School vs. the Real World

Today I came across a post called “‘Meaningful’ School-to-Career” on the blog In Pursuit of Excellence. The blogger asks,

Schools provide young people with a solid academic foundation to build the rest of their lives on. But schools are also supposed to prepare students for the real world….How can the real adult world they will soon enter be brought into focus and elevated in importance for kids? Or, should we just let them be kids while they can, and let the real world smack them between the eyes when the time comes?

Below is the comment I wrote in response to this question, a question that, although I receognize its validity, never fails to irritate me.

The “school vs. ‘real world'” dilemma is a tricky one, and one that I think sets up a number of false dichotomies. Here is a typical conversation I might have with a student who feels that my course doesn’t relate to the “real world”:

Student: “Finding themes in short stories doesn’t relate to real life.”

Me: “Really? What do you mean by ‘real life’?”

Student: “Well, the job I’ll have, for example.”

Me: “The job you’ll have someday is your life? What is your life right now?”

Student: “These stories don’t relate to my life right now.”

Me: “Do you think that the ideas in this story have anything to say about anyone’s life, anywhere in the world? Do you think people like the people in this story might exist? Do you think that events like those that happen in this story might actually happen to someone somewhere?”

Student: “I guess.”

Me: “Do you think it’s possible that you might someday meet someone somewhere who has had an experience with something in common with something that has happened in this story?”

Student: “I don’t know. Maybe?”

Me: “Maybe. So it’s possible. Do you think it might even be possible that something that happens to you someday might bear some remote resemblance to something that happens to someone in this story?”

Student: “Not really.”

Me: “That’s why we study themes. Because if we understand the larger themes of a story, we gain a greater insight into our own lives. If you don’t see anything in this story that relates to your life in any way, then you and I need to work harder on helping you understand the larger themes of the story. That way, you will see the relationship between this story, and all stories, and your own life.”

[end of comment]

Now, I recognize that telling a student all this is not going to make the student love the story or love searching it for greater meanings or identify with all the characters. But the idea that we need to make schoolwork “relevant” to the “real world” raises the question of what that means.

What if students’ (and society’s) concept of the “real world” was not limited to specific job-focused skills? And even if we focus on the workplace, what skills are “relevant” to that environment? What about the need for employers and employees to cultivate compassion, empathy, an ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective, insight…all things that are developed through the active study of literature?

I don’t expect adolescent students to immediately recognize this: that analyzing stories, poems, plays and essays, even ones that seem removed from their experience, can make them better people: better friends, better sons and daughters, better parents, and better workers. But they can be taught to recognize that, and I think that’s part of what school learning is for.

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11 thoughts on “School vs. the Real World

  1. Thanks, pochp.

    In response to this post, on his own comments page, In Pursuit of Excellence asked me to clarify what I do in order to make these connections to the “real world” clear to my students. Here is my response.

    That’s a good question, and one that I think about a lot. Some examples:

    1. In each course, I try to strike a balance between works I think students will easily relate to and enjoy, and ones that will challenge them and stretch the limits of their understanding.

    2. We spend a lot of time talking about “themes” as connectors between the text and human life. I give them guidelines for identifying themes, including questions like, “What is this author trying to illustrate about human psychology and behavior? If you knew these people and could talk to them about their situation, what would you say about the lessons they could learn?” etc.

    3. At the beginning and the end of each semester, with their help, I break the study of English down into three parts: comprehension and analysis; essay organization; linguistic accuracy. I ask them what all these components have in common. Answer: they are all about our ability to understand and be understood by others. I try to come back to this central purpose throughout the term. The “great thing” about studying language and literature is that it helps human beings understand one another. Many of them are able to see how this ability can improve their lives.


  2. I struggle with this one. I think there are good reasons to give students skill-level education that they can use tomorrow in their jobs and there are reasons to give students the broader thinking skills they need that will serve them throughout their careers and lives. The problem arises through the disconnect between what they want and what they’re getting. Do they want to be trained or do they want to be educated? If we’re trying to provide education to people who only want training, what then? Do you force education on them?


