School Must Be Real Life

“You will need this some day. “

It is the thing that all of us as teachers have said to our kids at one time or another. As teacher-tropes go, it is one that makes some sense to use. Why would a fifteen year old care about when the Magna Carta was signed? Why does a third grader really care about the different kinds of rocks?

But fifteen year olds do care about power dynamics and fairness. And third graders are fascinated by their surroundings. And it turns out, understanding the world around you means understanding a great deal of the content that we teach. But it is up to the teachers to help the students to make the connections between the world of school and the rest of their lives.

At EduCon 2.5, Philadelphia superintendent Dr. William Hite told the attendees that teachers must be masters of both content and context, imploring the educators present to make school relevant to the lives their students lead.

I would go one step further. It is not enough that we help students understand how important school is, school must help our students understand how important they are to the lives we all lead. David Perkins, in his book, Making Learning Whole, writes about helping students to play the “junior varsity” game of the world they live in.

At SLA, our students have built sustaining bio-walls, they have planned a major education conference, they have created public service campaigns, they have made original films, and they have interned at over 100 sites all over Philadelphia. Whenever and wherever possible, we endeavor to help our students see their work as having real meaning now. Like the rest of our lives, not everything we do is the most meaningful thing ever done, but we strive to never teach in isolation, giving kids work that has no connection to the lives they lead.

This is at the heart of what we mean when we talk about inquiry-driven, project-based learning. And it is an important way we make sure that we work toward empowerment over simple engagement. Students will do the scut work necessary to make real connections and do meaningful work when students have ownership of the world and see how the work is important – both to their lives and to the lives of others.

And bizarrely, adults rarely are willing to spend the time learning things that are not of interest to them. All we have to do is walk into a school professional development session on the latest mandate from central office and see a group of teachers who look as disengaged as any stereotype of a teenager in a high school class could be. But walk into a school session where teachers are engaged in authentic action research or collaborating with peers on curriculum development, and you will see the learners we want to see in our own classrooms.

Why would we expect our students to be more willing to learn disconnected and inauthentic lessons than we are?

So it is incumbent upon us — in all classes — to find ways to make the work of the classroom have meaning. This means teaching mathematical problem solving so that students can apply a mathematical lens to the challenges around them. This means helping students to think like scientists and helping them do real scientific research and experimentation. This means teaching students that to think like social scientists and historians is to draw connections between the past and present, and that the space between the social scientist and the activist is slim indeed. And it means teaching students that the stories we read and the stories we tell have resonance in the way we learn, the way we live and the way we work.

It isn’t that we expect students to solve problems adults cannot. This isn’t about over-reaching about the ability of children. It is about understanding that there are plenty of challenges that are hyper-local or youth-oriented where they can make a difference either on their own or side-by-side with adults. And it is about understanding that we should not squander the energy and ideas of our young people by telling them that their ideas will matter beyond the classroom walls someday rather than daring them to share their ideas and make a difference today.

When we challenge students to make connections between the content of the classrooms and the context of their lives, school can be more than preparation for real life.

School can be real life.

11 thoughts on “School Must Be Real Life

  1. Chris,

    I absolutely agree. Schools need to shift to “school as real life” as a core value. If it isn’t part of the overall school culture, it is very hard for one teacher (or even a small corps of teachers) to create.

    My question for you is this – you are in a school that was established with this vision in mind. How to you shift an existing school towards the ideas established in Making Learning Whole?

    • Well, on one level, I guess… that’s why I write. What I hope my blog does for folks is give people a bit of a way to frame the thinking without thinking there’s only one way to do it. I think — I trust — that there are a lot of administrators out there who are willing to become more progressive, more modern, but they don’t know how. (I don’t know how you get there school-wide with an admin who is unwilling to walk the walk with the school community to change.)

      But this is why I do a lot of the workshops I do around change agency. I think there are ways to bring people together around some common ideas and then be really thoughtful about how those ideas live in practice. It is about building consensus and building common practices and common structures that everyone agrees to use. Here’s the slidedeck for a workshop I run to get people thinking about how they will evolve practice school-wide: http://www.slideshare.net/chrislehmann/where-does-it-live-2012

      It’s not easy — I am aware that we have a huge leg up at SLA because we started from scratch — but I think schools have to be willing to evolve. We’re not going to open half-a-million new schools — nor should we — and so we have to figure out how to help existing schools shift.

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  3. I’ll throw a vision to riff on- including and integrating not only technology based instruction, but real world related instruction. This is particularly the case for older learners (>12). My basic thought is career path development tied with the study of math and science, which ultimately can incorporate language arts and social science study as well. Here would be the general idea- instead of vocational school instruction being an outlier in education, make it the center, from middle school age on.

    For example, imagine a classroom lab (6-9 weeks) where an academic and vocational instructor co-teach the “real world” and theoretical aspects of an HVAC system. There are mechanical, mathematical, scientific, technological, engineering, and other facets contained within the workings of a modern HVAC system and each has a “real world” and a theoretical property embedded that could easily be leveraged as teachable moments. The learners could then document their experiences and relate the experiences to world events, scientific discoveries, and even literature. All of the class and home work would be showcased at the end to demonstrate understanding of the relationships between the theories, the mechanics, and the esoteric aspects of an HVAC system on modern human life.

    As all of this integrated learning occurs, the learners are being exposed to real world career channels that may lead them to the career field as an entrepreneur, a technician, an engineer, or business leader. Once the 6 to 9 week period ends, the students move to another “real world” environment such as automotive, culinary, or electronic engineering where the process repeats, but covering new academic content that may also relate to what was learned previously. If this sort of teaching and learning model were to start when a learner is 11 or 12, by the time they are 14, each will have a good idea as to the many different career opportunities that interest them and pursue those avenues in a high school.

    The extension would be that once into high school, if a learner happened to choose HVAC as a course of study, all related high school level content would be consumed through the lens of HVAC and include business and personal finance content as well. The learner could also intern as a senior (for pay) to not only practice what they’ve master in school, but also attain experience functioning in the real world. Upon graduation, the learner not only has accomplished academic goals (in order to continue on to college), but also leaves high school as a certified HVAC technician where he or she could start working making $20-60 an hour.

    We (the education community) seem to “lose” kids in middle school. I believe it is largely because the idea of school is passé to the students after fifth or sixth grade. Also, it is difficult to explain to a seventh grader the importance of content for the sake of content. What middle school students are seeking is a connection that means something to them, not only in the here and now, but in each of their individual futures.

    I’d be happy to continue this discussion as I’ve planned the idea out in detail, and some outside thoughts would be great!

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  5. I like your thoughts! Learning must connect with meaningful things to motivate students. Our current public education system makes this very difficult. Not only do bureaucracy, regulations, and other ‘top-down’ authority make it hard to get off the beaten path, but laws supporting church/state separation. We connect with many common things in life, but issues of deeper meaning are largely off the table. We can link kids with the material world, but the world of beliefs, values and meaning (that more powerfully motivate) can only be discussed at a distance. I am publishing a book “Education Reform: Challenging the Secular Ideal” on this topic (out in about a month). I believe the best way to engage students in learning is to reformulate our public school systems to allow teachers and students to engage learning at a deeper level.

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