Thursday, March 3, 2011

Keeping it real. Ideas for Schools, Educators, and Students.

I was duped. During my years in school I always annoyed my teachers by asking why I needed to learn what was being taught.  Annoying them wasn't my intention. I really wanted to understand.  So they told me.

Common answers were:
  1. Because you’ll need to know this someday.
  2. Because you’ll need to know this when you grow up.
  3. Because it will be on the test.
  4. Because it will help you become a critical thinker.  
As an adult I found out that only answer “c” was true and like other students, I never remembered anything after the test. A more honest answer could have been, “because it will make me as your teacher look good, which will make the school look good, which will make politicians look good, all of which will make test making companies rich, and your parents have been duped into thinking that this will be better for you.”    

As an adult I feel cheated by a school system that took away more than a dozen years of my life that could have been spent doing something more productive or interesting.  Instead, with the exception of my typing class, I learned nothing that I needed for when I grew up.  When I share this I’m often met with the response, “That’s not true.  You just don’t realize what you learned in school that enabled you to accomplish what you have.”  To which I respond, “Absolutely not! I became who I am in spite of, not because of school.”   

Here’s what I learned in school:
  1. I learned to dislike subjects that I love in the real world.  
  2. I learned that school was all about doing meaningless work without a real purpose or audience.  
  3. I learned not to question  anything or do things my own way.  
  4. I learned that regurgitating what the teacher said, even though I disagreed, would get me good grades.
  5. I learned to imagine standardized test creators as stuffy old white men and women who only saw things in one boring way with only one possible answer even though my mind could figure out ways that other possibilities could be true.
  6. I learned that no teacher could explain why I needed to learn Algebra or its application in the real world. It did not help me think critically. In fact I never learned Algebra even though I memorized algorithms long enough to pass a test.  No algebra teacher I ever had could explain why I needed to learn that awful stuff.  Today I don’t know Algebra. I ask people what they think I’m missing as a result.  I never get a good answer beyond it teaches you to think critically, but I can think critically without it.  
I do not like the lessons I learned in school.  Instead school should be about preparing students for life. Unfortunately, I graduated college but was never prepared for life.  I raced to the top of my class and at 19 stood with a diploma in hand and no idea what I wanted to do with my life, what I was good at and after all that time in school I didn’t even have a portfolio to show to an employer because all my work was fake, for the manufactured environment of school.  The rouse is up.  There are innovative educational leaders like Chris Lehmann, Will Richardson, Alan November, Angela Maiers, Peggy Sheehy, Marc Prensky who realize what we’re doing, just isn’t working.  

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way.  There are schools, teachers, and students in learning environments that not only keep it relevant, but actually keep it real.  Schools that keep it real have students who are prepared for life.  This, not outdated, one-size-fits-all, irrelevant assessments, is a better measure of school and student success.  

Here are examples of innovative schools, educators and what it looks like when we keep it real for students.  

Schools that are keeping it real.
Teachers that are keeping it real
Keeping it Real for Students
If you are an educator who believes that when it comes to learning, we must keep it real, here are questions to consider for your students.  As you do, reflect upon your own school experience.  Did your teachers explicitly consider these things? Why is it important for today’s teachers to keep these ideas in mind for their students?   
  1. How will you determine your student’s talents, interests, passions, learning styles, and abilities?
  2. How will you allow students to own the learning?
  3. How will you always enable student learning to be real?
  4. How will you ensure students are doing authentic work for real audiences?
  5. How will you enable students to follow their passions when demonstrating learning?
  6. How will you enable students to demonstrate learning using the tools they choose?
  7. How are you helping to prepare students for their future, not your past?
  8. How are you supporting students in capturing their work into an authentic online academic and/or career portfolio?
In his new book, “Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning,” Marc Prensky says that relevant isn’t enough.  Instead when it comes to learning, we must always keep it real.  Keeping it real  means that there is a perceived connection by the students, at every moment between what they are learning and their ability to use that learning to do something useful in their world.

He explains it this way.   
It is possible, with some imagination, to make everything we teach real for each of our students. The desire and ability to go beyond ― “I‘m teaching this because it‘s in the curriculum” to ― “Here‘s how this relates to each of your worlds in a real (and not just a theoretical, relevant) way,” is something students highly appreciate and value in their teachers.