  3. I agree, Amy; it’s a conundrum.

    Sometimes when I talk to CEGEP students about it, I point out that they chose to come to CEGEP rather than go to technical or professional college. As you know, but some others may not, CEGEP stands for College d’enseignement general et professionel, or “College for general and professional studies” (or, more literally, “teaching,” which is an interesting choice of perspective.) The emphasis here is on the “general”: a student who chooses to go to CEGEP does so with the understanding (more or less) that he/she is signing on for an education, not just training. Understanding that in theory and in practice are two different things, however.

    It might be interesting to try to clarify for students considering different programs whether, by signing up, they are implicating themselves in the pursuit of an education rather than just training, and to help them reflect on whether that’s really what they’re after. Just giving them some opportunities to think about it might make a difference to their attitudes.


  4. I agree that studying literature is relevant to the “real” world and that education can be theoretical as well as practical. However, the way in which school IS unlike the real world is an over-reliance on paper and pencil activities in the classroom and not enough collaborative work. In class, students often work in isolation and there work is never seen beyond the classroom walls.


  5. Mathew: Agreed. But does “relevant to the real world” have to mean “like the real world?” Can we do activities that don’t simulate other activities but still contribute to our understanding of them?


  6. I see study, learning and school as part of the real world. What I am doing at the moment, whatever it might be, is living in the real world.

    I am writing this from the perspective of a student, though not “in school” at the moment.

    When I was young, in the Pleistocene era, I wanted to know things. My parents weren’t well educated, hardly educated at all, but they valued education. They both read and admired writing and art. I passionately wanted to be seen as smart and knowledgeable and to be smart and knowledgeable was to read and to be educated so I read and I read what I knew smart people read even though I understood very little of it. It was a leap of faith that I made every day hoping to learn how to understand more and more of what I read. And, what do you know, I did and I still do learn more and more every day.

    My point is that I was very very motivated to learn. For reasons to do with my family and my inheritance from my ancestors and with my wannabe tendencies.

    Some of my teachers recognized this passion in me and encouraged me. They gave me the tools to understand Shakespeare (the moment I knew that I could was one of the biggest thrills in my life). They did not criticize my poor handwriting or intimidate me with their demands that I think of spelling first (which I have always had a problem with though I am careful and try very hard {honestly}. They gently helped me understand grammar better, but were not militant about it. For me this was the real world, a world of knowledge, and other worlds, of words and shared understandings.

    I am not sure teachers can give this to students, but I know they can support and encourage it and not destroy it.


  7. Elaine:

    “I see study, learning and school as part of the real world. What I am doing at the moment, whatever it might be, is living in the real world.”

    This is part of what I am trying to say in this post. Thank you for putting it so succinctly.

    When students are motivated to learn, when they want to know things, then convincing them of the “relevance” of what we’re doing in the classroom isn’t usually an issue. They see “school” as relevant to “their lives” because they understand that learning is valuable, period.

    It is the students who see school as an obstacle course they have to navigate in order to get to “real life” who have difficulty making connections between what they do in the classroom and the rest of their lives.

    So if teachers had classrooms full of students like you, they wouldn’t have to have the conversation I describe above very often. Students like you search for meaning, but they don’t usually make statements like, “This is meaningless.”


  8. Yes, of course, I think I understand when you say “But they can be taught to recognize that, and I think that’s part of what school learning is for” that you want to teach students to understand this about the real world. I hope that it is possible, and if it is I think that you may not see the results of it in your class if you only have these students for one term or even one year. I think that your efforts will make a difference to many students though, and that they will remember you, as I remember some of my teachers, many years from now, as someone who lit a fire, or sparked a bright light, or opened their minds to the passionate and bountiful real world they are living. Or, even, who supported something they already knew at some level but had no way to bring to consciousness.


  9. I truly, passionately believe that it is a lot. It is this belief that makes so much of my life a joy. It is one of the things that brought joy to me as a parent, as an educator in various capacities (art teacher, advocate, support worker), and as a student, one who struggled to learn and to grow. I just don’t know when or how what I am doing now is going to make a good difference. I don’t know where the leap of faith I am making at the moment will take me.


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