Monday, September 15, 2014

Learning Happens When it's Relevant and Relatable: the Case for Learning in the Real World

Learning happens best when it feels relevant to the learner, and when it relates to their own interests and life.

This is no secret, and is well recognized in the wider education world. On the popular education blog MindShift, there are articles talking about how to connect school learning to a bigger purpose in an attempt to make students actually care about it, and in a list of ways to "motivate" students on the same blog "connect abstract learning to concrete situations" is number four.

As much as I try to care about some abstract collection of knowledge or skills, if I can't see the relevance in my own life, or how it relates to the things I find interesting and important, I just can't make myself focus enough to truly learn it. 

This is true of almost everyone, and is the reason so many people remember so little of what they supposedly learned in school. Once the test is over, the knowledge, if it doesn't feel relevant to the learner, will be forgotten quickly.

Though many educators might disagree about just how much knowledge is lost, as the above MindShift articles show, they know that learning works best when it feels relevant to the student, which is why attempts to increase relevance are regularly made by progressive educators. However, what strikes me about many of those attempts is just how artificial they feel. It's a desperate attempt to relate the material being taught to students' lives, in much the way that a lot of material is dressed up in bright colours and "fun" games in the lower grades. I doubt either the supposed fun or attempted relevance fools many students, because ultimately much of what's on your normal school curriculum won't be used in your life and isn't important to your community, and most of the work you do or the content you create doesn't have any real impact or wider audience than a single teacher or possibly a whole class. It's not real work, it's just busywork, which is about as far from relevant as you can get.

Stuck in a very narrow mindset that sees schools (in roughly the form they currently exist in) as the only option, most approaches don't truly seek to re-imagine what education can look like and be. Even the data educators are working off of is based on such a narrow segment of humans, that of children in a very rigid and coercive school environment, that it's not necessarily an accurate sampling of children. As Carol Black, director of the film Schooling the World,  has said, "collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World."

When a teacher is coming from a place that sees compulsory schooling as a given, attempts at bringing the real world into the classroom too often look like pale copies of the real thing--learning about wildlife from books instead of the wild, and solving problems for a test, not to fill a real need in your community.

Some initiatives in some schools do actually make a difference in students' lives, and do manage to bring some learning and work that really matters into schools. I don't want to erase or downplay the ones that get it right.

However, as far as I'm concerned, school can never do as good a job at teaching children about the real world (complete with real world problems and diversity and work), as participating in the real world itself.

It seems somewhat ironic that one of the biggest criticisms school free learners face is that they're somehow avoiding the "real world," when in reality life learners are embedded in it.

Everything we do has meaning in our lives. I've never written a book report or an essay because I was required to do so, I've only ever written for an actual audience, or because I was driven by inspiration. I've only ever taken classes I chose to or agreed to participate in. I've only ever learned about things I felt a real need to learn about, whether that was because of a personal interest or because that learning was needed to further a goal. Every part of my education has been driven by real need, real interest, and actual relevance in my life.

Contrary to what some believe, that doesn't mean I've never done anything hard, or that I've never had to deal with difficult people or situations. Living in the real world, you encounter a whole lot of different people and situations, some more pleasant than others, and you're confronted with a range of problems and difficulties. Far from sheltering children from anything challenging or hard, learning through living means learning (with the help of supportive adult figures) how to navigate difficult situations, handle unpleasant people, and make the choices that are best for you and those around you.

Life learning is all about authenticity, because nothing is constructed or designed in an attempt at engineering specific outcomes or learning. Instead, everything is an experience to be learned from, and at the same time, everything is just living. The world ceases to be broken down into what's educational or not, what can be learned from and what can't. Unschoolers seek to recognize that learning is always happening, no engineering needed, and instead just seek to build rich lives, full of resources and fun, interesting people and activities, and trust that that's all you need for equally rich learning to occur.

When you structure your life in such an open way, with an outlook that's so receptive to whatever learning might occur, you create situations where everything feels relevant to the learner, and where everything that's done is done for a reason, whether that reason is fun, fascination, getting into a program you really want to be in, or helping out a friend.

To me, that's what the real world looks like, not the artificial constraints of a school building, school timeline, and school curriculum.

Unschooling is learning in the real world. Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way.

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