We are all beginning to understand that we live in a world that is incredibly connected, a world where local actions affect global situations and vice versa. Educators are acutely aware that the future is a moving target, made increasingly unpredictable by rapidly changing technologies and unexpected impacts. So why are our classrooms so often an oasis of disconnected, walled-off facts?
The often-voiced, conscious effort to “bring the real world in” highlights the fact that little of what goes on in our schools is connected to the environment beyond our walls. How can we assume that we can prepare students for the future when we choose to disregard the present in education?
In a world that faces problems that will require engineered solution, it is unfortunate that the real world is often most absent in our science and math classrooms. The question “when am I ever going to use this?” is voiced frequently in math classes where rote and routine use of algorithms still takes priority. And the bulk of science instruction in this country still focuses on lecture and the teaching of terminology, technique, and the time-honored answers to the many questions posed by scientists of the past. Math and science have assumed center stage roles in the world beyond the classroom. Sheer numbers have dictated that. A population of 7 billion and growing, climate change made evident by increasing global temperatures and measurably decreasing ice packs and glaciers, and many other statistics make evident the impact our technologies have had on our home. The students who sit in our classrooms will have to face the resulting challenges both locally and globally. It seems that being able to grapple with Big Data might be more important than memorizing the quadratic formula and grappling with geometric proofs, but few young people are exposed to much statistics or even real data in our math classes. There is little mention of nature’s amazing ability to engineer sustainable solutions in most biology courses. Chemistry classes leave out the world of solid materials and our increasing understanding of nanotechnology. And quantum thinking and an understanding of the wave behavior that so much of our communication systems depend on are rarely featured in physics syllabi. Many of these topics are areas where current technological development is happening and they may hold some of the solutions to the complex problems we will face.
Admittedly, many of these topics are advanced, but that has never stopped us before. Calculus, robotics, great literature, unravelling history, mastering music and language are all challenging endeavors. But we include them in our model of pre-university education. We even push students to show evidence of college-level understanding in these areas as early as their sophomore year in high school by virtue of our increasing push to have everyone take AP classes. Why don’t we turn some of those same expectations toward applying what young people learn in school to the world beyond our walls? An AP student will still go to college to become more knowledgeable; they just have a bit of a head start before they arrive. We don’t expect middle and high school students to fully understand or solve the complex problems that the future will hold; but a bit of a head start can’t hurt. The real world should be in your classroom, not beyond the walls. It should be blended into what you teach, fostering application and creating a “need to know”. A better understanding of the future can start with connections to the present. Walls just get in the way of that understanding.
The world beyond the classroom is complicated and ever-evolving, both locally and globally. What we teach will only have meaning if we can begin to equip our students with an awareness of what is beyond those walls. They need to see meaning and relevance in what they learn. And they need to feel empowered to tackle the challenges of the world beyond those walls.
We can’t predict the future but we can help to shape it. It is inside your classroom walls, every day, in every student. We just need to give them a head start.