High School Internships:
Challenges to the Common Wisdom
David Thornton Moore
New York University
December 10, 2010
The Problem
• Original mandate: How experiential learning
in the school (and related interventions) might
have an impact on workforce readiness
• Revised: How and under what conditions does
experiential education contribute to students’
building what the conference is calling
‘cognitive’ skills, especially as those have a
bearing on both college and career readiness?
Forms of Experiential Learning
Cooperative education
– Community-based research
– Job shadowing
– Career academies
– Experience-based career education
The Common Wisdom: Claims
• Academic reinforcement:
– Reading, writing, problem-solving
• Skill and career development:
– SCANS-like skills
– Knowledge of careers, industries, professions
• Youth development
– Psychosocial maturation, responsibility, teamwork
• New modes of thought
– Problem-formation, flexible solutions, higher-order
Sources of the Approach
• Pragmatism:
– CS Peirce, William James, John Dewey
• Interactionism
– GH Mead, Herbert Blumer, Howard Becker
• Constructivism
– Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner
• Activity theory
– LS Vygotsky, A. Luria, James Wertsch
• Situated cognition, situated learning
– Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger, JS Brown, Lauren Resnick
The Basic Position
• People ‘learn’ by participating in communities of practice in
which certain kinds of knowledge and skill are deployed in
the service of accomplishing certain kinds of collective,
meaningful purposes
• The nature of thought, knowing, and learning varies
according to the features of situations in which they occur
• Thinking and learning processes are mediated by history,
culture, and tools
• Thinking and learning are social as well as psychological
processes; that is, knowledge-use is stretched across
participants in situated activities, not just located inside
The Radical Challenge
• Activity systems think and learn: the
construction and use of knowledge happens
not just inside brains, but in systems of people,
activities and tools
• The objective is not to ‘build better students,’
but to create opportunities for students to
participate fully in contexts where knowledge
is being constructed, distributed and used
The Studies
• School for External Learning
– Big-city high school granting academic credit for work experience
– Observed and interviewed 35 students in field placements
• Working Knowledge: IEE/Teachers College
– Variety of career academies, experience-based high schools, and
cooperative education colleges around Northeast
– Observed and interviewed 25 students in field placements
– Observed school classes where experiences were part of the curriculum
• Teaching from Experience
– Seven higher-education institutions in New York metro area
– Observed and interviewed 12 students doing internships with related
classes, both on site and in class, and interviewed six interns not doing
related classes
Task Analysis Framework
• How tasks were
– Established
– Accomplished
– Processed
• Features of the work
– Socio-cognitive task demands: ‘content’
– Pragmatics:
• Centrality and demandedness
• Error cost
• Prestige or status
Environmental Analysis
• Features of the activity system
– Production process: division of labor (cognitive,
physical, social)
– Distribution of and access to knowledge
• Bernstein: classification and frame
– Workplace culture
• Features of the larger environment
– Market conditions: competition, demand
– Regulation: government, labor unions
– Technology: pace and nature of change
School-Based Elements
• What does the school do to
– prepare the student for the placement?
– process the experience during and after?
– connect it to other learning?
• Examples of school-based strategies
Pre-field seminars
Matching process
Learning contracts
Journals and writing assignments
Concurrent seminars
Case One: History Museum
• Student: Heather
– Upper-middle class, white, strong grades
• Setting: the education department
– Flat structure, mostly volunteers (docents)
– Culture of learning, fascination with history
• Task activity: the class tour
– Regular sequence of interactions, each with embedded
knowledge and skill, participation structures
– Specific incident: ‘doing the artifacts cart’
• Key aspects of learning experience
– Access to full participation, authentic role
– Scaffolding: gradual removal of supports
Case Two: Veterinary Clinic
• Student: Fred
– Working class, white, small-town
– Interested in animals, but a mediocre student
• Setting: two-vet animal hospital
– Hierarchy: vets, technicians, clerks, intern
• Tasks:
– For vets and techs: operations, spaying, diagnosis
– For Fred: cleaning cages, walking animals, setting up equipment for
• Factors shaping learning
– Strong classification: professional work by vets, support work by staff,
marginal (‘pick-up’) work by intern
– Framing: culture of deference; error cost; legal regulations, licensing
Assessing the Claims: 1
• Academic reinforcement:
– Not much school-like knowledge-use
– Not much interaction between work-knowledge
and school-knowledge
• Skills and career development
– Some limited skill acquisition, but in specialized
form; raises transfer of learning issue
– Narrow vision of career and profession
Assessing the Claims: 2
• Youth development
– Interns did experience responsibility, being ‘treated
like an adult’
• New modes of thought
– They were often thinking in ways not done in
school: more practical, more technical, more teamoriented and collaborative
– They did not do much planning, complex problemsolving, problem formulation, higher-order
• Current practices
– Not much better than vocational education or part-time
– Not designed to enhance academic learning, prepare
students for college
• Reasons
– Student roles tend to be peripheral, low-level, rarely
working toward full participation
– Teachers are not trained to process experience, and
tend to focus on career preparation
– Epistemological gap: knowledge used at work is not
easily mapped onto knowledge in school
• Deep processing: lead students to analyze
experiences in more rigorous terms
– Organizational behavior, workplace culture
– Psychological issues: motivation, satisfaction
– Ethics, history, literature
• Critical pedagogy: give students opportunity to
interrogate their experiences critically
– Ask why things are as they are and how things might
– Resist tendency to reproduce class structure
– Cf. Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Ira Shor, Roger Simon

High School Internships: Challenges to the Common Wisdom