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Education in the real world

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For years now, in schools I’ve heard people claiming that this new thing or that old thing is no good because it doesn’t prepare students for the real world.

Since it seems to be such an enormous motivator for people, I’d like to come clean and ask for help in understanding what this real world is. You’d assume I would know. After all, I’ve lived and traveled all over the world, fished offshore for lobster and started multiple businesses, and have communications on most continents. Am I in the real world? I don’t know!

But I do know a couple things. This real world, which sounds fictional to me, is always invoked by people who are fearful of change. They often see education as a system where we process kids through reliably and achieve standardized, reliable results. Controlling everything possible is admittedly comforting.

In 2003, Orchard Gardens Pilot School in Massachusetts, nearly 100 percent black and Hispanic, opened its doors with a posse of security guards to ensure the campus was under tight controls. Backpacks were prohibited for fear of weapons and discipline issues were rampant, including violence. In 2010, the current principal, Andrew Bott, threw out the security guards and put the money into arts teachers. Student achievement grew faster than anywhere in the state and student expression blossomed.

Fearless educators do not fear the real world, they seek it out and invite it in. Research makes it crystal clear that teachers whom students perceive as highly effective see their purposes as freeing rather than controlling. They view people as friendly rather that unfriendly. They see people as worthy. Real teachers have personal relationships with students and community members whom they care about as individuals. Students feel connected to these teachers and, subsequently, to higher causes, and they pursue those connections in tertiary education. In small and community-based schools like Orchard Gardens, we interact with everyone we can, cliques or not.  This is a real world I recognize.

John Dewey, one of my many educational idols, drew a distinction between education for status quo versus education for a better world. I feel safe in saying that we need to educate the next generation for both sides of Dewey’s dichotomy. To all who would claim that all education must be oriented towards your own, coveted, predetermined version of some real world, I say this: we can do better!

Stuart Grauer is a teacher, founding head of The Grauer School in Encinitas, Calif., and founder of the Small Schools Coalition. He accredits and consults for schools worldwide. He accredits and consults for schools worldwide. His book, “Real Teachers,” seeks to inspire teachers to rejuvenation, liberation and joy.