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Volume VIII Issue XI

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In the Real World

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


In the field of education, the term real world is used to describe the realities that our students will face as adults. Organizations and initiatives such as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Common Core State Standards, the STEM focus, and the International Center for Leadership’s Rigor and Relevance Framework call for the inclusion of standards and methodology that ensures our current students will be prepared to be productive citizens of tomorrow, ready to compete in a global economy. We need to examine whether or not schools are making sure that our instructional practices are dovetailing with what forecasters predict will be the necessary skills young people need for successful futures. 

As we think about the idea of the real world for our students, we face certain ironies and realities. First, today’s classroom is our students’ current real world. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves if there are learning experiences that will better help them to transfer their skills to their future personal and employment situations. Secondly, it must be noted that there will not be one singular working environment for tomorrow’s employees. Some will work alone, some will work in small groups, some may work in other countries, and some will work for large organizations. Thirdly, because the world is changing so fast, we do not really know what knowledge and skills will be required of tomorrow’s adults. These challenges are seen as daunting by some and exciting by others. Hopefully, some of the ideas presented below can help even more educators teach the required curriculum and also incorporate the skills students will need in tomorrow’s world. An analysis of our own real world provides us guidance in this process.

In the real world, we do not receive a salary for sitting in a cubicle and individually blackening in circles on an answer grid.
Instead, we are expected to complete specific, meaningful tasks identified in our job descriptions and that are closely linked to the organization’s vision. We are often expected to work in teams to establish and accomplish goals, identify and solve problems, compromise, and build consensus. While there is clearly a strong emphasis on schools and even individual teachers showing an increase in student achievement as measured by standardized tests, we must rise above that focus on test scores and provide students opportunities to work with peers in simulations and projects that require them to accomplish pre-ordained goals. In these group efforts, students have the chance to accept challenges, experience trial and error, make mistakes in a safe environment, and develop skills that will pay off for them far beyond their years in school while also mastering the standards that are being addressed.

In the real world, we are provided specific job descriptions.
We know what we are expected to accomplish and the training we receive is linked to the job responsibilities we are to carry out. In some classrooms, the learning goals are not always made clear for students, and learners are left to their own devices to figure out how to achieve success. It is imperative that teachers provide “job descriptions” that let students know precisely what they are expected to learn, how they will learn it, and how they will demonstrate the new learning. Employers do not make job performance a mystery; educators should follow the same line of reasoning.

In the real world, most of what we are expected to read is non-fiction.
Many of the tasks our students will be asked to accomplish involve data analysis, the capability to read charts and graphs, and the requirement to gather relevant information in order to carry out job functions. Likewise, future workers must be able to follow step-by-step directions which include an ability to read (or produce) manuals, forms, memos, or reports. In school settings, the learning opportunities provided for students often involve fictional readings including poetry, short stories, or novels. Being able to understand and analyze different genres of literature definitely has its place; it is also vital that today’s educators provide students the opportunity to interact with non-fiction/information-based content. A leading proponent of helping students become strong readers and writers is English teacher and author Kelly Gallagher who sums up the importance of deeper reading comprehension by saying, “A critical reader in the classroom makes for a more discerning reader outside of school.”

In the real world, we achieve success in a variety of ways and in different amounts of time.
Many fields our students will enter after they finish their formal schooling involve the delivery of a service or the manufacturing of a product. Successful completion of a job can be measured in customer relations, improved skill development over time, personal initiative, the ability to follow directions, and the willingness and capability to be a team player. Workers are not always expected to demonstrate job-related skills the first time through. Mistakes, without penalty, are accepted as part of the process as workers learn their job skills. As employees are supervised, they are provided feedback and demonstrations, often in great detail, so that they can become better at completing their jobs. Students in our classrooms deserve the same kind of treatment as well as opportunities to learn from their errors. Furthermore, if learning is the ultimate goal, our students deserve timely, appropriate feedback and the opportunities to improve their classroom job performance.

In the real world, workers are continually “doing,” e.g., being active as we carry out our responsibilities.
Rarely, if ever, are we as workers asked to sit passively in a quiet environment, either working alone or waiting for someone to tell us what next step we should take. Jobs involve movement, talking, listening, responding, clarifying, asking questions, and the continuous opportunity to demonstrate newly-honed skills. Accordingly, our classrooms should reflect the kind of work world our students will enter. “Sit and git” should be a thing of the past; today’s classroom settings should be learner-centered and should be filled with meaningful activities that will help students not only learn the required standards but also learn in settings that are participatory and meaningful. 

