Wednesday, May 13, 2015

In The Real World

"In the real world . . ." is a sentence starter you often hear in schools. In fact, I've said it many times myself. We need to stop.

Our students spend the better part of 13 years of their lives in K-12 education. This is their real world. The time our students spend with us is real. The experiences - the joy, the sadness, the learning, the relationships - those are all real. No matter how well-meaning we might be when using that phrase, we trivialize our students' lives when we use it. Their life in school is no less real than adults' lives outside of school. (And, as someone who has devoted their entire adult life to teaching, I've spent the better part of 40 years in K-12 school - it certainly seems pretty real to me.)

The phrase is typically used in one of two ways. It's either used to lecture students on how good they have it in school because, "in the real world," life would be tougher. Or it's used to justify some practice of ours, "you better get used to this because in the real world . . ." Both of these uses may indeed be well-intentioned but, in the end, they're manipulative. We use them because we don't have a good reason (or, at least, aren't willing to think long and deeply enough to articulate a good reason) for what we are doing. It's a crutch we rely on when we don't really want to answer a student's question.

I think we also abrogate our personal responsibility when we use this phrase. If our practices in school are different than practices "in the real world" (outside of school), why is that? Is there a good reason for it, or not? When we choose to be more "lenient" in school (typical use #1), there's hopefully a good reason for that practice. When we choose to operate in school in the same fashion as outside of school (typical use #2), there's hopefully a good reason for that as well. And we conveniently seem to forget who has created the "non-real" world of school: we have. So if the world "in school" is different, either in a positive or negative way, we need to own that.

As I've been writing this I've been thinking about the argument on the other side (which I pretty much do every time I write a blog post). As I've thought about it, I realize that maybe I've got it wrong, because here's a list of things that are true "in the real world."
  • In the real world, people don't spend 59 minutes discussing literature, have a bell ring, then spend 59 minutes discussing Algebra, have a bell ring, and then spend 59 minutes thinking about U.S. History.
  • In the real world, people don't have to ask permission to go to the bathroom.
  • In the real world, people are generally allowed to eat and drink as they work.
  • In the real world, if you forget something, you can generally go back and get it.
  • In the real world, people generally call each other by their first names.
  • In the real world, there are deadlines, but they often are not hard and fast, are often set by the person themselves, and they are not arbitrary.
  • In the real world, people are generally encouraged to work with each other; to collaborate, to discuss, to divide up tasks, to rely on each other's strengths.
  • In the real world, people are allowed (in fact, encouraged) to make use of whatever resources are available to them, whether that be a calculator, the Internet, books, or other people.
  • In the real world, there are often other people evaluating us but, day-to-day, it's our own self-evaluation of how we are doing that's most important.
  • In the real world, we often have to do things we don't particularly want to do, but we generally chose to engage in the activity requiring us to do those things.
  • In the real world, we usually choose what we read.
  • In the real world, there's rarely one right answer . . . and three wrong ones. 
  • In the real world, you're rarely assessed using a percentage, and more often using pass/fail. And even when it's pass/fail, you can usually attempt it as many times as you want.
So, maybe those folks on the other side are correct, school really isn't like the real world. And whose fault is that?


  1. You might like John Gatto's "Weapons of Mass Instruction," if you haven't already read it. See also his Six- (or perhaps now Seven-) Lesson Schoolteacher.

    1. Yeah, I started it once, but gave up because it was depressing me too much. I probably need to try again.

  2. I started having my classes read Gatto a few years ago. It's much easier to teach them now, and a lot more friendly. It's like we've acknowledged the elephant in the room, so now we're free to mock it (and slowly change it)

  3. In the real world, we do work that matters to us in ways that hopefully matters to others. #inthrealworld

  4. I committed a long time ago to not using this phrase. BUT it is hard work to walk this talk because 1) students continue to expect 'school reality' in school and 2) students don't generally want to do work that matters to them (I do know that there are many young people who do important, collaborative work that benefits others. But in any one classroom or even school, there are only a handful.) I think we need to talk more and more openly about the value of transforming education, maybe particularly high school, and about the specifics around this work because it is not for the feint of heart.

  5. I've been thinking a lot about how the "real world" will be "tougher" on kids once they're out of school and how my own hubris makes me forget that a lot of kids already have it much, much tougher outside of school than in. I feel humbled when I remember that.

    It's encouraging that we can take some of these things and make them reality in class. I'm looking forward to when, someday, we can begin to make school more real.

  6. I do not often use the phrase, "In the real world..." but I have heard it throughout most of my secondary education. I understand teachers are wanting to prepare their students for college, but like you said, we're in the real world already. It didn't occur to me how often the phrase is used, but it also didn't cross my mind how much students are not being prepared for the real world. Your examples show that. I will be sure to keep in mind, when I become an educator, to not use the phrase, "In the real world..". It really is a manipulative phrase and I agree with your argument that it shouldn't be used.

  7. Wrote something along the same lines last week.