Authenticity in the Classroom

“I’ll never use this in the real world.” As a teacher you get used to hearing that phrase, especially in mathematics or science. “I’ll never be a scientist, why do I have to take Physics?” “Since when do people do Geometry proofs in real life?” “Why does it matter what Alexander the Great did if everything he did is gone now?” It’s a common refrain.

I could go on about the need to develop particular mindsets, and the benefits of the ability to switch between them, but I’ll save that for another day. Today I have another answer in mind, namely: “You’re right.”

Honestly, they’re right. I’ve never used Geometry proofs outside of an academic setting. I never even learned what Alexander the Great did beyond conquering some lands I don’t remember and cutting a knot with a sword. Most teachers will have to admit, though perhaps not out loud, that their topic has little to do with what most of their students will be doing for the rest of their life.

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t suddenly turned against an academic education. Removing all topics other than English and Home Economics is not the answer, nor is returning to an apprenticeship system (interesting though that might be to consider). Listen more carefully to the complaint: “I’ll never use this in the real world.” Students stress the “never” and the “real,” but the “I” is the key. The refrain is not the result of students’ carefully thought-out consideration of their own dreams and goals, it’s plain old boredom. Our students can’t get away with saying what they really feel: “I’ll never want to do anything this boring for a job.”

And what can we expect? We give them boring tasks. Repetitive acts of mathematics that require them to look up arbitrary facts and figures. Essays written to a five-paragraph standard that’s easy to grade and grating to write. Questions to answer that show how well they’ve memorized the book. So-called “science experiments” with the results already known and the methodology straight out of Betty Crocker. Is this what chemists do all day? Count me out of chemistry! They’ll never use these things in their job even if their job does end up being in the right field.

Most of our classroom activities are quite simply inauthentic. Once they get out of school, Engineers solve problems. Scientists analyze the world around them. Writers weave threads of truth into the tapestry of a story. Historians delve into events to uncover human motivation and paint a picture of those who came before us. As teachers we all know this, and then we somehow teach the most boring things we can find, because that’s how we were taught, or because it’s easy to grade. Sometimes we need to not only teach things that fascinate us, we need to give students the same sort of discovery process that gave us that fascination, that passion.

I’m not entirely against repetition. There are some things that people really do need to learn for quick mental access, especially basic mathematics and grammar. Once we have the tools, though, we need to do more than just build further tools. We can come up with better ways for our students to learn critical thinking, practice precision, and hone their observation skills. We need to do something real.

Imagine history classes focused around original documents. Imagine chemistry classes that actually analyze chemicals without knowing what the results will be. Give geometry students a chance to map their school, and the ones studying trigonometry a chance to check their work.

At least then, if students say, “I don’t want to do this for a living,” we can know that they’ve genuinely seen what it’s good for.


About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on December 9, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Really? English and Home Ec are the two you’d find most universally applicable?

    • Considering it again, I’d still stick with those two. English because nearly every job beyond working stockroom or retail requires you to write. Home Ec. because everyone needs to know how to cook and pay bills.

      Note that I’m coming at this from a high-school-and-higher point of view. By the time you’re done with grade school you’ve already learned about the basic history of the nation, how the government works, how to use computers, how to apply the scientific method, and all of the math that most people will ever need in their lives.

  2. Actually, that always was the first part of my stock answer: “You may be right. In fact, odds are you will never use, say, 90% of everything that you will learn in school. The catch is, you don’t know which 10% you will need.”

    As for what we teaching being boring, someone just linked me this:

    I first saw it something like 10 years ago, and it still holds today.

  1. Pingback: Don’t Study for Tests « Don't Stop Learning

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