The best thing a partnering teacher can do to keep learning real (and not just relevant) is to make everything he or she is teaching come directly from the world of the students—either their world of today or their world of tomorrow. (And, of course, not just the world, but the part of that world they are passionate about.) Going further, the partnering teacher should make learning not just about students‘ world, but about changing and improving their world. Can you think of a better answer to ― “Why should I learn this?” than ― “To make your world a better place?”

Partnering itself is already more real than traditional classroom learning, which is typically removed from the world. In partnering, students use real-world tools to access and analyze publicly available information (as opposed to textbooks created only for school). When students use web sites that are open to anyone, and understand that if they feel there‘s a problem with those sites they can take action by changing wikis or posting messages, that is real. When they post their work for others to see, that is real as well.

We can and should do this with everything.


  1. Surely at sometime in those "12 lost years" you had at least one teacher who inspired you, taught you something useful, or engaged you in lesson that you enjoyed.

  2. @Anonymous, that's possible, but I don't remember it. I mostly remember trying hard to stay awake as to not to offend boring teachers during their lectures, but often failing and falling asleep. I remember being told to "shhh" when I talked to classmates about what we were learning. I remember being told how to think and demonstrate learning and when I tried to do things my way I was told it was the wrong way with little explanation. I remember being told what books to read and what to think about them. I remember memorizing historical dates and names that I could spit back on a test but had no recollection of after wards.

    So, perhaps there was something useful, but the way I was taught was not a way in which I remember what it was.

    The learning I remember and valued happened outside of class.

  3. @Anonymous, I love that common conjecture that somehow 12 years of time wasted can be redeemed by the fact that you met a few cool people along the way. Surely you could run into even more people who inspire you if you aren't confined to your school building all day.

    I was lucky to have a few amazing teachers who did help me learn some interesting things. And, unbelievably, some of the people who inspired me most have not even been "trained" as teachers.

  4. @Vickie, I agree. School should not be a place that by luck you get a few inspirational teachers. I have learned far more from my personal learning network ( that I established on my own, than from all the teachers I've ever had combined.

    Empowering students to create their own learning networks and learn from those they choose would provide a much more meaningful experience for children and enable them to begin to effectively become independent, lifelong, anytime/anywhere learners.

  5. Best class I took during high school was music. People wondered why I took the class as it was an 'unproductive' subject. 15 years later I still remember my music class and mucking around creating stuff. Can't remember what I did in math or English class.

  6. @Teacher Trainee, I never had fun classes like that. I was on the academic track to supposed success. I was told what you heard. No time to waste in school learning or doing anything that might be fun.

  7. Jeff Branzburg
    Hi Lisa. Although you make many points with which I agree, I do have some points to address, about math and how it is taught. Your post sounds very utilitarian. As a former math teacher, I did get the question "how will this help me in life..." many times. It is a hard one to answer to an adolescent. I am not even sure if there is any answer acceptable to them. As with many teachers, I did fall back on the substandard answer "trust me - it will."

    The problem is not with math, or any other subject. It is with they way in which it is taught. From a strictly utilitarian view, music and art have not "helped" me in life. From a holistic view, they have. Music and art can be taught in a theoretical manner, or in an appreciation manner. Had I been taught them in a theoretical manner, I would have reacted poorly. But I developed an appreciation for them, and they are in my life.

    (An aside - take a look at "A Mathematician’s Lament" at; a piece that asks the question 'what if music were taught the way math is'; it makes the point quite well.)

    Although I am unsure exactly how, I do believe math can be taught in a manner that is less algorithmic, and centers more on its beauty. Look at Vi Hart's work (, or her father George Hart ( Look at the beauty in the work. Look at the new Museum of Mathematics ( - "Mathematics illuminates the patterns and structures all around us. Our dynamic exhibits and programs will stimulate inquiry, spark curiosity, and reveal the wonders of mathematics."

    Math can be a way of thinking, a way of looking at the world. Fact is, it is basic to much. The Fibonacci Sequence is found in architecture (Parthenon) as well as nature (e.g., petals on a flower or spirals in a sea shell). Look at Escher's art.

