A “Real World” Education

I read a great blog post this morning by Dr. Justin Tarte where he hoped we educators stopped saying “in the real world” (you can read it here). I was convicted. As I have been carefully thinking through educational philosophy, it occurred to me reading this article that if we in secondary education are not preparing students for the “real world” now, then what are we doing? It’s sad, though true, how often I’ve used the same phrase to my seniors, “once you get in the ‘real world’ life will be different.” Will it? I think Dr. Tarte was right in that by saying such a thing, we imply our students are not living in the “real world.” How foolish a thought!

I’ve had students who have watched their parents marriage crumble before their eyes. I have seniors who have mentioned a previous addiction to alcohol (“previous” as if they were 50 and experienced addiction in their 30s!) I once had a student as in class if “self-harm” were wrong. There are other things I’ve learned about as a teacher that I don’t feel I can share. When you stand back and look over these events, I think it’s safe to say our students are in the “real world.” So, wouldn’t it make sense that our students need a “real world” education? I think so.

But, what would that look like? I wish I knew. If I did, I could write a book and become fantastically rich. I think this is a perennial struggle for educators. The context in which we teach changes so quickly. Yet, there are things that remain constant. All our students will struggle with things like identity, meaning, destiny and morality (thanks Ravi Zacharias). Our students will wonder who they are, why they are here, what they are to do with their lives, what is right and wrong, what happens (if anything) after death. Those are the questions that we need desperately to prepare our students to seek. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, once said, “The least of all learning happens in a classroom.” First, I think he’s right. Second, I think he’s right partly because often the stuff we learn in the classroom is rather difficult to connect to the “real world.” Therefore, the lessons learned in life typically prove far, far greater in value. What if we brought those real “life lessons” into the classroom? What if more of our time in our classes was devoted to answering issues our students face in the real world, the world they are in before they arrive and after they leave school? What if our students began feeling as if our schooling was a continuation of the real world, not a impediment to it?

Sounds idyllic, I’m sure. But, is it not possible? The best teacher I had was an English teacher whose lessons were infinitely deeper than the book we were reading. I cannot tell you how often a passage from a text burst with life because of the wisdom and life experience shared by our teacher. I remember I chose not to do my summer reading before entering my senior year. My grades were low, but that wasn’t the worst part. The text came alive in such a way, contained so much information immediately relevant to the real world, that I wish I had read. My teacher did not treat the assignments as another hurdle to jump before graduation, but an opportunity to investigate the world we inhabited. Her influence has remained such that it was my hope to emulate her in my own classroom.

Dr. Tarte’s post helped me see the times my class and its’ assignments were so obviously out of touch with the “real world.” I see now how wasteful those items were. Again, if we are not preparing our students for the world they currently live in favor of a “real world” they will encounter some day, we are failing them miserably.

What is the purpose of education? Biblically speaking, education is about faithfulness. Faithfulness is defined through at least two words, one Hebrew and one Greek (the languages of the Old and New Testament). The Hebrew word emeth (firmness, faithfulness, truth) has a semantic range from “faithful” (10x) to “truth” (80x). This means that to “be faithful” means also to live according to what is the “truth”, and the discovery of truth intellectually, physically and spiritually is the point of education. In like manner the Greek word pistos also has a semantic range including both “faithful” (44x) and second, “trustworthy” (7x). Both words point to a biblical definition of faithfulness as being “consistent, reliable and trustworthy as stewards of truth.” And, if we are going to be faithful in education, we must be faithful to prepare them not for tomorrow’s worries, but today’s realities. This is what a “real world” education looks like.


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