The Real World – A Meta-Letter to My Pupils

Picture this: a classroom inhabited by a class preparing for a “functional skills” English assessment. The students are clear about what was expected of them. They are working with focus and the atmosphere in the room is calm. What these boys are earnestly doing, in this typical room, on pieces of paper and in neat ink, is “writing an email”. Classes like this are happening all over the country and I am not at all calm about it, for inside my head an epiphany, or if not that, a blood clot, is inexorably forming.

Students are asked to perform such meaningless exercises so often in school that it is a total credit to their faith in their teachers and the institution of school that they should willingly submit to such absurdity at all – let alone with the patience, trust and dedication shown by these young men.

Who in their right mind could perform such a task with passion? How many more letters like these, thrown into the landfill, un-read and un-appreciated by their putative recipient will it take before we exhaust the next generation of their will to live? Certainly their teacher will have read each letter and commented on their content and style and fitness for their so-called “purpose”, but in reality, who really cares to make a letter of appeal or persuasion truly appealing or persuasive if it is not ever going to meet the eyes of anyone to whom the writer, personally, wishes to appeal to or persuade. A letter is written for a reason, to effect an outcome or to express an opinion which, at the very least, we hope will add our point to a debate about something that we feel something for. Writing a letter is almost always, particularly in these 134-character-sound-bitten times, an act of passion.

Except for our young in our schools, who write letters simply to show they can write letters. They write meta-letters.

Once it may have been acceptable to drill our pupils in the facts and rituals of our subjects until they were all able to repeat the data in perfect unison. In those days the lives they were being prepared for were pre-determined and unchanging. Now, the student of the present must prepare themselves with skills, knowledge and a disposition to learning and adaptation that will hold them in good stead for a productive future that can barely be imagined.

Don’t think it stops here with the meta-letter. Students write for imaginary newspapers. They speak to imaginary audiences about subjects with which they have no personal affinity. They tell stories no-one will ever hear. They correct their spelling and perfect their rhetoric to convince no-one of anything. Almost everything they do is in order to prepare themselves for a notional future in the real world. In the real world no-one gives you a detention for being late, you either miss out or lose your place. In the real world people know when to talk in a group without having an authority figure directing traffic. In this world respect is mutual and lost when coerced. This world is a place where learning is exciting and knowing something has value and nothing is for free. In this world the way you do something is as important as what you do and your performance is not scaled and norm-referenced. In the real world you are not tested later. The action is the test.

If, like me, you like the ‘real world’, but see no reason that it should end at the classroom door, I’d be very interested to know how you think we might be able to get real inside schools. Here are some nominal categories and my thoughts on how we may be able to authenticate students’ school experiences.

Contexts

An authentic context is a highly motivating factor to anyone performing any form of complex or social task. Some authentic contexts I’ve tried to create are:

  • Writing letters to actual people to ask them to visit the classroom, or to answer a question
  • Writing stories to be read to students in other, often younger, classes with themes that are believed to be of use to them
  • Speaking from experience and demonstrating a skill or talent
  • Writing and presenting for public view, in print, on radio and online
  • Creating promotional materials for events and products that actually exist and will be sold.
  • Evaluating an advertising campaign on the basis of the sales it generates.
  • Making a film and showing it to an audience
  • Writing a submission to a politician and sending it
  • Arguing for a change to a school rule, in person, to the headmaster or board of governors

Relationships

Our relationships with our students must be authentic too. “Because those are the rules” is not enough to justify an admonishment. “Because these are the rules we share” is better. But even better still, how about “That behaviour does not support our success, it interferes with our mission”

Beyond this, if we are to constantly conceal our uniqueness as people behind the persona of ‘teacher’, we are cheating our students of the opportunity to develop a meaningful and appropriate engagement with an adult with whom they have a long-term working relationship. How can they possibly begin to respond to teachers and other adults with sincerity and generosity if they aren’t dealing with an authentic unique human being. We should not be respected ‘because we are teachers’, we should be respected because we deserve respect and because it is warranted. Equally we should be demonstrating this same respect. If we lose our temper or raise our voice, it should be a matter of contrition. We must model humane and self-aware behaviour if we wish to hold hope that we will see these qualities in the students we teach.

If all the students ever have to respond to are tropes, is there any wonder they present to us as zombies? It seems a rational response.

Consequences

This is perhaps the most contentious and gnarly of all the inauthentic tropes of school life. “Actions have consequences” is a very healthy mantra; however, when the sanctions for inappropriate actions become contorted into a protracted exercise in institutional procedure, what actually happens is that the so-called consequences become completely divorced from the actions that triggered them. It is not unusual for a student in detention to be unable to recall what exactly they did to get themselves there in the first place.

Consequences should be natural. Consequences should be connected to the actions that trigger them – and as much as is possible, consequences should be logical. If a student wastes their time in class, I cannot for the life of me understand why their time should be formally wasted for a further 30 minutes in an after school detention where the purpose is to achieve nothing. This seems to be yet another meta-lesson. “We are holding you here doing nothing as a consequence of your doing nothing earlier in order to teach you a lesson”.

