In the 1930’s Henry Ford revolutionised the manufacture of cars with his innovative and efficient assembly lines. Until then cars had been individually crafted, and pretty much the reserve of the very wealthy. The new assembly lines meant that cars would now become affordable for many.
Over the last 25 years or so education has undergone a similar process of ‘modernisation’. In an attempt to make schooling more effective for everyone, we have seen the building of a National Curriculum packed with important skills and knowledge for our teachers to deliver. Weekly Timetables have been divided up to accommodate disconnected chunks of learning and students have been processed through it all in the hope that they will all emerge as highly accomplished individuals ready to make their way in the adult world.
What we’ve seen instead are increased levels of stress and disengagement (amongst students and teachers) and many students failing to achieve what they are capable of. The fact is that people are not cars and that a mechanistic approach to education is not a suitable one for developing the complexity of our human minds.
Along with a growing number of educators, I want to urge schools to reconnect learning with what goes on in the real world. I’d like to see students of all ages having opportunities to do things authentically and in ways that make sense within the context of the real lives that they live.
Here’s just 1 good reason why I think the real world is the best possible resource for learning:
It’s about respecting a young person’s inclination to inhabit ‘the here and now’. Teachers are motivated to a large extent by their duty to ensure that each student acquires what they need to leave school one day as competent skilled young adults. Learning objectives are shared with students in the hope that this will make it more likely that the necessary progress is made. But for young people, the idea that learning is important because it will be useful one day simply isn’t enough. In his book ‘Making Learning Whole’ David Perkins describes this really well when he uses the analogy of learning at school being all too often like doing batting practice without ever playing a real game.
Let me put this in to the context of something that I worked on recently with a primary school teacher: His class had been learning about the Saxons. They had made and used a replica Saxon loom. Next on the teacher’s plan for the term was to teach the skill of ‘explanation text’ and he wanted to use their knowledge of the loom to do this. He made a worksheet for the students to complete which outlined the objectives that he was hoping each of them would achieve. They were asked to:
‘Explain a process and ensure that items are clearly sequenced and relevant details are included.’
In addition they were told that the teacher would want to see:
This approach is rooted firmly in the assembly line approach to education. Once the worksheet is completed the teacher will be able to tick off some objectives and rest easy that ‘explanation text’ has been covered at least for the time being. Whether the students will retain any real benefit from the experience is another matter.
In order to come up with an alternative, I spent time with this teacher puzzling out where ‘explanation text’ fits into the real world; where this kind of writing could be used authentically. And this is what we came up with:
We decided that the group could instead make a simple documentary. For the documentary they would need a script. The process of writing the script would naturally require them to develop the skills that the teacher had in mind to teach in the first place (such as causal connectives or the judicious use of questions marks and commas) because without these the script just wouldn’t make sense. The class would be excited by the idea of making a real documentary that would be viewed by a real audience, and because of this they would be motivated to work really hard until the job was done. At the end of it all the teacher would also be able to add some new objectives to his plan. In the making of a documentary the students would, for example, also have needed to . . .
- use curiosity and imagination to puzzle things out and find effective ways of developing ideas (should we include some general information about the Saxons? . . . would it work if we filmed it and then recorded the sound afterwards? . . . we could dress in Saxon costume so that people can see the kinds of clothes they wore . . . )
- use resilience for trying something new and for persevering through the challenges that will inevitably arise (being filmed is quite scary but maybe it will get easier when we’ve had some practice . . . we’ve lost all the footage we did earlier but let’s not give up, we’ve got our script and maybe what we’ll do next will be even better . . . I find it tricky working with people I don’t know so I’m going to make a bigger effort than usual because I want this to be really good)
- use discipline to craft things and to balance the more creative thinking (learning the technical skills to make a script and a good film – perhaps we’ll seek advice from someone who does this kind of thing . . . let’s try our script out on another group so that we can be sure it makes sense to them)
- collaborate to share ideas and resources (shall we divide up the film in to the different themes and have different groups take responsibility for different parts? . . . I find talking to the camera really hard – I’m going to watch my friend do it because she seems to find it really easy)
Making a documentary would take a bit longer than completing a worksheet but it wouldn’t need to involve a real camera crew or months of crafting. It would be a junior version of the real game of documentary making.
Allowing students to do things for real (to be historians who make a documentary; or scientists who put on an exhibition; or be writers who publish a book . . . ) , would have the potential to drive the learning with an energy that they and their teacher might never have enjoyed before.