Last week in a faculty meeting a colleague explained that our work was fundamentally to prepare our students for “the real world.” We all have phrases that make us cringe. Along with “the real world,” a few others on my list include “getting outside my comfort zone” and “thinking outside the box.” If the work of education is to get kids ready for the “real world,” than what is the psychic space we and our students inhabit while they are in school? If its not the real world, then where are we? Where are our students? Furthermore, how do we value the place and space of our children’s education, if it is something other than “real?”
Perhaps what we mean is that what happens in the classroom is theoretical or abstract or idealized. By this definition the “real” work of students is practice for what comes later. In their daily lives they are engaged in the process of acquiring and practicing new skills and habits of mind. This is actual work. When they are in school, this is their world just as it is the real, professional world of the adults who work here.
Does it matter that the consequences for mistakes students make in a school are lower than those adults might experience in their places of work? Is this relative safety of schools as places for mistakes what shifts schools from the real world to the not-real world? As proof of this, a colleague compared the consequences for a student who makes an error on a test to the consequences he faces for an error he makes in creating the test. For the student, the consequence is lost points on an assessment. For the teacher, it might be anything from a class of confused students, to an angry parent to a meeting with the department chair. This doesn’t seem like a fair analogy anyway as teachers and other employees at all sorts of enterprises are encouraged to experiment, try new things, and given permission to fail forward. Students, too, face more serious and public consequences in school. If they forget their cue in opening night of the fall play, the rest of the cast and crew has to very publicly scramble and the student actor has to deal with the embarrassment of an all-too-evident mistake and the potential ire of their cast mates. Students who break major school rules have consequences every bit as dire as an adult employee who breaks a major school rule. And then there is this: the work of students is to learn, the work of adults in schools is to facilitate student learning. Both are in the same building, but the work is different.
Perhaps if we remember that students are involved in authentic work that has consequences for them in their daily lived lives, we will see that for them, this is the “real world.” And we, the adults who are helping to facilitate their learning as educators, parents, and trusted adults will stop differentiating between what happens in school and in an as-yet undetermined future or even what happens outside the classroom. For our students, it’s all the real world..