Reflections on the use of ‘Real World’ in Education.. from e-learn16.

Here at e-learn 2016, I was delighted to be able to listen to our first keynote session, fromscreen-shot-2016-11-15-at-15-29-30 Digital-Natives-coining speaker Marc Prensky. He didn’t get into the whole debate about that term, but rather concentrated on his most recent publication and the ideas behind it. This was a powerful plea to redesign the educational process from the ground up, around the idea of ‘real world accomplishment’. While this had clear echoes of problem-based learning, Prensky was keen to distinguish his approach. He wanted people to harness students’ engagement via ‘real’ problems, not ‘made-up problems’. I can see how there is some mileage in this – that students may respond to tasks that feel ‘authentic’, and be incentivised by interaction with external agencies and their needs.

There is clearly a discussion to be had (and I discussed it with some attendees yesterday, and think it is something that will emerge in response to his work) about how radical a notion this is, and how much we do or don’t need to retain a more conventional curricula format in order to extract the benefits Prensky outlines. I balked a bit at the term ‘solutionaries’ for students, and not wholly as an inelegant term, but out of a concern that it seemed to suggest that students just ‘get out there and get on with improving the world’. Sounds great? But what is a better world? Can we make it better by piecemeal projects? I was left feeling that this rush was in danger of skipping a whole process of serious critical reflection. I worried about facts, about ethics, and throwing out core competencies. There are real problems in education, and Prensky’s approach has important contributions, and a thoroughgoing critique (which I have only hinted at some of the forms this may take) will be an important part of that becoming actualised and effective. I think students engaging with a range of external contexts can have substantive benefits – for all involved – and can be a transformative, powerful tool – if used right.

But that isn’t why I am writing this blog post.

What really distracted me here, as it often does, is the idea of the educational setting (the seminar room, lecture hall, laboratory, tutorial conversation) being contrasted (with a clear qualitative judgement in the binary) with the real worldSigh.

  • ‘Will this philosophy degree help me in the real world?’
  • ‘Students need real-world learning.’
  • ‘This skill can be used in the real world.’

84811561Familiar? Clearly, I would object as someone who teaches philosophy. What is real in the first place? Is what seems real actually merely a fleeting shadow of a more substantial, permanent reality? Is we don’t fancy a Platonic model of metaphysical dualism, there are still plenty of reality problems. Is my experience, my reality, the same of yours? Are objects as I experience them external, and how much do I contribute to my reality through the perceptual process and the fundamental categories that structure it? Some might suggest that my primary reality is to decide whether life in a finite, transient, absurd world is even worth carrying on with. Leaving these real real-world problems, to one side for now, I want to examine the term in the way it seems to actually be used.

Real-World is constructed as a term which contrasts with the educational in key ways. Real-world skills are useful; academic learning is self indulgent. The real world is tough but honest (about the competitive nature of human existence the scrabble for scarce resources, say); the academic world is overly soft/ protective. The real world is where life happens; the academic life (as best) is a prelude to actual life (in the Real world). The Real world is where I have bills to pay; the academic life revels in its uselessness.


This discourse sits behind the endless anxiety of Higher Education to demonstrate the transferability of the skills that students acquire – to rush to state the learning outcomes as fundamentally instrumental. One can mount an assault on the idea of ‘Real world’ narratives on the basis that they contain an, often barely concealed, anti-intellectualism, and abandoning of the idea of the intrinsic value of study, investigation and learning. We’d need to also note that of course, students will have jobs and bills, and education should carve out a better suite of options for them: through the people it helps them become. More skilled people, more confident people, able to express themselves and their autonomy by self-directing the purpose and direction of their lives.

But the real worry for me about ideas of education versus the Real world, is the idea file-15-11-2016-13-22-07that the world beyond the University, or School, is a single fixed thing, which we have to passively respond to and face. Clearly Prensky doesn’t think this, with his mission to have children better the world, but talking about ‘real world education’ worries me. It takes a particular version of the world – the world of work, of finance*, of commercials, of relationships between humans being largely transactional and financial, of a certain (market) model of economics – and naturalises it. It suggests that this world, the current dominant Western model of relating, buying, paying and living is the way things are and the way they have to be. Not only is this patently not the case – as the slogan goes another world is possible. But more than that – other worlds exist now – people live in collective and collaborative modes (whether or not we think this is a good or bad thing), and I would like to see the slogan in the plural.

Other worlds are possible, and the classroom, the lecture hall and the tutorial discussion plays as much, if not more, role in creating them than the factory, the design agency, or the trading floor. The latter contexts replicate a model of the world as it is. Ideas, thought through, reflected upon, argued about, mediated via generations of those who have wrangled before us with the problems of being a human, have the power to make worlds real.


* A world that seems to largely exist in non-real ways, with complex instruments trading things that don’t yet exist for currency guaranteed by gold that doesn’t exist either, and which persists only on the basis that people believe (have confidence in it).

3 thoughts on “Reflections on the use of ‘Real World’ in Education.. from e-learn16.

  1. I sometimes reflect on my degree in chemistry. I was constantly doing experiments which involved manipulating the real world – hundreds of real chemical reactions with observable real world consequences. But I knew very little about how chemistry was done in industry – on huge scales and with an eye on commercial viability.

    If my real world job had been research into transition metal catalysis of organic reactions I was being well prepared by a dept with a keen interest in that subject. If it was how to produce methanol in vast quantities and turn into into petrol (utilising the same catalysts) then I was at a loss. Which world is “real”?

    As it turns out the internships I did as part of my degree put me off industrial chemistry for life. When I recovered from the depression brought on by working in a paper mill for 6 months, I ended up working in libraries for 15 years where I did no chemistry at all, but was able to help students successfully approach assignments and literature research. Again, is this the “real world”? Real enough if one is a student with an assignment due and no idea where to start!

    Ironically, in the real world I ended up becoming an ordained Buddhist, learning ancient dead languages and writing essays about ideas and texts that have no relation to chemistry. One might argue that my education in no way prepared me for my actual real world. But that would not be accurate because I learned how to learn. I taught myself Pāli, and the methods of philology and textual analysis.

    Learning is a metaskill. It’s transferrable. When you know how to use a library, you realise that you don’t need to know everything, because all knowledge is available to you. The invention of the WWW in my lifetime has only made that easier.

    One last thought. Throughout my first degree, all my physics exams were open book. You could take whatever you wanted with you including a computer. There was really not much advantage if you did not know the theorems by heart and did not know when and how to apply them. In fact looking things up slowed you down significantly and put you at a disadvantage. There was no substitute for knowledge in that circumstance, but this included the meta-knowledge of how to apply what one knew.

    I will never win mastermind, but I know that I can learn anything if I am motivated to (though I recommend starting Sanskrit before age 40 rather than after!).


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