Bring Real Life Into Education? Hah!

garbage trucks (color)
Image by rdcapasso via Flickr

Many of the currently trending phrases in education revolve around the concept of bringing “real life” into education.

Some people see schools as dead places deeply in need of life, real or otherwise and they attempt to remedy this by introducing ‘real world situations’ into mathematics lessons.

My friend Ira Socol, as part of a larger critique of how math is taught, illustrates one of the difficulties in doing this with a story about negative garbage trucks.

You might be wondering what a negative garbage truck is. So did he.

Ira says, “We all too often create fake issues, fake circumstances, fake problems – which strip all motivation from the subject…fake issues drive kids away.”

But the difficulty of bringing real life into schools is much larger than merely creating plausible math problems.

The real problem is that education, at least the school part of it, operates on a completely different model than real life.

School is reductive; life is not.

In school, life is teased and isolated into different content strands called ‘subjects’: math, science, social studies (or, in its more pure form, history) Language Arts (which used to be English), etc.

Even in elementary grades, where one teacher might teach all those subjects (plus art, music, physical education and more), those content areas are often divided from each other much as a child arranges the potatoes and lima beans on his plate so they don’t touch.

Math is remote from science and even more remote from Language Arts. Social Studies somehow teaches us about vital events and concepts in our lives without reference to science or math.

At Educon this past weekend, in a discussion titled “Tinkering Towards Technology Fluency” (which had little to do with technology fluency), it was pointed out that when a student is required to perform certain labs in science class it is sometimes difficult because he has not yet been taught the math skills necessary.

It was suggested that the math teacher and science teacher plan together so each would know what skills the other subject requires and on what schedule so that, like in real life, skills are on-board when needed.

Real life is not like that. Skills are usually learned through a process involving failing in the task the first time.

I learned how to change the washers in a faucet, but I had to flood the bathroom to do so.

And that was despite having the book “Plumbing for Dummies” open in front of me.

Schools don’t often allow time for a student to try something novel, struggle with it, make errors, learn from them, try again and succeed.

Another problem with trying to bring “real life” (a tacit admission that school is an artificial one, for sure) is that schools have curriculums.

At their best, curriculums are a basic, streamlined statement of the learning goals for a class. Start here; end there.

I’ve never seen one like that. Life isn’t often like that either.

Most curriculums are heavily detailed, often week-by-week schedules of what is to be taught (and possibly learned) and when it will be done.

Those curriculums squeeze the random out of the classroom so efficiently that one wonders if that isn’t their real purpose.

Random is dangerous, some say, especially in the hands of teachers.

But life is random. You may make plans to go to the theater on August 2nd, but your plans may be disrupted by a hailstorm, a hurricane or temperatures so hot the roads melt.

Or you may get the measles.

Vogon Constructor Fleet
Image by Bladewood via Flickr

Or die.

Or find the need to dodge the Vogon Constructor Fleet.

Need proof? Haiti. No one there was expecting a massive earthquake on the afternoon of January 12th.

Schools are specifically designed to hide the truth that anything can happen without any warning at any time.

We all do our best to pretend that life is predictable and, to a large extent, controllable. Otherwise, we’d have so much anxiety we could not continue to function.

Bringing real “real life” into the classroom is actually kind of a silly idea.

I don’t know about your classroom, but in mine real life comes in every day with my students. They bring me their hunger, their fears, their precocious sexuality, their sibling rivalries, their problems with stepparents; their daily struggles just to survive.

On a lot of days there’s far too much “real life” for me to handle.

On those days, facing off with a negative garbage truck sounds like fun.

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4 Responses to Bring Real Life Into Education? Hah!

  1. Ira Socol says:

    Your post comes on top of Alfie Kohn turning me onto this early 1930s experiment http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/sanjoy/benezet/1.html

    And it is funny, at “the beginning” of our American education system, some sought “seduction.” Schools would be comfortable and safe places. But even those who wanted that, wanted them separated from the world in every sense, since the idea was to convert the students from their “original sin” state.

    All I’d like is for kids to be able to follow the learning. If I’m fixing that sink, don’t ring the bell and give me an “F” with the room flooded, let me go online and find the YouTube video or schematic or whatever I need to explain it all to me, then let me fix it, then let me wonder how water flows through New York City with almost no pumps, then let me consider the history of the water supply or the geography of the Hudson Valley or the volume of the new tunnel system, or even – hey, did you know that one antecedent of JP Morgan/Chase was The Bank of the Manhattan Company – a fraudulent water supply company founded by Aaron Burr? I started with a leaking faucet, and without bells or periods or semesters or moving through crowded school hallways, I’ve touched every school subject.

    You are totally right. The kids bring the real world in with them every day. They also bring curiosity and invention and genuine interests. Make them safe for the day, and let them run.

  2. I agree Deven. My classroom is already FULL of real life. But what my students are learning is never connected with it. I find they are most connected with learning when I give them a choice in what they want to learn or how they want to show me what they know.

    As far as failure is concerned, that was my favorite part of being a Science teacher. Sadly, our students are so trained in finding ‘the right answer,’ that the idea of failure as a stepping stone to understanding and success is foreign and scary.

    Sounds like you attended a great session!

  3. 1000sunny says:

    Man makes plans and god laughs
    Man plans curriculums and life laughs

    I think the next big step in civilization is to abolish all curriculums

  4. Bev DeVore says:

    As a science teacher hired to teach math, I started incorporating labs in my math classroom, real-live problems–scores, numbers of students taking more math, student involvement all increased. Then federal/state testing became the law and the mantra “we don’t have time for real-world applications, you must teach the “standards” and how to succeed at testing” and guess what scores dropped, students’ complaints increased and I disliked teaching math as much. Then administration changed and I said this is the way I teach math, have a problem? No because now everyone agrees real-world math is the way! ARGHH administrators or no courage to tell previous naysayers bug off!
    The tools students and we have access to allows us to teach math again like I like it!

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