What is your definition of “real world learning”?
I liked the definitions from EdGlossary and the Schools We Need Project as starting points:
"Connecting what students are taught in school to real-world issues, problems, and applications...learning mirrors real-life contexts, equips them with practical and useful skills, and addresses topics that are relevant and applicable to their lives outside of school" -- EdGlossary
It includes the following key attributes:
"Having a real audience for work.
Contextualizing locally, but connecting globally.
Projects and problems are based on themes of social significance and personal interest"
-- Schools We Need Project
I would extend these by saying that it is the kind of learning we would encourage others to pursue in a world without schools. In many cases, the work would tie to industry, but it would also involve going deep into areas of passion that may not be especially useful in a profession. Students should get out of the classroom to interact with people who are likely more passionate and experienced than the teacher in the given area. The teacher's role in this environment is to act as the central hub of many relationships that students engage in, not the content expert in each area.
What are the specific elements that can make learning “real world”?
The Real World Learning Network's five-finger model (https://www.rwlnetwork.org/rwl-model.aspx) offers a helpful starting point of key elements: understanding, transferability, experience, empowerment, and values.
- Understanding -- identify the concepts key to understanding a topic.
- Transferability -- ensure that the topic fits in to many areas of life (this enables connections across the brain and increased relevance).
- Experience -- touch, see, hear, smell, taste, and emotionally feel the situation (simply reading or watching is not enough).
- Empowerment -- ability to take action around topic for positive change (understand problems AND work on solutions).
- Values -- show empathy and care for other people, future generations, and the Earth.
What does the “real world” look like specifically (for Grand Challenge Design students in 2016)?
The Grand Challenges for Engineering include problems like "provide universal access to clean water", "advance health informatics", and "restore urban infrastructure". They are the problems that a wide variety of future engineers will need to work on in order to maintain and improve life on Earth. These real-world engineers come are all problem-solvers, but they may have received their training from very diverse fields. The social sciences offer a power lens for understanding people and their experiences. The physical sciences give humanity a deeper understanding of our environment and how it works. Engineers are experienced in setting design constraints and designing and testing solutions to a problem. Entrepreneurs use a value-centric mindset to identify which aspects of an idea matter to people and find a way to sustain the idea through production.
The "real world" in the GCD topic areas is not about a single field, but a team-based approach to try to better understand key challenges and work together to develop and spread effective solutions. They need to develop the common skills that employers already value (percentages based on NACE):
- Leadership 80.1%
- Ability to work in a team 78.9%
- Communication skills (written) 70.2%
- Problem-solving skills 70.2%
- Communication skills (verbal) 68.9%
- Strong work ethic 68.9%
What are the opportunities and challenges when providing K-12 students real world learning experiences? Do all students benefit?
Often, real-world learning leaves students in charge of many aspects of their learning. The problem with this? A lack of control. As a teacher, I like to keep 30 spreadsheets that track every micro-detail of where students are at in a known progression of learning, making it easier for me to provide feedback and next steps. Planned progressions with detailed feedback have their place as efficient and effective ways to pick up a new set of wanted skills. When I want to learn something new, nothing beats a well designed course, especially if it is self-paced and available from home on-demand. However, in many cases students are not interested in the skills that school schedules drop in front of them, so they disengage.
When letting go, students have the opportunity to do fascinating things that you could have never planned for them, especially when they engage with expert mentors who offer guidance in their learning. On the opposite end of the spectrum, students have more opportunities to get lost, give up, or coast without pushing themselves. Unlike a good factory, there is a ton of variation and fewer tools to address the low-end of the achievement spectrum.
Another challenge in developing real-world learning experiences is the time required for teachers to set it up. There is no textbook that you can purchase for meaningful opportunities in your subject area in your local community. There is not a yellow pages for supportive mentors in every topic. Teachers need to create and modify projects, meet many people in their community, and establish a lot of goodwill with others as they start asking for constant favors on behalf of their students. I could not create the class I'm building right now without a minimum of 3-5 years of relationship-building in my district and community -- there are simply too many pieces that need to come together that rely on the incredible support of a village, not just a willing individual.
The upside, as a teacher, is that my work is incredibly fulfilling when I connect with experts in the community and form my own set of meaningful relationships. At conferences, I get to talk to parents about the cool things their child is doing, not the deficiencies in their skills based on my last unit test. I spend time with former students and local volunteers having fun while making new things on the weekend. If I was spending all of my time focused on making sure students achieve in only a close-ended set of tasks without outside connections or creativity, I would fallen away from the profession in my first 5 years. I've never been as excited to teach as I am this year, despite the very real possibility that it will be my hardest year as a teacher.