In the real world, the employer does not always provide explicit feedback about how well we are doing and we have to self-assess and self-adjust based on our own analysis of our productivity
Although the ideal situation is for us to receive feedback about whether or not we are moving in the right direction, our bosses are often consumed with their own responsibilities and we are on our own to determine how well we are doing. For that reason, it is important for today’s students to learn the skills of self-assessment and self-adjustment. Too often, when students are asked how they are doing, or more specifically what they are learning in their coursework, they respond with a grade or a vague answer. When teachers provide opportunities for students to reflect on what and how they are learning through journal writing or comparing their performance to an established rubric, the students are more likely to develop personal insights and know more explicitly how they are progressing in the development of their skills and knowledge. It is not a time-consuming endeavor for teachers to add this to the instructional process, and it will pay off for our students when they enter the job market.

In the real world, we need knowledge of how to handle our personal finances
Differences of opinion persist about whether courses on money management should be offered in public schools. Proponents believe that it is vital that our students understand the ramifications of budgeting, the use of credit cards, and the importance of not piling up monumental debts that will negatively impact their lives for years to come. Some young people will misspend haphazardly, succumbing to the need for immediate gratification unless they are made aware of basic financial management practices including budgeting as well as saving for the future. Others argue that our curriculum is already overloaded, that financial training is a parent’s responsibility, and is a skill that should be taught in the home. They further make the case that the important tenets of money management will not be meaningful to students since they basically have no money to manage.  However, it must be remembered that money is universal. The perennial question that some students ask is, “When are we ever going to use this stuff?” While trying to explain how algebra, chemistry, and ancient history might fit into one’s future life, it would be a piece of cake to explain how managing personal finances has a huge impact on upcoming life experiences.

In the real world, we have to compete not only locally for jobs, but globally as well.
Students from previous generations could not have predicted how the make-up of the work force has changed so significantly in such a short period of time. Today’s employees work side by side with people from different countries with different mores and traditions as well as diverse religious beliefs. Knowledge of geography and multiculturalism has never been more important; other countries learn English and study the American social structure as part of their learning experiences. We cannot limit our curriculum to learning about past historical events, but we must also ensure that our student populations are well-grounded in their knowledge of the ways of the world so that they can be successful in their future working endeavors.

In the real world, there can be disagreements, contentious situations, uncomfortable competition, and even rancor.
These conditions might exist in some schools as well, but the classroom can serve as the learning lab where a teacher can provide guidance as well as the modeling of how to handle such situations. Not everything students learn in schools can be linked to specific standards and benchmarks. Some things fall into the category of practical knowledge. As students work in groups in schools, they can be provided ground rules that guide their work including ways to address disagreements and clashing personalities. Additionally, students should be able to debrief on their experiences, analyze their own behavior as well as the behavior of the peers. These learning experiences stand a better chance to transferring to the world beyond the classroom if they are handled diplomatically and professionally by a talented classroom teacher.

In the real world, use of technology impacts almost every occupational field.
In many of our classrooms, technology use is still seen as a minor addition or a non-existent entity all together. A recent study of toddlers and pre-schoolers demonstrated the ability of very young children to access and navigate technology resources including the use of the iPad. A young person entering the work force without significant knowledge of technological applications will simply be unable to compete with someone who is more skilled and up-to-date with technological uses. As we enter the second decade of this century, we can no longer debate whether or not technology should have a significant place in our classrooms; we should instead be putting forth strong arguments as to why it is important and how we are going to ensure that our students have every advantage possible to understand, apply, and be totally comfortable with technology use. Some districts are forging ahead taking incredible steps to augment their instructional delivery with the best technology they can bring to their classroom settings. Other school divisions, however, are lagging behind; the playing field is far from equal. Nevertheless, we must maintain a vision of what could be and continue to make the case for the addition and use of technology in meaningful ways in our schools.

Forward-looking educators are promoting the inclusion of a variety of learning experiences for our children which will better prepare them for the world of tomorrow. With titles such as project-based learning, authentic learning, performance assessments, and virtual learning, futurists are urging schools to move in a direction that will make the real world of school better connected to the real world beyond school. When school-based educators include more realistic and meaningful learning experiences for our students, it is likely to result in greater student buy-in, fewer displays of student apathy and passivity, a reduction in the number of dropouts and behavior problems, and happier more productive students who can see a link to their future success and happiness.

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:

Oliver, Bruce. “In the Real World” Just for the ASKing! November 2011. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2011 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

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