It’s super common for teachers to refer to the “real world.” There are usually two contexts:
- Warning students about life: ie “In the ‘real world‘ you can’t do that!”
- Looking for authentic problems: “What’s a ‘real world’ use for fraction division?”
1. We Don’t Know Their Real World
This one’s brief: never threaten students about a future “real world.” This implies that their current world is not “real,” which is pretty demeaning. Whether they’re in 3rd, 5th, or 11th grade, students’ worlds are just as real as anyone else’s.
Plus, we have no idea what future “real world” awaits our students. The only certainty is that it won’t be anything like our own adult experiences. I mean, you do know that people today can already make a good living creating YouTube videos, right? That’s already the real world. Who knows what opportunities will exist in ten years.
(Finally, I bet there are many, many adults who say that teachers don’t know what the “real world” is like, and you wouldn’t agree with that, right? It’s pretty insulting to have someone tell you that you don’t exist in the real world.)
2. Real World ≠ Engaging
The other use of “real world” is trying to find realistic applications of learning. But when we search for “real world” problems, we’re assuming that these are somehow better problems.
But they’re not.
Would you rather work through Sudoko or do your taxes? Read a contract or read Harry Potter? Play a card game or figure out your cell phone bill? Many “real world” tasks are the worst! We pay others to do them for us so we can enjoy non-real-world activities.
Go for “interesting” not “real world.”
When I put a Word Ladder on the board, kids didn’t complain that it’s not “real world.” They dove in because they found it engaging.
When we tried to figure out what The Little Prince would think about about Claudia, from The Mixed Up Files, it was fun because it was so far from the “real world.”
When I present this question in a workshop, everyone murmurs in delight, even though it’s ridiculously fantastic:
How big of a lawn would you need so that when you finished mowing you’d have to start over because the grass has grown?
Likewise, this prompt always gets a reaction, not because it’s realistic, but because it’s so darn interesting:
How long would it take to drink an Olympic-sized pool with a straw?
Are any of these “real world”? Nope. But they’re highly engaging because they’re interesting and out brains simply love figuring interesting problems out.
Dan Meyer calls this Real World vs Real Work. Is the work interesting? Then it doesn’t matter how real-world it is.
So don’t be tricked when students ask “when will I ever use this?” They’re really begging for something engaging, not a strained real-world example.
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