Because “Real World”

I’m tired of arguments against a particular practice in education, using the logic that “this would never happen in the ‘real world’, so why are we doing it in classrooms?”. Classrooms, and learning environments more generally, should not be designed to imitate the activities students will do in the real world. They should be designed for learning.

I try to teach my students that the goal of math class is learning, not performing. I caution against focusing on right answers at the expense of what can be learned from a problem or series of problems. In the real world, it is the quality of the work produced — the performance — that matters. In an environment designed for learning, the performance is far less important and can distract from learning.

Research in cognitive science has explored “desirable difficulties” — situations where performance is worse in the moment, but the cognitive demands and deeper processing as a result of those difficulties actually optimize learning. This research suggests that optimizing learning environments for performance in the moment can actually detract from learning, and points to only one of many examples where improving learning can actually be counter-intuitive.

A focus on performance can be more insidious. Anyone who has witnessed teachers taking problems from department- or school-wide assessments and giving them to students the day before a test with a few numbers changed can attest to this. The goal of the workplace is to produce high-quality work, but in that instance, a focus on producing high quality work degrades learning.

I don’t mean to say that education can learn nothing from the workplace. I just mean to say that, as arguments, “students will never experience [x thing] in a job, therefore schools shouldn’t do [x thing]” or “in the workplace, [x thing] happens, therefore schools should do [x thing]” seem to me insufficient to guide teaching and learning.

6 thoughts on “Because “Real World”

  1. kesheck

    Someone smarter than me wrote, practice doesn’t look like the game. Classrooms are the practice field; what students do in the classroom shouldn’t look like people at work in the office.

  2. Benjamin Leis

    This just begs the larger question. Most of the math that is being practiced and learned will never be used by students in the workplace. We have to refer to something other than the real world or future workplace to justify the curriculum.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Yup. I really like the way that NCTM frames it in their document Catalyzing Change — that we need to frame math as having multiple purposes, to expand professional opportunities, to understand and critique the world, and to experience wonder, joy, and beauty.

  3. mrdardy


    The other terrible side of this is when we do something we are sure is not best – like high high stakes cumulative finals – but we figure that they need to get used to it now so we impose this on our learners. The best preparation we can provide for our students is to help them be better learners.

    I appreciate you airing these concerns so eloquently.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Yea. And I find those arguments are often just substitutes for “I don’t want to deal with changing the status quo”. It’s a hollow defense but many people would rather avoid conflict and follow the beaten path than push for change.


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