I hear the word “authentic” a lot lately, usually in the context of the learning experience. The way the word is applied to learning seems to be in order to make a point that the “real world” is the ultimate classroom. Usually, such a point is followed by another that uses the words “factory-model learning” in reference to a public school classroom. In other words “authentic” simply seems to be another word added to a growing stack of words and talking points trying to invalidate both the classroom model and public schools as a whole.
Frankly, I think this, as a talking point, has been so overused that it’s worn out and is almost a cliché. There’s some validity to the argument, of course, but it seems that those who employ it are more interested in making noise than anything else. I don’t think any classroom teacher will deny that learning can take place outside of a classroom, and I don’t know any classroom teacher who thinks that he or she has a monopoly on learning. If anything, I know many teachers who enjoy it when their students bring new things to the table and are frustrated that more of their students don’t realize that learning does not happen in a vacuum. In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made for more learning happening outside of a classroom than inside of it. What I question is why the pendulum has swung all the way to where a classroom is not “authentic.”
When I was in school–and yes, I know that sounds very, “Hey, kids, get off my lawn!”–I heard teachers use the word “microcosm” quite a bit. Now, it was often used in the tired old context of “School is your job!”, but I did start to wonder lately if the idea of school as a microcosm for the world still held any weight. I know the world has changed quite a bit since I walked the halls of my alma mater (go Flashes!) but now that I have experience in the working world–both in and out of public education–I see how some of the rules and tenets I grew up with still apply.
So, since lists are fun, here are five (with the disclaimer that I teach high school, so while you might be able to apply some of this to elementary/middle school, I in no way believe that one size fits all) …
1. Attendance and tardy policies. Quite a number of schools have different consequences concerning being late to school and/or class. But there are consequences and there should be consequences. I realize that most of the world no longer has a whistle telling people when to get to work and when to go to lunch, but every single job that I’ve ever had has had set hours and some even did have me punching in at a time clock. And if I was ever late, it was a rarity and due to circumstances beyond my control, like a monster backup on the Metro line (the type that half of the office was stuck in as well). There are plenty of times when you wind up calling the office from the train during that backup and letting them know you’ll be late.
But “My alarm clock didn’t go off” or (my favorite) “My mom forgot to wake me up” didn’t hold water then and still doesn’t, or it may work once but you’d be told that you have to plan around that happening again (see also: traffic). Even if you work for yourself, punctuality when meeting clients or customers is of utmost importance because very often they will remember that you were late and not the presentation you thought was important.
2. Cell phone/electronics policy. Uh … okay, no, I don’t really have a real-world equivalent for this, unless you are talking about manners. I am not sure what the etiquette is because it’s been a long time since I was in a meeting at a company, but I’d say that if you were trying to land some business or were in a meeting vital to your company’s bottom line, texting under the table or playing on your iPad might be frowned upon, no matter how tech savvy it seems.
3. Homework and due dates. No matter who you work for, whether you are a cog in a corporate machine or you are an entrepreneur who is an innovator in his field, your work life will probably be dictated by getting quality work done on time, and not half-assing something and asking for a re-do. There are always people to please with whatever you are working on and that often means not only doing it in the time you said you’d do it but getting it right. Homework is a big issue lately and I understand why–b.s. assignments for the sake of having assignments are the classroom equivalent of redundant paperwork (seriously, why do I have to fill out the insurance form EVERY TIME I go to the doctor’s office? You HAVE MY INFO ON FILE, USE IT)–but there are assignments that aren’t b.s. and that really are worthwhile. Managing time to get all of it done and still live your life the way you want to is a skill that really should be learned sooner rather than later in life (and one I admittedly struggle with from time to time).
4. Grades. Well, we get evaluated in our careers all the time. If we’re at a company with a management structure, it’s an annual review; if we own a restaurant, it’s the customers and local food critics. Either way, you are graded in life. There’s even value in having those teachers who seem to grade very breath you take because in business they refer to that as micromanaging and there are TONS of micromanagers out there. On the flip side, there are the laissez-faire managers who never seem to be around (except when you don’t need them, I guess). But in the end, you are being evaluated … or graded. It might not lead to personal happiness, but very often you find that personal happiness and professional happiness don’t always coincide.
“Well, if you’re not professionally happy, maybe you should find another place to work!”, you say? That leads me to my final example …
5. Standardized Testing. You know that in some way there is a point to it, right? That if nothing else it prepares students for jobs where they need to make their numbers. Or it prepares them for work they have to do but don’t want to do (which exists in … oh, 99.9% of workplaces). Even if you are owning your own business that stems from you following your passions and dreams, you still have numbers to make and people to answer to, especially if you want to make a living doing it. So that’s kind of what standardized tests are: what you do to keep the boss happy.
Now if you are in a situation where you are forced to do unsatisfying things you probably should consider looking elsewhere. But going elsewhere isn’t always as easy as walking into the boss’s office and giving your two weeks’ notice, especially if you have someone like me who contributes to a household and is helping to raise a child and needs a paycheck to do that. So before you actually do have that day, you can work to perhaps start changing the culture of your workplace so that it’s not as unbearable a place? And even if that’s possible, then you do what you can to grin and bear it until you are actually out (which is what I did when I was working in legal marketing and had a couple of months before I quit to become a teacher).
In other words, there is usefulness in some of those things we would like to toss out the window because they don’t fit a particular model or they don’t fit in with a particular buzzword. I think that much does need to be changed in the American public school system if it is ever going to survive moving forward, but I’d rather take a good look at the nuts and bolts and find out what is worth keeping before I just throw it away. That’s more authentic than empty rhetoric.