The Real World

Maybe ten years ago now, about this time of year, I debriefed a lesson I’d taught with my assistant principal, part of the observation/evaluation process teachers endure. After we’d checked all the boxes and signed documents, the meeting fell into a more informal, relaxed space. Though we were friends and in other contexts our rapport was jocular, adolescent sometimes after a few beers on a Friday night, the power dynamics and agenda were different here. 

Still, as we each tried to find that more comfortable space, I offered that I had the answer. I had figured out teaching and learning. I said so with irony and a smirk because I knew full well it couldn’t be heard. I’d offered this insight in various other places to a variety of other audiences – much lower stakes, and always listeners reacted as if I’d just farted audibly. 

“If we could make this shift in our thinking about teaching and learning,” I said, “so many of the conversations we keep having in education could move forward. We have to stop thinking of teaching as delivery, and learning as reception.”

He didn’t know if I was being serious or not, a funny, I-just-heard-a-fart look on his face. “OK?”

I pointed to the many things we (educators) do, the language we use to talk about what we do, to make visible this assumption about teaching and learning – so ubiquitous as to make other metaphors or possibilities impossible to see or consider. He politely agreed but acquiesced to the status quo, “Maybe so,” he said, “but the reality is that this is the world we live in. We will be judged by our scores on these tests.” He made visible a distinction between “school-world” and “real world.”

That was ten or more years ago. We are still having the same conversations, like a broken record, like that Bill Murray movie. I believe our metaphors for teaching and learning have to change – that the pandemic and this virtual-learning experiment have given us an opportunity we can’t miss, but I am going to change tack. My principal made visible a possible path – his allusion to the “real world.”

If we are unable to view teaching and learning as anything but a transaction, then what if we simply try to close the gap between what happens in school and the “real” world. We do so much in schools to create a false dichotomy between the “real world” and whatever it is we are doing: low quality learning intentions and success criteria, grades, grade-level distinctions, ability grouping, testing, testing, testing, zero-tolerance policies, testing.  

If we perpetuate a school world/real world dichotomy, we focus intently on learning intentions and success criteria, on standards and assessment. Pedagogy becomes little more than prompts and rubrics, memorization. What and whose knowledge counts atrophies to what can be easily seen, easily quantifiable: I can write a complete sentence. I can write a five-paragraph essay (which, it might be noted, is another of those unicorns that does not exist in the “real”world, only in classrooms).

What if, within any discipline, we give learners more autonomy over the rhetorical forces of audience and purpose? What if we tack onto all those low-quality learning intentions and outcomes, those I-can statements, the language “in order to…” (Thank you Malinda Kalinoff for that language):

     I can write a complete sentence in order to…

     I can write a multi-paragraph essay in order to…

     I can solve multi-step math problems in order to…

It could look like this. And as wonderful as this product is, it is only the tip of an iceberg. Consider her planning document. How many “I can…” statements could this learner claim and compose based on this document alone. How many common core standards about narrative writing, about organization, about language and conventions has she met or exceeded. 

Yes and, neither of these artifacts makes visible the work and learning that happened on our Miro board collaborations on story ideas, or during her conferences with me and classmates.

We (public education) still need to revise our metaphors for learning – to understand teaching and learning as something far more complex than mere delivery and reception. Perhaps a step in that direction is to reconcile the school world – real world dichotomy.

The thesis here is not “start a podcast.” I like podcasts; I listen to them, share them, make them. They are a wonderful vehicle for me to teach so much – so many standards, but so much more. The thesis here is let’s close the gap between the platonic cave we are stuck in and the real world whose shadows we chase and try to pin against that cave wall. Let’s be more intentional and reflective about the language we use to talk about what we do. Maybe if we do that, our metaphors will mature as well.