Friday, December 2, 2011

Teach Them How to Swim

            Much has been written and even more debated in schools and at professional development sessions about the need to prepare students for the “real world”. Those who advocate that this is the role of educators speak about the need to “keep it real” or “make it similar to what they will encounter when we are no longer there to support them”. Folks speak of the real world with a fervent disposition and a passion that belies the fact that many of us educators haven’t spent much time in that world. This dawned on me when my colleague Tom Schimmer (@tomschimmer) asked a seemingly innocent question: “How much time have you spent outside the ranks of education?” and by that he meant the extended period defined in years not just my summer times. I suspect my answer is similar to many of my colleagues – none.  I’ve been going to school every September for the past forty-five years. It really is the only world I know and can speak proficiently about.
            Others who believe we should mirror what is out there forget that we exist in a different world. As I have moved through various leadership roles, my vacation time has decreased but my last contract still called for six weeks. Many of my teaching colleagues can easily add another four weeks to that total (even discounting busy times and the extra work all educators perform, there are still two weeks at Christmas, one week at Spring Break, and as many as ten weeks in the summer) which does not match up with any of my friends plying their various professions in the real world. I know this can easily be defended by the volume and complexity of work that educators do during the school year but it’s a fairly unique situation.
            Those who cry foul about not matching with the outside world often use this as the rationale to argue against second chances or to argue for academic consequences for social misbehaviors (late assignments, truancy, cheating) as if to suggest that we must prepare students for the harsh realities by mimicking them. Yet my own practical experience (failing my driver’s license the first time) and checking into other professions (doctors, lawyers, airline pilots) indicates to me that the real world is full of second chances and remediation. When I failed my test I was provided with absolute clarity as to what I needed to improve. The natural consequences were that I had to take another lesson, wait longer to drive my car, and book another test. Upon completion I wasn’t told it was unfair to those who passed in one attempt. Nor was I given conditions on my license like no driving on weekends or bad weather. The professions listed above provide second chances. Not all of us are going to the Doctor that graduated top of their class. Some are going to the bottom achiever who may have made errors along the way. All of us can be satisfied with our medical care however because we know all who graduated have met the standard. Similarly some lawyers need more than one attempt to pass the Bar exam and some pilots spend more hours on the flight simulator. Once they have mastered the learning outcomes they are free to practice their craft.
            As for the notion of consequences and the suggestion that the world is all about sink or swim (and therefore our schools should also be sink or swim), I love the response Dr. Rick DuFour gave at a recent PLC conference during his keynote address. “To prepare our students for this notion of a sink or swim world, we ought to teach them how to swim.” We are blessed to have students grace our hallways for a significant portion of their lives. While I may be convinced that the real world is different from our educational world, I think it’s critical that we take the time we have with them and arm them with as many skills and strategies to face those challenges, that we provide an environment that allows for mistakes to be made and growth to occur, and that we take them from where they are and bring them to where they can be.
            During my schooling I learned how to diagram a sentence, find x, conjugate a French verb, perform a left hand lay-up and despite all of the emphasis behind each, I have not been asked to ever demonstrate any of these in the real world. I can see the skill development that might teach a student something that might be relevant moving forward. I also know it is rarely expected that both the task and the boss change every hour, and yet this is what our students face.
            The push to replicate the real world only seems to occur when the discussion is focused on what and why students need to change. I appreciate the fact that our world is significantly different and value the opportunity to work with students to help make that transition smooth. The real world will have them soon enough. Let’s have them enjoy the world they are in. 


  1. Bang on, Tom! I think we need to remember that the real world we (or I, at least) are referring to is the one our parents told us about when we were in school. Non only is that world long gone, but the real world we talk about isn't going to be the same in a year as it is now. Learning to learn new things, learning to learn from mistakes, and learning to cope with rapid change are critical skills - much like swimming.

    Speaking to friends in the private sector, though, it is evident that while single incidents of poor performance are not fatal to one's career, repeated ones might be. What's critical in their business is the provision of timely, informative feedback on employee performance; mentoring and inservice; and ongoing learning about changes in their field and in the technology that makes it tick.

    When I look at it like that, the real world looks more exciting than scary.

  2. Thanks Sean. You have identified a significant point about the rapid pace of change and the notion that the "real world" might now be an artifact. The skill set needed going forward does lead to a lot of interesting options that are definitely more exciting than scary.

  3. Exactly. What is the "real world"?

    I'd like to offer an extension to that point that is a bit of a segue from your initial points about how your job is different from what some people expect.

    I read / browse a lot of blogs of principals who seem to believe that writing about research studies and philosophical theories about how important being a good leader in school is, but they write very little about what things are that make up the day to day practice of being a school principal. Or maybe that is just the principals who choose to blog a lot.

    I confess to not being much of an academic. And, I will say that very much like you points about "how to diagram a sentence, find x, conjugate a French verb, perform a left hand lay-up" are very similar to the things I supposedly learned in grad school. They don't mean much when you are problem-solving with students (or teachers), getting balls off the roof, cleaning a kindergarteners "accident", etc.

    Having been back in the job for nine weeks now and diarizing it at my blogsite - - I have to agree, the "real world" is not what some think.

  4. Thanks Bob. You highlight a very key point that is the foundation for what we ought to be arming students with - the ability to solve a problem. It's not about content knowledge per se but about where to find the knowledge and how to apply it to the current challenge. Fullan talks about this as hope. Not the "sunny view of the world" hope but instead the capacity to not panic and to find ways and means to solve life's challenges.