Many of the currently trending phrases in education revolve around the concept of bringing “real life” into education.
Some people see schools as dead places deeply in need of life, real or otherwise and they attempt to remedy this by introducing ‘real world situations’ into mathematics lessons.
My friend Ira Socol, as part of a larger critique of how math is taught, illustrates one of the difficulties in doing this with a story about negative garbage trucks.
You might be wondering what a negative garbage truck is. So did he.
Ira says, “We all too often create fake issues, fake circumstances, fake problems – which strip all motivation from the subject…fake issues drive kids away.”
But the difficulty of bringing real life into schools is much larger than merely creating plausible math problems.
The real problem is that education, at least the school part of it, operates on a completely different model than real life.
School is reductive; life is not.
In school, life is teased and isolated into different content strands called ‘subjects’: math, science, social studies (or, in its more pure form, history) Language Arts (which used to be English), etc.
Even in elementary grades, where one teacher might teach all those subjects (plus art, music, physical education and more), those content areas are often divided from each other much as a child arranges the potatoes and lima beans on his plate so they don’t touch.
Math is remote from science and even more remote from Language Arts. Social Studies somehow teaches us about vital events and concepts in our lives without reference to science or math.
At Educon this past weekend, in a discussion titled “Tinkering Towards Technology Fluency” (which had little to do with technology fluency), it was pointed out that when a student is required to perform certain labs in science class it is sometimes difficult because he has not yet been taught the math skills necessary.
It was suggested that the math teacher and science teacher plan together so each would know what skills the other subject requires and on what schedule so that, like in real life, skills are on-board when needed.
Real life is not like that. Skills are usually learned through a process involving failing in the task the first time.
I learned how to change the washers in a faucet, but I had to flood the bathroom to do so.
And that was despite having the book “Plumbing for Dummies” open in front of me.
Schools don’t often allow time for a student to try something novel, struggle with it, make errors, learn from them, try again and succeed.
Another problem with trying to bring “real life” (a tacit admission that school is an artificial one, for sure) is that schools have curriculums.
At their best, curriculums are a basic, streamlined statement of the learning goals for a class. Start here; end there.
I’ve never seen one like that. Life isn’t often like that either.
Most curriculums are heavily detailed, often week-by-week schedules of what is to be taught (and possibly learned) and when it will be done.
Those curriculums squeeze the random out of the classroom so efficiently that one wonders if that isn’t their real purpose.
Random is dangerous, some say, especially in the hands of teachers.
But life is random. You may make plans to go to the theater on August 2nd, but your plans may be disrupted by a hailstorm, a hurricane or temperatures so hot the roads melt.
Or you may get the measles.
Or find the need to dodge the Vogon Constructor Fleet.
Need proof? Haiti. No one there was expecting a massive earthquake on the afternoon of January 12th.
Schools are specifically designed to hide the truth that anything can happen without any warning at any time.
We all do our best to pretend that life is predictable and, to a large extent, controllable. Otherwise, we’d have so much anxiety we could not continue to function.
Bringing real “real life” into the classroom is actually kind of a silly idea.
I don’t know about your classroom, but in mine real life comes in every day with my students. They bring me their hunger, their fears, their precocious sexuality, their sibling rivalries, their problems with stepparents; their daily struggles just to survive.
On a lot of days there’s far too much “real life” for me to handle.
On those days, facing off with a negative garbage truck sounds like fun.