For the past several years their choices were sobering—mental health, teen suicide, date rape, and other difficult topics. This year many of the topics are focused on preventing and de-escalating violence. Their solutions and commitment to executing them are a beacon of hope. Peers impact peers. Team-based projects can change the trajectory of our community both in the classroom and the workplace.
Our country was founded on the principle that we could govern ourselves if we were informed, enlightened and engaged. Our schools are starting to create the environment for this to happen.
Building a strong workforce is our common cause. Success means a whole community call-to-action to support our students by getting involved as advisors and mentors and offering them internships and externships.
An earlier version of this commentary ran in the Fresno Business Journal.
Deborah Nankivell is CEO of the Fresno Business Council.