What All Educators Can Learn From CTE Teachers

New college and career readiness standards call for teachers to give their students real-world learning opportunities that teach problem solving and critical thinking, communication and interpersonal skills, and collaborative learning.

Fine and good, but where can a math or English or history teacher go to discover ways to integrate and assess those standards and skills in their classes? 

Maybe just down the hall.

Thousands of Career and Technical Education (CTE) teachers have used this kind of instruction for decades to bring real-world learning into their classrooms. And the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Career Technical and Adult Education includes these skills—and more— in its 2014 Employability Skills Framework.

What can we learn from CTE teachers? Here are three key skills and a strong CTE approach to each.

Integrate meaningful project-based and real-world learning opportunities.
CTE courses typically include multiple opportunities for students to apply their knowledge in real-world contexts. An architecture teacher may have students build a project of their own design to demonstrate their understanding of construction skills, design principles, and geometry. More generally, CTE teachers have developed models for connecting standards, skills, and projects in the classroom, assessing student learning using performance rubrics and other methods. CTE teachers can also show other educators how to match performance-based assessments with student learning objectives.

Promote problem-solving and critical thinking.
Through project-based and applied learning, CTE teachers often ask students to take on tasks requiring problem-solving and critical thinking. An agriculture teacher may present students with a farm pest-infestation scenario and ask them to use multiple data points to assess the issue and present possible solutions. A culinary arts teacher may ask students to plan and budget for a catering event, working with multiple vendors, managing time, and controlling costs. CTE models can help teachers assign problem-solving and critical-thinking tasks to students of various ability levels, and CTE teachers can show how to develop these skills through student choice and creativity.

Promote student collaboration and discussion.
Because many CTE courses are chosen by students interested in a specific career path, CTE teachers typically cater to them with student-centered instruction. In CTE classrooms, students often take responsibility for aspects of their own learning and collaborate on project-based learning. An information technology teacher, for instance, may ask students to discuss approaches to solving a particular computer network problem, come to a common agreement, and share and defend their plan in front of the class. CTE teachers can provide models of how to embed opportunities for students to engage in peer learning and discussion in ways that promote learning, leadership, and communication skills.

Every educator can discover the best strategies for aligning instruction to new college and career readiness standards. And the best partner or coach may be the CTE teacher right down the hall.

Catherine Jacques is an AIR researcher specializing in educator quality.