Why I’m not preparing my students for the “real world”

We often hear education experts tell us how important it is to design learning experiences for our students that will prepare them for the “real world.” And teacher blogs, conference presentations and tweets are also full of strategies they have developed and implemented to prepare their students for the “real world.” By and large, they are good strategies worth exploring in our classes. I wholeheartedly agree that our students need and deserve a world-class education that prepares them for life, work, and citizenship in a dynamic, complex, and evolving global society. However, I no longer tell my students that I am preparing them for the “real world.” And I would encourage all of my fellow educators to also stop telling students, parents, and other stakeholders that they are preparing students for the “real world.”
Why? Lest you think that I have abandoned the greater purpose of education, let me explain. When we tell anyone that we are preparing students for the “real world,” we are perpetuating the already all-too-common belief that that our classes and everything we do in them is something other than “real.” Rather than reminding everyone of the fact that there is a purpose behind every learning event we have crafted for our students, that phrase instead invites all our stakeholders–students, parents, community members and others–to dismiss the majority of the work we do as artificial at best and irrelevant at worst. Think about it: if we tell students, “This [insert activity or rule to be followed here] is important because it will prepare you for the real world,” what are we doing the rest of the time? I have another post coming soon on whether or not our grades and policies really do reflect the “real world” but just looking at our instruction and assessment, we can do better than imply that only some of what we do is relevant. And if it is true that only some of what we do is relevant, then it may be time to take a closer look at our practice.

But if we are teaching, practicing and assessing for proficiency rather than for points on a chapter test, then it is likely that most–if not all–of what we do is exactly the preparation our students need in order to use their language beyond our classroom walls to communicate with others and comprehend the world around them. Just consider some of the most banal examples from my own classes (and probably yours as well): we look at the same documents native speakers around the world are looking at. We talk about them just like native speakers around the world to do. We compare them to other documents from the target cultures as well as to similar documents in American culture. We interact with native speakers as often as possible in person and online. And these are just the “easy” examples. My classes are not artificial and the work my students do provides them with numerous opportunities to participate just as fluidly in French outside of class as they do in class. So I’m not about sell my work–or my students’ efforts and time– short by implying that it is different from a mythical “real world” that in reality looks an awful lot like how we are already using French in my class.

Perhaps the real issue isn’t the phrase “real world” but rather that it’s not enough to tell our students that we are preparing them for the “real world.” We have to do so rather than say so because when we are doing it, there is no longer a need for us or others to say it…or question it. How do we “do real world” instead of telling students we are “preparing” them for the real world? By ensuring that the work in which students are engaged during their time with us is representative of the authentic ways the fundamental and advanced skills of our content areas are used outside of our classes in that seemingly mysterious place called “the real world.”

As a language teacher, our field offers a diverse array of opportunities to do just that. At the most simple, we invite native speakers into our rooms from our communities, as host students, or via Skype, FaceTime or Google+ Hangouts. It’s so easy and natural for us that we almost take it for granted. We also facilitate their progression from using words and structures in controlled environments and contexts to using the language to examine a variety of topics  on a range of issues and interests that reflect authentic cultural perspectives. We do that by using the same infographics, advertisements, articles, YouTube channels and news reports native speakers are reading, listening to and talking about.  We can go a step further by using community-based and online resources to connect our students with target-language speakers around the world in a discussion of those topics. Even a time difference isn’t a problem if we send our contacts abroad links to digital forums we have created for our students to virtually discuss concepts and content. For example, tools like TodaysMeet, Padlet, and Blendspace allow anyone anywhere in the world to participate in the “conversation” if they have a link to the specific thread in question. Want to “hear” them talk? Use tools like Voxopop to create “talk groups” to which anyone with the link can contribute. Use these tools to enhance  your learners’ connections and interactions with their penpals, with humanitarian workers serving in regions where your target language is spoken and with others who are interested in the topics your students are learning about.

