English 'studio schools': A solution for boredom in U.S. high schools?

Published: Monday, March 11 2013 3:25 p.m. MDT

"Studio schools" that blur the boundary between school and the workplace for high school-age students are sprouting up all over England. Could they work in the United States?

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“Studio schools” have taken hold in England as a way of helping teenagers feel more engaged in learning and making them more prepared for success when they graduate. The schools, designed for 14- to 19-year-olds of all ability levels, are based around enterprise projects and real work related to particular careers.

Each of the school is small — about 300 students — and works closely with local employers. The schools run year-round on a 9-to-5 working day and offer regular academic and vocational curriculums along with opportunities for work placement with employers. Upon graduation, students can go on to universities, continue with job training or go into the work force.

A framework of “employability skills” taught through project-based learning includes communication, collaboration, enterprise, application of learned skills, judgment and problem-solving and emotional intelligence.

The name “studio school” was adapted from the concept of the Renaissance studio, a place where working and learning were integrated as students learned professions from experienced masters.

“Our goal is to take this older tradition and apply it to the 21st century, creating schools in which students progress in academic and vocational subjects through experience of real work,” according to the studio school website. “This practice has already been adopted in medicine, law and other fields. There is strong evidence that by bringing working and learning together, students will perform better and be better prepared for their working life.”

The first studio school opened in Luton, England, in cooperation with area businesses in the fields of cosmetology, construction, engineering, hospitality, plumbing and mechanics. There are 16 studio schools scattered around England now, covering an array of careers such as media and marketing, science and technology, design and business enterprise.

Hilton Hotels, Michelin and Ikea are among employers backing the schools, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation. The involvement of businesses is meant to ensure that students leave school with skills needed by local and national employers, it continued.

“Supporters say the schools will improve employability, critics that they could push pupils down a path too young,” the BBC report said, noting that English teachers' unions oppose the schools as a threat that could fragment local school systems and narrow curriculum choices for students.

A commentary about studio schools by Canadian writer Jerry Y. Diakiw in Education Week magazine said the studio school model might be an answer to problems in Canadian and U.S. school systems, which he deemed out of step with 21st-century needs.

Diakiw framed his support of the studio school concept with references to high dropout rates and a survey that revealed widespread disengagement and boredom among high school students in the U.S. and Canada, especially among minority students and those living in poverty.

“Despite what we now know about the power of learning through talking and doing, we persist in expecting students to learn by listening,” he wrote. “Walking through the halls of high schools in both the United States and Canada, one invariably hears the steady drone of teachers' voices in room after room. The sound of boredom is deafening.”

He sees studio schools as one of many new ideas that could “explode the boundary between the school and the workplace” as a way of making students feel more invested in what they learn.

“Studio Schools are sure to be a major feature of our 21st-century school system, but they cannot be the only one,” Diakiw wrote. “We need a multiplicity of alternatives, incorporating mentorships, internships, and apprenticeships to forge a new vision of education in our rapidly changing, team-oriented society.”

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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