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Kids start talking careers in kindergarten in this school district. It's part of a new approach with an eye toward life after school

Maddie Hanna, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Lifestyles

QUAKERTOWN, Pa. — Christa Held was a little skeptical when she was asked to start teaching her fourth graders new vocabulary that would help them identify possible career options.

“We’re already talking about careers, and there’s so much we need to learn right now,” Held, who teaches math, science, and social studies at Quakertown Elementary School, recalled thinking.

She quickly changed her mind. As Held introduced her students to RIASEC, an acronym for six personality types aligned to different careers, hands shot up in the air — and not just from kids already inclined to speak up. Students whom Held sometimes suspected of being asleep were eager to volunteer which of the letters — which stand for Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional — represented them.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had, in 20 years of teaching, such a wow across the board,” Held said. “It made me see them in a whole new light.”

The conversations in Held’s classroom will be expanding across the Quakertown Community School District this fall — part of a rethinking of how schools should prepare kids for life after graduation. But teachers say it’s changing the environment inside their classrooms, too.

Not one-and-done

Unlike other forms of career education — which might involve a specific class, technical education, or periodic visits from a counselor — the approach in Quakertown aims to form connections between children and possible careers starting as young as kindergarten, in every aspect of their education.

The goal isn’t to label or pigeonhole kids, but to let them voice their own interests and realize how their strengths may connect to different career paths, said Ed Hidalgo, a consultant working with the district.

“We expect to see fluidity, change, exploration,” said Hidalgo, who previously implemented a similar “World of Work” program in a school district outside San Diego. “It’s not a one and done. This is an ongoing conversation.”

A former career coach, Hidalgo said he realized from working with students and teachers that the RIASEC codes — which stem from a theory developed by psychologist John Holland in the 1950s and have been adopted by the U.S. Department of Labor — provided a “common language” that everyone could understand.

Under the theory, the different personality types are coded to specific college majors and career options — allowing children who identify as “Realistic” and “Investigative,” for instance, to see a list of compatible occupations, from dental laboratory technicians to landscape architects and conservation scientists.

“We’re developing career curiosity for students,” said Hidalgo. He distinguished his approach from schools administering career aptitude tests, saying his method relies on students’ self-reporting and making the language “part of the instructional core.”

His work drew interest from other districts. Hidalgo left the Cajon Valley district in 2022 and joined a consulting group, Educators Cooperative. He now works with other schools in California, as well as in Indiana, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, and has hired a researcher. ”It’s a long process to measure the ultimate outcomes,” he said.

Quakertown Superintendent Matthew Friedman, who learned of Hidalgo’s work in Cajon Valley through a national superintendents’ association, was intrigued by the approach.

By helping students identify their strengths and interests and connect them to possible career paths, “they’re maximizing their school experience,” Friedman said — noting that the initiative also doesn’t require teachers to adopt a new curriculum but to “sprinkle” the RIASEC language throughout existing lessons. “That’s teaching and learning and school to me in its purest form.”

‘Pretty amazing’ results

 

Friedman brought Hidalgo into Quakertown last fall, and a group of teachers began introducing RIASEC to students as part of a pilot program. The district paid about $25,000 so far for the consulting, and will continue to work with Hidalgo next year, Friedman said.

The results, Friedman said, have been “pretty amazing.”

During a panel discussion last month featuring students and teachers participating in the pilot program, one high school student, Cru McCartney, said he was surprised to discover that he was “Realistic,” but felt the category fit when he read about some common characteristics — like enjoying working outside and being physically active.

The designation led McCartney to engineering. Now, headed into his senior year, he said he regrets that he didn’t make the connection sooner, so that “I would have had more time to try all” the engineering classes.

Another high school student said that he probably wouldn’t have talked at all to certain kids in his class, but after discussing the RIASEC letters, found a shared experience and connected with them.

Teachers say they’ve made stronger connections with their students as a result.

Melissa Riedi prides herself on having a strong classroom community, but “this has heightened that even more to a new level I didn’t know was possible,” she said.

The third-grade Quakertown Elementary teacher said kids quickly embraced the language when she began using it in February. “They were giving themselves these random percentages, like ‘I’m 7% investigative,’” Riedi said. But students have also been identifying who they aren’t, she said — a valuable lesson.

One girl, whom Riedi would have thought would be investigative — someone curious, rational, possibly drawn to mathematics — told the teacher that she was “good at that, but I don’t like it.”

Kids in Riedi’s class now identify specific traits they might need help with — “You’ll hear them say, ‘We’re doing a project, I need somebody that’s a conventional organizer able to help me’” — and have also made a habit of assigning RIASEC characteristics to people in history they’re studying.

That lets kids see themselves in the lessons, she said: “I don’t think in the past I’ve ever had anybody identify with Galileo.”

Held, the fourth-grade teacher, says she sees her students in a new light. “Every day, you’re trying to figure out how the children in front of you tick,” she said. Now, she knows more about their interests — like that one boy, who’s only in her classroom for part of the day, who loves to cook.

The focus on personality traits and pathways has motivated some students to think more strategically — one girl, who wants to be a veterinarian, told Held that “looking at these skills, I’ve got to work on my patience,” the teacher recalled. But it’s also boosted the confidence of kids who are struggling, she said.

“You have kids who truly don’t feel that great in anything,” Held said. Talking about RIASEC helps them see that “my interests matter, other people like what I like, and we are all good at things.”

“It’s opened up so much for them, and for me,” Held said. “They’re all teachable moments.”


©2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC. Visit at inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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