Leaving to Learn: A Lesson on Meaningful Education

When schools are providing the type of experiences students really need, teachers are likely to feel unprepared to answer students’ questions. This is what I felt when Andrew told me he wanted to do an internship at his family’s towing and automotive repair business and start a used parts business for his project. There are so many questions to ask and answer when undertaking such a project, but they don’t teach you the answers when you study education in college (at least I never encountered the answers in any of my courses.)

One thing we do as educators to help students when we are unprepared is reach out to our professional network to find those who can help us help our students. That is why I knew immediately that Andrew needed to visit the Leominster Center for Excellence (A Big Picture Learning school in Leominster, Massachusetts).

LCE had two students who we needed to visit at their internship sites. Kenny is a freshman working at an automobile repair shop, and we stopped to see him first on a rainy January day. Our tour of the facility included 15-minute conversation with Kenny and the owner of the shop who advised Andrew to learn how to repair electrical problems when he took over the family business. The owner was an interesting man. He shared stories of how he was active in continuing to learn, how he worked to share his expertise with LCE students, and supported the local technical center.

We then spent more than an hour visiting Fernando at the salvage yard where he has been an intern for a year. Fernando gave a complete tour of the site.

people in a scrap yard
Fernando points out the many areas where cars are processed, introducing us to everyone from the yard manager to the sales people to the owner. Andrew was able to get an insider’s view of the entire process of operating a salvage yard from finding cars to deciding what to salvage to processing vehicles and managing and marketing inventory.

On the ride back to school, Andrew was reflecting on the day and what he learned and how he was going to proceed with his own work. Perhaps most interesting to me was Andrew’s reflection on what leads to real learning. He values real-world experience; studying about a topic from the outside is not giving Andrew the education he wants.

As we neared the school, we started talking about the questions that focus education. Andrew confirmed my belief that real education happens only when students are answering questions to which the teacher does not know the answer. The best education happens when the student is answering questions that neither the teacher nor the students even know how to answer. Those are the problems that students will solve throughout their lives. Those are the problems students solve through internships and learning outside of school.

people standing in a garage