Wednesday, April 16, 2014

It's Simple....Make School More Real


      A number of years ago, a science teacher colleague of mine asked an elegantly direct, but poignant question.  He said, “Why can’t all school be more like sports and performing arts?”
      At first, I thought he was just referring to the engagement aspects.  In addition to those huge advantages, he was also referring to assessment aspect. 
Why did sports and performing arts work so well for so many students?  The answer is that they were REAL. 
     Yes, they had to practice or rehearse, but there was the game or the performance.  There was a real assessment in the end.  The result of the game, concert, show, production or performance was understood by all; including participants and spectators.  That’s right, the assessment was not only REAL, but it was public.  And being public makes it more REAL right?

     So, are sports and performing arts the only areas in school that are traditionally REAL?   No, but they are probably the most universal and easily recognizable.  But think about other areas in our schools that have always been popular with students and why they are (hint:  REAL).
     What about the visual arts?  Yes, they are typically more REAL than much of school. After a brief period of instruction on technique and then some guided practice, there is a finished product.  And whether the art is brilliant or average, it’s most certainly REAL.  It’s public.  It gets hung up in the classroom or maybe beyond the classroom.  Maybe there is an art show.  Maybe there is an art contest.

 

     What about shop classes, Ag classes and others?  REAL right?  Why is FFA the largest high school leadership organization in the nation?  Again, it’s all about REAL.  They raise REAL animals, travel to REAL colleges and place, compete in REAL contests and enjoy large professional networks of REAL people.
     As a former journalism instructor and publications advisor (newspaper and yearbook), I also experienced the value of REAL first-hand.  My students had a finished product that again was public.  It was judged or valued by others, got reactions (positive or negative) from others and was even purchased.  They could potentially enter contests, change public opinion, educate others, and advance a particular cause and more.


     Let’s take it another step.  Most teachers should be able to indentify with these scenarios:  Why would students often want to do an errand for a teacher vs. an in-class assignment? And why would some students, believe it or not, rather clean the campus vs. doing some ‘academic’ work? 
     It’s simple.  It’s because these things are REAL.  That’s right.  Think about it.  Students like to do things that matter no matter how seemingly simple or small they are.  They want to see immediate results for their efforts.  They want to see a difference in something based on their individual efforts, work or time.
      Recently, I was reminded of this first-hand again.  A business class at my school launched what seemed to be a simple business project involving two classes competing who could have the most successful cookie company.  They each launched similar products of the cookie recipe in the jar model.  The idea was not new and the product was certainly not the most sophisticated idea they could have conceived.  But why was it wildly successful?  That’s right again.  It was REAL. It was something that they could complete in a timely manner and have to quickly go public.  Before too long, they were in the throws or real-world experiences of marketing, advertising, production, competition, sales and more.  All of the class member were suddenly engaged and involved. 


     So, what can we learn from the lessons of REAL and apply to what all students need and want in their educational experiences? How do we make traditional academics more REAL?
     Well, isn’t that what the STEM or STEAM movements are all about?  They are trying to get students to make things, create things or solve things that are relevant and exist in the world – REAL.    
     Why is the Maker movement so alive?  Again, it’s REAL.  People, young and old alike, are realizing they can take their ideas and do something REAL.  And there are REAL results.  Whether the results are feedback, financial gain, expanding social networks, fun, etc., they are certainly REAL. 


      How can we take these to our traditional academic subjects?  What about history as an example?  What if instead of just studying our wars and conflicts, the labor movement, women’s rights, civil rights as a few examples, we had our students interviewing actual participants or witnesses to any of these historical topics and produce documentaries?  Don’t we see these documentaries on cable TV all of the time? That is what history is now.  We need to model that in school.  Heck, they can take these documentaries and share them, publish them, enter them in contests and even try to sell them to the cable shows or networks.
     What about English?  That’s easy.  Instead of just studying famous writers, let’s try to make all of our students famous writers.  That’s the simple twist.  Yes, it’s about doing/experiencing vs. just studying, but it’s also about maximizing the individual application and possibilities.  Our technology and global networks now allow and encourage the individual voice and unlimited opportunities for all to be published.  Why are blogging, social media and other digital outlets so important to be used by our students in school?  Again it’s so simple – it’s what the REAL world is doing. 

     What about Science?  Labs in our science classes have always had the right idea.  They were hands-on and students could see and experience the results.  But we have to go beyond that now.  We have to go beyond jellybeans and pennies or other simulations.  We need to move to real experiments and labs where we are attempting to solve REAL world problems and challenges.  With all of the needs and challenges we have related to our environment, food, water, air, climate, animal species and more, we’ll never be short of relevant and current challenges facing us that our high school students could address in science classes.  Not only will it be REAL, but also they might be the ones to actually solve any of these current and future problems or challenges.


     Finally, let us realize the truth.  The idea of making things in school more REAL is not just about engagement and relevance.  It’s ultimately about advancing the success of all of our students and making them all capable of competing in the new global market place.   If we are able to transform educational into REAL, we’ll actually take academics to a higher level where individuals are truly thinking at unprecedented levels.  Simple?  Maybe not.  Obvious?  I hope so.  Necessary?  Most certainly.  So, get REAL and keep it REAL.

(photos courtesy of Minarets High School)

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