Sean Slade

Improving Schools: The “Real World” Fallacy

First, if you haven't read Tom Whitby's post "The Big Lie in Education," do so. This post is a follow-up from what Whitby has eloquently started.

While we are reflecting, refreshing, and recharging, lets reflect on what we are trying to teach our students and why. Take the premise uttered by many that education must prepare our students for the "Real World." What is this "Real World" that is often held up as a gold standard for anything educationally relevant in a time when everything is changing so quickly and dramatically around us?

Too often this "Real World" that people propose is an antiquated idea that bears little relevance to today, yet alone tomorrow. "Real World" cannot be an education system based on last century's framework. It cannot be a system based on last century's metrics nor last century's constrained concept of knowledge.

It cannot be anything which restricts itself to two or three core subject areas and tested by an antiquated and inherently dysfunctional bubble test. It cannot be anything which views core knowledge as a static and eternal set of numbers and facts. It cannot be anything which does not at its basis understand that we live in a time—now and today—of change, exploration, and experimentation ... and this is only set to increase.

Real "Real World" Skills

Any real "Real World" statement must take into account the actual environment of the world we live in—the context of today and tomorrow, not yesterday. As such, it must include adherence to skills, aptitudes, and abilities that will not only be in demand, but be necessary to navigate and prosper in this century and in a world where change will be a constant variable. What skills are these? More than likely they will include the skills required to transform information into knowledge, to create new knowledge, and to communicate that knowledge to others. They will be the skills which underpin our ways of thinking, learning, and communicating.

Ways of thinking:

  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem solving
  • Decision making

Ways of learning and working:

  • Communication
  • Collaboration

Tools for learning and working:

  • Information literacy
  • Technology

Source: Andreas Schleicher, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). "21st Century Skills," May 9, 2013.

What is missing here? It's the acquisition of information for information's sake. It's the accumulation and regurgitation of content. It's the preoccupation with information collection, memorization, and absorption.

The "Real World" We Are Already Becoming

Author Daniel Pink believes we are moving quickly into the Conceptual Age when we will need to focus more on right-brained thinking skills—the skills of developing concepts, experimentation, and creativity. In short, Pink describes it as needing to think like an artist. Memorization of facts and the ever-increasing bytes of information will pale in importance with respect to the ability to synthesize and utilize information as a whole. It will be a world where personalization and communication are critical. Siri has already replaced Encyclopedia Britannica, and that's only the first step.

The skills required to work, operate, and excel in an age of change are those which allow the individual to adapt, adopt, and adjust to suit that change.

"Telling your kid today to be an accountant, doing routine work, or being an engineer doing routine work is like telling your kid in Ohio in the 1970s, "just go get a job in a factory—everything will work out all right." It is fundamentally flawed advice."

—Daniel Pink, "Daniel Pink: A Whole New Mind," The School Administrator, February 2007

How Will We Respond?

KnowledgeWorks, an education forecasting organization, states that, as new forms of schools emerge, "seat time and a child's age [are] no longer defining when and how learning can take place." The world is changing and education must change with it, or be most effective prior to and at the forefront of it. How we react to these changes will be telling: "Responding to them with creativity rather than fear will be critical to preparing all learners for an uncertain future."

An education that focuses only on the consumption of information prepares students for the past, for an antiquated system and a "Real World" that exists more in memory than in reality. If anything, it predisposes students to be unprepared for what they will encounter.

Education systems are in the business of planning, developing, and preparing for the future. Time will tell—whether we want it to or not—if we have or have not succeeded. But at least if we are trying to prepare our children for the "Real World," let's make sure it is the world they actually encounter and not the world of yesterday.

Sean Slade is director of Whole Child Programs at ASCD. The Whole Child Initiative is part of a broad, multiyear plan to shift public dialogue about education from an academic focus to a whole child approach that encompasses all factors required for successful student outcomes, enhancing learning by addressing each student's social, emotional, physical, and academic needs through the shared contributions of schools, families, communities, and policymakers.

During his more than two decades in education, Slade has written extensively on topics related to the whole child and health and well-being (PDF) and has been at the forefront of promoting and using school climate, connectedness, resilience, and youth development data for school improvement. He has been a teacher, head of department, education researcher, senior education officer, project manager, and director. He has taught, trained, and directed education initiatives in Australia, Italy, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Comments (1)

Hassenbrook Academy

July 30, 2013

An interesting read!
Education is an ever changing environment just as the real world is too.
We at Hassenbrook Academy are striving to be one of the best academies in Essex, and informative posts of a variety opinions are always appreciated. Thank you very much!,uk

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