I hear a lot of critics say that school doesn’t prepare the young ones for the real world. We learn so much about the arts, English, linguistics, calculus, physics…so many things that are important in the academics, but seem so useless in a corporate office setting. Take physics for example – most of what I learned in the lecture halls were difficult and downright painful, and after putting in so much effort into studying how to calculate relative voltage, I don’t remember any of the formulas nor do I need to use it. Or what about calculus? Derivative after derivative, integral after integral, one variable after another…seriously, I’m just manipulating equations with X, Y, and Z on a piece of paper. What relevance is there in terms of my own life?
Many of these concerns are quite valid, but only when it comes to certain perspective. I think sometimes we are too premature in bashing something without a bit of context as to why we are bashing it. I’ve been working for a number of years now, and through experience, one thing that naturally happens is recalling what I learned in the past due to some recent experience I just had. And usually the recollection comes in a way that I would not have expected. Take the physics example that I mentioned earlier. The professor told us that voltage is relative. You can’t measure voltage at a single point, it has to be measured relative to another point in order for it to be possible, and also have any sort of significant scientific meaning. The key word here is relative. Things in our life having depth and meaning, but its relative. For example, owning a home is sometimes seen as achieving success and a certain level of maturity. But that’s relative to the audience and perception of what it means to own a home. Relative to an opposite perspective, it can be considered a horrible move. By owning a home, you have committed yourself to paying back a loan with lots of interest (unless you paid all cash), property taxes, insurance, landscaping, and you also got to fix everything yourself. You don’t worry about this when renting, so why even go that route? If I have confused you, re-read what I wrote again. The connection is meant to be very subtle.
Since having many of these moments, it became clear to me that while it can be fair to say that school doesn’t prepare us for the real world, you can’t really blame the school system. There is one piece missing that schools can’t easily provide: real world context via personal experience. Some classes do try to accomplish this. Take math for example, a typical Algebra course. You spend so much time solving for X, Y, and Z, then usually a few word problems come at end, where now the same problem is given to you but in the context of apples and oranges because that’s what we eat. But it still doesn’t work. We don’t care about apples and oranges, and the only reason we make any effort to solve the problem is because we want to pass a class. And passing the class is dependent on the grade we get. The grade we get is dependent on how well we solve these math problems. So for the student, the context of X, Y, and Z is really around passing a class and getting the verbal or written acknowledgment from our teacher. It has nothing to do with a desire of actually solving for X, Y, and Z.
The question is not whether or not a class is relevant for life, the real question to ask is, how do I find a way to connect the material in this class to something in my life? Some courses are much more obvious from the get go and can easily prove it’s usefulness. Take auto-mechanics for example. It’s typical for teenagers to be driving a car at the age of 16, which is also a typical age for when a student might take this class. When driving a car, you now have the responsibility of maintaining it. Even after learning how to fix a car in class, you still may not fix your own car. But that’s OK, because through your experience from fixing cars in class, you are now likely more aware of when you come across a good or bad mechanic. Regardless of how you use the skills from a auto-mechanics class, it’s useful regardless because it has immediate contextual meaning in your life.
But what about writing a paper? I remember in a typical writing course, you had to write a paper by first stating a point, then providing useful and relevant facts to support your point, i.e. an argumentative essay. In class, the range of topics were usually selected, so you had no choice but to pick something from that irrelevant list (relative to your life) and then find some facts to prove why you chose such a position. The problem is the position you chose doesn’t have any real contextual meaning for you. You picked something for the sake of picking it. If you didn’t, you would guarantee yourself repeating the course. The teacher usually would try to justify this essay by saying sometime in the future you’ll need to write a letter or proposal to convince someone of a point you want to make. That’s all fine and dandy for the future, but I’m living in the present, not in the future. Plus, I have no idea what I would be asked to do in the future when it comes to this type of work, so that means I don’t have any clue as to how to apply what I’m learning right now. I will be writing this kind of essay for a few more years into high school and then many more years in college before it has any contextual meaning in my life, outside of making the grades and passing the classes. So in class, students more or less go through the motions of the essay for the sake of a grade, not so much that it actually has any significant personal meaning for them.
Also, the relevance of class, in terms of real context, for a person will depend on each individual. For example, solving for X, when you know Y and Z, has real significant meaning in my life in terms of real estate. Solving for X when Y and Z are given – one way to look at this is you have control over some things, and not over other things. Y and Z are here to stay, and ultimately it affects what X will be, but the part you have control over is how to get to X. Here’s another extended way to look at this to take it a bit further: if I desire X to be a certain value, can I manipulate Y and Z in any way to obtain the value of X that I desire? In other words, lets flip it around. Now you know X, so how can I solve for Y and Z? Working backwards is just as important as working forward, if not more important. For example, my calculations for real estate is nothing more than an algebraic equation to solve. I desire a particular ROI, which is nothing more than a variable with a fixed number or a range or numbers. And there other factors that control the ROI: interest rates, rent values, fair market value of homes, property tax rates, vacancy rates, and insurance. Think of each of these as a separate distinct variable – A, B, C, or X, Y, Z. I am trying to solve for other variables when I am certain of what I want one variable to be. When I buy an investment property, I know what the ROI needs to be. The ROI is influenced by other the other variables I mentioned above. So to satisfy my ROI, I have to find homes with variable values that satisfy my ROI requirement. Do you follow me so far? If you do, then you can understand how algebra influences my decisions. If not, read it again, it’s not hard.
At work, when trying to convince a client, whether in a meeting, email, or in some kind of written proposal, I have a clever solution that I want to present and I need to back it up with reasons as to why. This is the thought process of an argumentative essay. The difference now is I have a personal vested interest in the essay. This time I chose the topic to defend, not a teacher. It now has real context meaning for me. And that has been my point throughout this post. The things we learn in school have use in the real world, the problem ultimately lies in getting students to make that connection to their own personal lives. Unfortunately, it’s not the school’s fault. They can only go so far when trying to give students the experience of real world problems. I am not saying it’s impossible, but I do think it’s hard. In order to help students draw that connection, a teacher would need to pay attention to the individual context of each student’s life. Given all the responsibility they have, it’s nearly impossible to do this for every student.
I could go on and on with many more examples. Such as, linguistics plays a bigger role in life than many may actually believe. But my major point is, lets not blame the school system. The fact is that they are giving us the tools to help us in life, but without the real life connections to those tools, it’s very hard to make it work. Its easy to bash the school system when we can’t find any immediate use for what is taught in the class room. Let’s make a concentrated effort to look at this in a different light.