College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

Worlds Collide

By Ronald A. Wolk — December 21, 2005 3 min read
True learning happens only when schooling and the "real world" collide.

In preparation for a recent meeting, I had to read half a dozen documents. Among them was a copy of Lauren Resnick’s brilliant presidential address to the American Educational Research Association in 1987. Titled “Learning In School and Out,” it focuses on what I view as perhaps the central issue in education: the gap between the real world and the world of school.

Resnick, now a distinguished researcher and education reformer who heads the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, offers a clear premise in her opening sentence. “Popular wisdom,” she writes, “holds that common sense outweighs school learning for getting along in the world—that there exists a practical intelligence, different from school intelligence, that matters more in real life.”

In the late 1980s, research was beginning to provide a basis for making this distinction, and in her address, Resnick explores four major differences between the two types of education: “Schooling focuses on the individual’s performance, whereas out-of-school mental work is often socially shared. Schooling aims to foster unaided thought, whereas mental work outside school usually involves cognitive tools. School cultivates symbolic thinking, whereas mental activity outside school engages directly with objects and situations. Finally, schooling aims to teach general skills and knowledge, whereas situation-specific competencies dominate outside.”

Resnick’s paper is rich in detail and anecdotes that can barely be alluded to in this brief space. But one “elegant example” of real-world learning is worth mentioning.

Piloting a U.S. Navy ship into San Diego harbor requires the skills of six people with three different job descriptions stationed in various locations on board. The six are in continuous communication and work as a team. The expertise is distributed among them throughout the process; no one person can pilot the ship alone. Moreover, Resnick notes, important elements of this expertise are built into the navigational tools the team members must use. They engage with real objects, not symbols, and the competencies they call on are linked to the situation they are in.

Too many children fail in school because they can’t connect what they’ve learned to the world in which they live.

In schools, kids generally work alone and without tools, especially when being tested. Schools place value on pure thought activities. These mental exercises often involve symbol manipulation, in contrast to the objects and events used elsewhere. “Out of school, because they are continuously engaged with objects and situations that make sense to them,” Resnick states, “people do not fall into the trap of forgetting what their calculation or their reasoning is about.”

Schools seek to teach general, widely used skills and theoretical principles. The rationale is that students will be able to apply this knowledge to a variety of real-life situations in the future. The vast majority of us, I’d wager, discover when we leave school (including college) that the skills and theories we take with us are rarely useful in our working and daily lives. To be truly prepared, Resnick says, “people must develop situation-specific forms of competence.”

Resnick fears that schooling is becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of what we do. If so, it’s also likely that it will become increasingly irrelevant. Schools certainly shouldn’t abandon their academic mission, but their lessons should relate to real objects, events, and experiences. Too many children fail in school because they can’t connect what they’ve learned to the world in which they live. When they drop out, or squeak through, they are as ill-prepared for that real world as they were for the world of schooling.

Schools need to refocus their efforts to reflect the lessons of the outside world and to help create what Resnick calls “adaptive learners”—people who “can perform effectively when situations are unpredictable and task demands change.” Adaptive learners are not likely to be developed in an isolated academic cocoon.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as Worlds Collide


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