On the left is an example of the competition build. On the right is Elliot, standing at his workspace and looking at plans of what to do next.

On a Wednesday in mid-April, I decided to step away from work and go watch my oldest son Elliot compete in cabinetry at SkillsUSA NC state competition. I debated going for a moment—there are things to grade, a meeting or two that I would need to move, all the things April brings in academia. Those reasons quickly lost priority in what this particular day needed to look like. As in many of my blog posts, I do have a point related to ableism, neurodiversity, and engaged learning—and we will get there eventually, I promise.

Setting the stage here is important. I am an academic. I was good at school and school was fun. I come from three generations of women with post-graduate degrees. Higher education and graduate degrees have always been the goal for me, my kids, all kids. I am committed to supporting and creating pathways and pipelines for all students to engage and thrive in college. Elliot is likely college bound or can be if he wants, and my younger son, Liam, fifteen and neurodiverse, will always be on a path less traveled. After a rough start to high school in COVID-19 times, Elliot found a good class and a great teacher his sophomore year—woodworking. As a talented artist and creative spirit, he found a place in his woodshop, and his teacher fostered it. Mr. Pipkin opens his classroom at lunch and after school for students to practice and try, and after seeing emerging talent he entered Elliot in competitions across the state. Elliot finds a quiet pride and a comfort in the challenge of these spaces. We have gone to a couple of these competitions to watch and root for Elliot. As an athlete and sports fan myself, the spectator portion of these events are less clear, but showing up to support includes getting to observe all different skill events and talking with teachers and employers.

So back to this event—finding Elliot in a massive convention center doing his thing was my first challenge, there are thousands of young people competing in hundreds of skill challenges. As I walked through the venue, I noticed the name tags of the teachers and advisors, the clipboards of the employers for industry jobs, the tabling of college technical programs, the rooms and cornered off zones of skill-based competition in everything from advertising design, to video production, to automotive tool identification, to masonry, to teams building mini houses with plumbing and electric . . . the list goes on and on and on. What I observed and noticed in all of these spaces as an educator has given me pause— engaged learning on steroids. Different than anything I ever witnessed and exhibiting all the features we try to foster and know are best practices—in every corner of a packed convention center. If you are in higher education and haven’t had the opportunity, go observe this!

First, the practical math skills in the carpentry/cabinetry work are off the charts—they are measuring and then setting saw angles and screw holes (I know zero of those terms). The independent confidence is blooming—they each work in their own way on a two-day, ten-hour build. The focus, resilience, knowledge, trust, and kindness. Competitors are not looking to teachers to ask if they did something right, they are not looking at their peers to see what their next step is or to compare their work, they are not paralyzed by uncertainty or doing the wrong thing. They make a plan, their own plan, and then slowly work the plan. If something fits together incorrectly, they pause and think and try a different strategy—I observed this in all the spaces, in team and individual competitions. The teachers, advisors, and judges will hold a board if more hands are needed to steady or give a tip if they see a safety issue brewing—but mostly they just let those competitors figure it out with and through mistakes and miscuts. There is trust that these young people are learning to be professionals and they can figure it out. These are the skills you know the industry leaders are watching for and noticing, eager to hire them to their companies.

As I worry about kids everywhere, my kids, my students, friends’ kids who have all been navigating impossible situations growing up in COVID-19 and social media and pressure—this venue gave me pause and gave me hope. We need to elevate trade skills just as much as academic skills. I hope that sentence feels rhetorical. The both-and is a good combo—but not a combo for all. As my work has centered on ableism and the neurodiverse experience in higher education, I am consistently thinking about framing and scaffolding and supporting. What I noticed in these spaces was the focus on skill building not attached to a grade or a medal. This framing and reality hit me solidly. Many of these students, whether first or fiftieth will be offered jobs in good industries because of the skill and professional characteristics observed in this venue. How do I bring that to my students in and out of the classroom? Educators in higher education can become, maybe jaded is the word, in what success means for students. But if we pull back and focus on skill development as a primary component of our work, maybe we will meet more students in different ways. These are the things I am chewing on. As a lifelong learner myself, the learning I found through watching teaching and engaged learning in a very different context is, well . . . let’s just say I have more tools in my toolbelt.

Caroline J. Ketcham is a professor of exercise science at Elon University, and she is the 2021-2023 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Ketcham’s CEL scholar project focuses on equity in high-impact practices (HIPs) for neurodiverse and physically disabled student populations.

How to Cite This Post

Ketcham, Caroline J. 2023. “Trading Engaged Learning Skills: What We Can Learn From Our Kids and Our Kids’ Learning Spaces.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. April 25, 2023. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/trading-engaged-learning-skills-what-we-can-learn-from-our-kids-and-our-kids-learning-spaces.