Ready to go further? Engage your students in Project-Based Learning, otherwise known as PBL (and for language teachers, Project-Based Language Learning, or PBLL). I’ve been learning about and implementing Project-Based Language Learning for several years, although so far, I would consider my implementation of it to be fairly novice. One of the most accomplished language educators who has made PBLL a fully integrated component of his language instruction is Don Doehla, who blogs on world languages (including PBLL) for Edutopia. Here is just one of his many PBL posts. Spanish teacher Laura Sexton has also done incredible work in this arena. And here is a great overview of best practices in PBL directly from the experts at the Buck Institute for Education.

Why do I like PBL or PBLL to prepare students for a myriad of roles in a society that will define itself after our students leave us?  Through well-designed Project-Based Learning experiences–or more correctly, expertly facilitated PBL experiences–students learn through inquiry, often of their own design. Two critical components of successful PBL and PBLL are

  • the active role the students play throughout the learning, practice and assessment process, and
  • the higher purpose of assessment in PBL/PBLL

Starting with the selection of the essential question or challenging problem the students will tackle, through the cycle of inquiry, reflection, and critique and revision, student voice and choice are the primary factors guiding their work. Students move from learning language for points in the gradebook to acquiring language they will need in order to comprehend and talk about the field they are studying. They move from passively receiving instruction to determining and acting on their own learning needs with teacher support. I’ve even had students work with me to help write the grants that would fund their work and design and publish their own advertising.  And of course their involvement doesn’t end when their research does: I include my students in the choice, design and implementation of their culminating  PBL/PBLL event, which is often open to the community. It is through this event that students demonstrate their knowledge and apply the full gamut of their skills (content skills, language and literacy skills, and often numerous 21st Century Skills). It is the essentially the assessment, but really it is so much more: the culminating event evaluates students’ proficiencies much more thoroughly and authentically than a test grade. The culminating event provides students with a meaningful venue that requires demonstration of both spontaneous and prepared application of their language skills and content knowledge.

Interactions with native speakers in our classrooms and online. Discussion and analysis of authentic media. Assessment for an audience beyond the teacher and a purpose greater than a grade. For the language educator, this is–or should be–our every day, day to day. Just like in the “real world.”



4 thoughts on “Why I’m not preparing my students for the “real world”

  1. Yes, yes, and yes!!!!!!!!! Thank you, Nicole. Your expression in this post validates my beliefs and provides third-party support for the approach I am promoting within my school and department. Bonne continuation!


  2. I agree with you about the importance of PBL in the classroom but have teachers really confused “real world” as something kids “might” do later? Real world IS supposed to mean relevant right now, and meaningful. No more asking students to describe what students are wearing, when it is clearly visible to everyone, just so they can practice “clothing” or “colors”! In methodology speak, real world represents those tasks that real people do for a purpose in the target language. It is also about bringing the “real world” into the classroom. I would rather teachers understand the term than stop using it.


    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments. As you can probably see from my post, I also think we are “doing” it now in our classes. And in fact, I’m not convinced that it’s the teachers who are most frequently misunderstanding what we mean when we say that. However, I think that when we call out certain activities in our classes as preparation for the “real world,” it can be (and is) misinterpreted by students and others to mean that this one thing is now more relevant than the other work in which we engage our students. Essentially, I think that if we are purposeful in our design of instruction and of student application activities, we don’t need to call out our work as being “real world” because it already is and the students can clearly see how the work they are doing relevant for something other than points. The problem occurs in any subject when students’ learning experiences are mostly focused on work that clearly only serves a purpose in a classroom, to the point where distinguishing between that work and the application of the skills and knowledge in the “real world” becomes necessary. So I said, if we are “doing” it, there is no need to “say” it. And if we need to say it, it is worth at least asking ourselves if it is because we need to examine the authenticity of the other work in which students are engaged. The answer may be no (which is wonderful), but the examination of our practice is still worth the time.


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