Thursday, March 3, 2011

Keeping it real. Ideas for Schools, Educators, and Students.

I was duped. During my years in school I always annoyed my teachers by asking why I needed to learn what was being taught.  Annoying them wasn't my intention. I really wanted to understand.  So they told me.

Common answers were:

  1. Because you’ll need to know this someday.
  2. Because you’ll need to know this when you grow up.
  3. Because it will be on the test.
  4. Because it will help you become a critical thinker.  
As an adult I found out that only answer “c” was true and like other students, I never remembered anything after the test. A more honest answer could have been, “because it will make me as your teacher look good, which will make the school look good, which will make politicians look good, all of which will make test making companies rich, and your parents have been duped into thinking that this will be better for you.”    

As an adult I feel cheated by a school system that took away more than a dozen years of my life that could have been spent doing something more productive or interesting.  Instead, with the exception of my typing class, I learned nothing that I needed for when I grew up.  When I share this I’m often met with the response, “That’s not true.  You just don’t realize what you learned in school that enabled you to accomplish what you have.”  To which I respond, “Absolutely not! I became who I am in spite of, not because of school.”   

Here’s what I learned in school:
  1. I learned to dislike subjects that I love in the real world.  
  2. I learned that school was all about doing meaningless work without a real purpose or audience.  
  3. I learned not to question  anything or do things my own way.  
  4. I learned that regurgitating what the teacher said, even though I disagreed, would get me good grades.
  5. I learned to imagine standardized test creators as stuffy old white men and women who only saw things in one boring way with only one possible answer even though my mind could figure out ways that other possibilities could be true.
  6. I learned that no teacher could explain why I needed to learn Algebra or its application in the real world. It did not help me think critically. In fact I never learned Algebra even though I memorized algorithms long enough to pass a test.  No algebra teacher I ever had could explain why I needed to learn that awful stuff.  Today I don’t know Algebra. I ask people what they think I’m missing as a result.  I never get a good answer beyond it teaches you to think critically, but I can think critically without it.  
I do not like the lessons I learned in school.  Instead school should be about preparing students for life. Unfortunately, I graduated college but was never prepared for life.  I raced to the top of my class and at 19 stood with a diploma in hand and no idea what I wanted to do with my life, what I was good at and after all that time in school I didn’t even have a portfolio to show to an employer because all my work was fake, for the manufactured environment of school.  The rouse is up.  There are innovative educational leaders like Chris Lehmann, Will Richardson, Alan November, Angela Maiers, Peggy Sheehy, Marc Prensky who realize what we’re doing, just isn’t working.  

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way.  There are schools, teachers, and students in learning environments that not only keep it relevant, but actually keep it real.  Schools that keep it real have students who are prepared for life.  This, not outdated, one-size-fits-all, irrelevant assessments, is a better measure of school and student success.  

Here are examples of innovative schools, educators and what it looks like when we keep it real for students.  

Schools that are keeping it real.
Teachers that are keeping it real
Keeping it Real for Students
If you are an educator who believes that when it comes to learning, we must keep it real, here are questions to consider for your students.  As you do, reflect upon your own school experience.  Did your teachers explicitly consider these things? Why is it important for today’s teachers to keep these ideas in mind for their students?   
  1. How will you determine your student’s talents, interests, passions, learning styles, and abilities?
  2. How will you allow students to own the learning?
  3. How will you always enable student learning to be real?
  4. How will you ensure students are doing authentic work for real audiences?
  5. How will you enable students to follow their passions when demonstrating learning?
  6. How will you enable students to demonstrate learning using the tools they choose?
  7. How are you helping to prepare students for their future, not your past?
  8. How are you supporting students in capturing their work into an authentic online academic and/or career portfolio?
In his new book, “Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning,” Marc Prensky says that relevant isn’t enough.  Instead when it comes to learning, we must always keep it real.  Keeping it real  means that there is a perceived connection by the students, at every moment between what they are learning and their ability to use that learning to do something useful in their world.

He explains it this way.   
It is possible, with some imagination, to make everything we teach real for each of our students. The desire and ability to go beyond ― “I‘m teaching this because it‘s in the curriculum” to ― “Here‘s how this relates to each of your worlds in a real (and not just a theoretical, relevant) way,” is something students highly appreciate and value in their teachers.

The best thing a partnering teacher can do to keep learning real (and not just relevant) is to make everything he or she is teaching come directly from the world of the students—either their world of today or their world of tomorrow. (And, of course, not just the world, but the part of that world they are passionate about.) Going further, the partnering teacher should make learning not just about students‘ world, but about changing and improving their world. Can you think of a better answer to ― “Why should I learn this?” than ― “To make your world a better place?”

Partnering itself is already more real than traditional classroom learning, which is typically removed from the world. In partnering, students use real-world tools to access and analyze publicly available information (as opposed to textbooks created only for school). When students use web sites that are open to anyone, and understand that if they feel there‘s a problem with those sites they can take action by changing wikis or posting messages, that is real. When they post their work for others to see, that is real as well.

We can and should do this with everything.

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