    Somebody needs to develop a math appreciation course, like those that exist for art and music. There really is much in common. It can be appreciated without a full understanding of the algorithms (which I agree are over-taught - not that kids do not need to know basic algorithms, but a little more understanding of the concepts would be nice as well.)

    I think my next cartoon will be "The Beauty in Mathematics" - with no mention of "how to."


  8. Jeff,
    The problem with, “Trust me, it will.” –is that “I did, and it didn’t.” You say music did not help you in life, but that’s not true. If you learn to play an instrument it pays off in the joy you see on the faces of listening to you, or maybe you are in a band, or maybe like the kids of the Staten Island music teacher, you get to travel the world and perform. Art is the same way. You make something real and beautiful that you can enjoy or can be enjoyed by others. Few have seen a worksheet of math problems elicit the same reaction. In fact for one math tutor recently, instead it brought about anger and disdain. Read

    As far as theory versus appreciation, you are right to a certain extent, but I’ll take it one step further. I don’t understand the theory and won’t have appreciation if I don’t know what I’m doing or why. At least for me, that needs to be established first. The site Mathalicious does a nice job of this. I have look at Vi Hart’s work. I actually wrote about it here Taking math from her would have been better, but, eh…out of context, without a need, while I appreciate her work, I’m not inspired to learn math without a real-world need. She finds it beautiful. Museums find it beautiful. Perhaps because of my personal experience, I’m not interested, sparked, or stimulated by math. I get that from other things. Isn’t that okay?

    I only read a bit, but I love "A Mathematician’s Lament." This describes it for me. Perhaps school took all the joy out of math…so much so, that I have no interest in checking out the Fibonacci Sequence, though I think I saw Vi Hart’s video on this or maybe the Parthenon, or whatever it was. She loved it and made all sorts of stuff in this shape. Me, not so much.

    I’m not sure a math appreciation course would help. I’d have as much interest in taking that as I’d have in a Smartboard appreciation class, or an ape poop appreciation class. Unless there has been a case made about why I specifically should appreciate the thing, and I agree, I have no interest in learning about it and perhaps, because I don’t see the value, I don’t have the ability to appreciate it.

    In either case, I look forward to you Math cartoon and hope you’ll be pointing to some of the content in the “Mathematician’s Lament,” though I’m sure you will.

  9. Lisa, I think you missed some of my points. First of all, I said that the "trust me" response - that I and many other teachers use - is substandard. Not enough.

    Also, what I said about music and art was "From a strictly utilitarian view, music and art have not "helped" me in life. From a holistic view, they have." By utilitarian view, I mean in my career, something I actively use, something I apply in a concrete manner. Kind of like math for you. You feel you don't use it regularly, it does not affect your career in any way you can see, you do not use it concretely. But I also said 'holistically." Both music and art have enhanced my life in general. Maybe math has not done that for you, but the math embedded in many other areas (music, art, sports, etc) has an affect on us all.

    And of course it's ok not be be sparked by the beauty of math. I pretty much feel that way about dance, or beach volley ball. I can understand the pleasure and spark others get from those activities. It's enough to like it simply because ... you like it! Fact is, we live in a mathematical world, just like we live in a social and political world. Understand it or not, appreciate it or not, it is there and affects us.

    Theory vs appreciation - when I see a beautiful painting or sculpture, I am attracted to it and pleased by it. I do not know how it was created, what materials were used, where it fits in the history of the art, etc. I like it for what it is. That's appreciation without theory (to me). I am glad I do not need a theoretical basis in order to appreciate it. That would make trips to a museum laborious for me. Sometimes, though, the appreciation sparks a desire to look more closely into the work, and the theory and creative process beyond it.

  10. @Jeff Branzburg,
    I got your points. With the “trust me.” I realize you said it substandard. I just heard it so much in school, I wanted to answer it here. Like many former, current, and future students, I feel betrayed that a school system lied to me, so thank you for the impetus to respond to my unmemorable former teachers who will never even know (or care? Why would they? That’s not measured.) that I have a blog. Ahhh…that felt good :-p

    As far as music or art, I still disagree. Generally, people who chose to take those courses, used it in a utilitarian way, at least at the time. They played or made real stuff for themselves and/or others. I don’t need something to be real for life to be valuable. Just real in life for some authentic purpose and the student understands what that is.