I would replace these sanctions with effective responses. Disruption could be responded to with extinction. Acts of destruction with direct reparation. The student should be offered the opportunity to make good. They should be encouraged to use their initiative and supported to restore their good name.

And as a result of all this, we will be dragging our creaking school system inexorably into the real world and our students along with it. Grades, sanctions and tasks will be kept in perspective and the critical faculties of students and teachers alike will be kept razor sharp. Students won’t expect success to be conferred on them by others, they will understand how to develop positive human relationships, they will have a high capacity to solve their own problems and they will leave the school system ready to take on the world.

Are you up for the challenge?

Posted by Christopher Waugh

  1. Very interesting. All weekend I’ve been thinking about how we can connect achievement in school to achievement in the real world. Everything you do in school can bring you closer to the kind of life you want to create for yourself.

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  2. Great piece – though alas, the real world isn’t always quite as authentic and sparkly as you describe. There are many institutions in old Blighty where the kinds of blind adherence to authority and the replication of meaningless tasks is reiterated in the way it appears to be in your school, so in that sense, I suspect schools do prepare little Britons for their adult world. Whether that’s a world that’s worth retaining is quite another story.

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  3. John: it is indeed not a world worth perpetuating, as you rightly imply. You prove your own point by suggesting that the real world isn’t “sparkly and authentic” and expressing dissatisfaction with this observation. Wouldn’t the best approach, then, be reject the status quo?

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  4. Chris: I fully agree that tasks should be infused with meaning, and the satisfaction that can be derived from sending – and receiving a reply to – a real letter is palpable in a classroom. You might recall the lessons where our Y9 humanities students wrote to various levels of government to present their views on bullying and violence in school. Students wrote to the Queen, the Prime Minister, and to various local politicians, and almost without exception received a reply (the ones on Buckingham Palace stationery seemed to become the most coveted). The students who saw the activity through to the end received the natural rewards of having completed the task and receiving a real reply, and in the weeks that followed (as the replies started to filter back to the school) you could sense that (many of) the students who hadn’t completed the activity wished they had.

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  5. Completely agreed, Kyle. My point is that an education system usually reflects the real values of the society, despite its own rhetoric about itself. I fully support Chris’ mission to change the status quo, in schools as well as in life.

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  6. I’m finding I’m happy changing the status quo in my own lessons, reflecting on it, and leaving everyone else in society to their own devices. I don’t think I’m planning to change the world or British society.

    Kyle, what you’re describing is exactly what I’m talking about. I think through these experiences the students also develop a sense of satisfaction in completing a task well in its own right (not every classroom exercise can be given an authentic context – but the classroom itself becomes a relevant and authentic context once the students realise that the things they’re learning have value and application in the world outside of school, I think these things take time, and consistency. I have always been impressed by your grasp of this and the impact you have as a result.

    I was thinking I should add to this article about real feedback. Another aspect of this discussion is that we need to call a spade a spade when responding to student work. If it’s rubbish, we discredit ourselves by talking about it as if it had merit. “Next steps for learning” are only appropriate for people who are operating on the top edge of their capacity.

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  7. Hi Chris, I agree with your comments about connecting the classroom with the real world. One of my most memorable projects at high school was in English: we were encouraged to research from primary sources, including writing letters and doing ‘phone interviews with real people. It was thrilling to get responses and work them into my findings. These sorts of experiences were what made English my favourite subject. I’m also sure they helped my research and lateral thinking when it came time to enter the workforce. Keep up the good work. I am seriously considering retraining as an English teacher!

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  8. Hello Chris,
    First, a warm hello and virtual hug from the States! It seems like a lifetime since our lives briefly overlapped in Wanaka. I hope you are well, and that your passions are thriving.
    Second, it’s not irony in the classic sense, but I have been bugging you for the last three years to have your students read my students’ memoirs and comment from their perspectives from across the Pond. Knowing that they would be writing an American memoir (for their American Lit. course), they have been highly motivated and excited to think that their writings could help shape perceptions and create connections elsewhere in the world (even another English-speaking, first-world nation). Please promise you will do it this school year! E-mail me: snowco@spsd.org

    Cory

    “The happiness of a man in this life does not consist in the absence but in the mastery of his passions.”
    – Alfred Lord Tennyson

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    1. Hello, Mr Snow. I am definitely full of regret for not formally introducing my students to yours via their blogs. This is a situation I shall rectify this year. I also wondered, have you heard of ‘quad-blogging’? It might be exactly the scheme you’re looking for to encourage the engagement of others in the journals of your students. Not that this should replace the input from my boys – but it might very well enhance it! Let me know if you’d like to follow up on the idea.
      Chris

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  9. […] line with my determination to make my students’ learning meaningful – and my teaching more interesting and effective, I’ve been experimenting with a […]

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