Hearts and Hands

This blog post is being published simultaneously on the CTE Central Blog. Co-authored by Tom Ross.

When states reduce funding for CTE—like here in California—Career Technical Education people are bewildered. In light of all the attention given to career and continuing education—as well as the need for skilled workers—this would seem to be the last place to cut funds.

The school climate people are concerned as well.

Knowledge and skills aren’t learned in a vacuum. As students focus on their own interests and aptitudes—through career technical education—they are developing the non-cognitive skills, the mindsets (or mindfulness), and dispositions (see slide 3 here as well) that will make them both college and career ready. In the SCANS Report (2000) employers identified the non-cognitive skills that they find to be foundational to their needs; these include responsibility, self-esteem, sociability, self-management, integrity, and honesty.  These are skills that may be learned in school but not explicitly taught. They come from that intangible thing called school climate.

School climate refers to the quality and character of school life, based on patterns of people’s experiences of school life, and reflects the norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching, learning and leadership practices, and organizational structures of a school. Schools with good climate provide healthy, positive learning environments where students feel safe and respected and can grow and reach for goals they feel are meaningful to them and relevant in the real world. Ideally, schools provide students a safe space in which to learn, make mistakes, try new things, and develop both their knowledge and skills with the support of grownups who care about them.

Children often enter school feeling insecure, nervous, alone, and unsure of what to expect and what’s expected of them. Interventions and strategies that support positive school climate can make their experiences a lot less stressful.

What’s this got to do with career technical education? Well, it turns out that CTE is a powerful school climate tool – providing students a strong connection to their schools, creating relevance for their educations, and allowing educators opportunities to see their students in a whole new light. We often see CTE, academics, and school climate as disparate things, inhabiting different worlds of thought, in separate silos. In a healthy and positive learning environment (school climate), CTE and academics work together.

 Link Crew (in yellow) at El Capitan High School, Lakeside, CA

Career Technical Education prepares students for the real world of work and careers by teaching them workplace competencies and making academic content accessible to students in a hands-on context.

In order for students to want to go to and stay in school—and keep them from dropping out—there has to be something in it for them. It needs to engage them.  They need to want to learn and to come to school (attendance is a major indicator in school climate evaluations).

Nothing is more engaging for students of all ages than a lesson that puts something new in their hands and shows them how to use it, a skill that is useful and that helps them create something or solve a problem or provides training they can build on. And it should be something they enjoy doing and that they find to be relevant in the world.

And nothing is more engaging for teachers than students who are learning and growing; students who take the lead and apply what they have learned to new situations and problems. When students become leaders, they are engaged.


 Camp LEAD at Grossmont Union High School District

Leadership programs—often part of a character education program—are a major part of school climate. Mt. Miguel and El Capitan High Schools (in the Grossmont Union High School District in San Diego County), for example, offer programs like Camp Lead and Listening Circles as well as Link Crew. These leadership activities promote meaningful, rigorous learning, personal and social growth, and civic responsibility as well as career development. (The School Climate Index for both schools has improved annually since 2011.)

Which came first, school climate or student engagement? It doesn’t matter, as long as they are connected.

Student engagement occurs when “students make a psychological investment in learning. They try hard to learn what school offers. They take pride not simply in earning the formal indicators of success [grades], but in understanding the material and incorporating or internalizing it in their lives.”

“Along with mastery and application of essential content as typically prescribed and monitored in state standards, assessments, and accountability systems, it is necessary that students cultivate higher-order cognitive and meta-cognitive skills that allow them to engage in meaningful interaction with the world around them.” (From Knowledge, Skills, and Dispositions, CCSSO, 2012)

“For children to learn to their full potential, and for us to make inroads in reducing dropout rates, students need to feel safe at, supported by, and connected to their schools. School climate is very much connected to student success.” Tom Torlakson, California Superintendent of Public Instruction (from CA Safe and Supportive Schools).

Heads, hearts and hands. Engaged students use their heads. Students who are not engaged “sit on their hands.” We engage them with “hands-on” activities. Engaged students “put their heart” into their work.

College of the Canyons’ Summer Institute (Photo courtesy of the Santa Clarita Valley Signal)

 Are your students engaged? Are they putting their hearts as well as their hands into their work? Let us know how you are integrating CTE and school climate in your school.



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