    Now, with music and art, I didn’t need to take any classes to enjoy a concert or like a piece of art. The same is true for the math I use in my life today. School wants to take credit for the fact that I can do math in life. Sorry. They don’t get it. The math I use in life is not because I learned it in school, it’s because I need it in life so figured it out when necessary. I’m considered pretty darn good in excel. I figured it out (aka Googled it) when I needed to. I didn’t remember an algorithm from 20 years prior. Just because math has an effect doesn’t mean we need to take it in school. The effect remains whether school ruined it for us or enhanced it. If I love the effect and want to know more, I can watch Vi Hart videos, Khan videos, Mathaliciolus, YouTube, or Google it. I don’t need to suffer through a painfully boring and disconnected math class.

    I guess what this leads me to has pretty much been my rant for the past several months. There are endless things to appreciate in the world. Why is it that schools need to dictate what those things are, when we learn them, how we learn them and how we’re assessed? What happens for many of us is we begin to hate even the subjects we would love in life. I was scarred from horrible international baccalaureate English classes. The teachers were good. Did what they were told, but I was forced to read what they said, when they said and think about the books only what I was told to think. We also had to read too much too fast. I never was able to savor these books. Yuck! Writing was the same. I drafted boring stuff for an audience of one teacher. The papers sat in a box for years. Strangely I felt they’d have value one day. After a decade or so I threw em out. It was several years in detox before I began reading for pleasure and several years after that, that I began writing.

    Basically, what I’m saying is that if I’m not interested in “it,” if I’m forced to take “it,” well, that doesn’t mean I’ll ever learn or appreciate “it.” Sadly, because school isn’t keeping it real for students, my experience is not uncommon.

  11. My 15-year old daughter has written her own "Math Student's Lament" on Algebra's irrelevance to her life. But even as homeschoolers (and unschoolers), we still have to follow state law, which says, in order to issue a diploma, certain maths have to be completed. Colleges also require certain grades in math in order to pass their placement tests, or you end up having to take it as a remedial course. Either way, you still have to take it, and until those requirements change, I don't see any way around it. If they must require higher math, why can't they just teach basic, standard core concepts, and if a kid is good at or likes a particular math, he or she can go further. To expect everyone to be so well versed in Algebra, Trig and pre-calc is unrealistic.

  12. Thank you for this post and links. While I was luckier than you at school, I am more concerned about the learners that I alm trying to help now. Daniel Pink's Drive should be essental reading for all educators!

    A piece of graffiti I photographed in the university amphitheatre sums it up for me:

    'Life is too short to find the time long"

  13. Lisa, I'm not an educator in any sense of the word but I was a big fan of (k-12) school and I'll tell you why. I was lucky enough to have teachers who taught me to laugh and love. Teachers who taught me how to respect my fellow peers. I had one in particular who taught me the quadratic formula to the tune of Jingle Bells (I can still sing it to you to this day!). I had teachers who taught me what it meant to be accountable for my own actions and work. Teachers who taught me that it's okay to not be right and that asking questions is good. I had a couple of teachers who knew how to put things into perspective so that I could understand because they were examples from my world, and not just blabber off fancy words that I "should" or "needed" to learn. I could go on...

    That said, I agree with basically everything you said. I agree that learning things "just becuase I said so" or because "you'll need to know it for the future" was crap, and still is. I agree that making real and tangible connections to the students' worlds is what will make them remember being in the classroom and the teacher that made it happen. Even the quadratic formula, which is awesome to the tune of Jingle Bells, I haven't used since I graduated high school. I was lucky enough to learn more about life, myself, relationships, etc. than anything else. THAT'S the important stuff. Just like you, I had teachers that taught me to never be the way they were, to never speak to people the way they did, or even to attend another class without thoroughly surveying at least 100 of the professor's former students!

    I miss school and the teachers that make me nostalgic for an "education." I have met several teachers/educators in the last year that have blown my mind with their creativity, what they're willing to do for themselves and their students, and what they're currently executing in their own classrooms. That makes the most nostalgic.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Lisa. I really enjoyed them :)

  14. This is a pointless chain of comments posted.

  15. You all have no lives.Except for the original person who posted this topic.