Yesterday I listened to a podcast from a group of Swedish teachers that were talking about the importance of connecting what happens in the classroom to reality. One of the points they mentioned was how most people in school were asked to write exams and papers that then immediately after grading would end up in the trashcan. One of the teachers mentioned how school is the only place in society where, when you write something, it doesn’t go anywhere; it has no recipients and thus not purpose outside the exercises involved in the process of schooling. So to remediate this problem, the teachers focused on establishing more coherence between school and reality as well as making sure that something happened with the children’s work after completion, such as for example publishing their work online for peer review or having them give speeches in front of their classmates and parents.
Most of us can probably relate to this experience growing up, of school being detached from reality and thus boring and irrelevant. The point that I would like to make here is that if we were to teach children to connect the context in which the material comes from with their learning processes, it would provide them with a connection to reality, an answer to the question: “why do I have to do this?” and as such a greater sense of purpose could be established along with a genuine understanding of the importance of learning.
Growing up I was never very good at math and I remember searching for that connection to reality that could ‘ground’ the subject within me rather than leaving it abstract and ‘hanging in the air’ at a theoretical level. And here I am not talking about using apples and trains as examples, but to for instance show and explain to students why and how math is important for our reality. It wasn’t until high school for example that I was introduced to the history of math, which I found immensely fascinating. Math is such a practical subject that it makes no sense to detach it from reality. From measuring square feet to understanding the Fibonacci spiral and quantum physics, math is essence about understanding the structures of the real world that we live in. And I am sure that if I had been able to work practically with math in a meaningful way, I would have learned a lot more and a lot easier, let alone having possibly been able to develop a passion for learning math.
I remember how we in the 2. Grade had a project about the Bronze Age, built model clay huts to replicate the kind of homes that people would have lived in in back then. It was fascinating and highly educational to get to actually work with materials at a practical level rather than learning the same information through theoretical information. I am using this example because it made a lasting impression on me as being one of the times where I really learned as a child in a substantial, direct and most of all: an enjoyable way. The information stuck to me. When learning is enjoyable it is like the information pours straight into us, in fact we cannot get enough of it because we immerse ourselves into the subjects with a genuine passion and interest.
However – instead of focusing on and promoting the joy of learning, the school system presents students with a detached, distilled and superficial version of reality that they have to memorize. When students sit on their chairs, day in day out, hour after hour expected to passively integrate information for which they have no context for, the information does not ‘pour’ into them. Instead it feels like trying to chisel information into a hard rock and the more time goes by, the more difficult it gets to force and shove information in there.
And as if we were not laying enough odds against students actually learning, schools place the emphasis on learning on the end result, the exam, at least in the later years of education. As a teacher I very rarely hear students speak about their education, their subjects or what they actually learn. Instead they speak about the tests they have taken or the exams that are coming up and more than not, it is with expressions of either petrification or sheer boredom and defiance in their eyes. They do not express any form of understanding of the connection between evaluating what they have learned and doing the exams. Instead they experience the exams as a test of them and their worth and value as students and human beings in general. They view exams as gateways to succeeding in the future and this then becomes their entire outlook on education, from primary school to university, always looking ahead, having to complete one level to get to the next. But when does it ever stop? When we leave the education system this way of thinking continues into a adulthood, even when it comes to our private and personal lives – obviously because it has been so totally ingrained into us during those grueling years of going to school.
The other day I spoke to a 15 year old who attends a private school. She explained to me how she looks forward to start in high school because there she will only have 9 subjects as opposed to the 18 she has now. Imagine being 15 years old having to tackle 18 subjects on a weekly basis along with exams and extra curricular activities. When is there ever time to immerse oneself in the subjects or information? When is there ever time to contextualize what one is learning and integrate it into oneself at an independent level? Most of us can’t even remember half of what we learned in school, because what we were taught – through the way we were taught – is that school isn’t really about learning and getting to know the world in depth and detail; it’s about making it through, getting the grades and moving on.
Recently, my partner who studies law were telling me how he had noticed that many of his classmates know very little about how society actually works. You would think that law students, if any, would be the ones to understand how society works. That is quite alarming considering that these people will become the future lawmakers of this world. So at school you might get really good at studying and passing exams, but when do you actually learn something substantial that will benefit your life on all levels as well as make you a truly beneficial member of society as a whole? During our time in school there is only so much we can learn and in a time with both economic and climate crises, you would think that equipping students with substantial knowledge that can be used to come up with real life solutions would be prioritized. Instead it appears as though everyone, including lawmakers are caught in the treadmill of the ‘human race’ for survival to such an extent that we don’t realize that we’re destroying ourselves in the process – which is quite an absurdity in itself.
When education is disconnected from reality, reality suffers. And so again we can look at what is happening in reality and we can trace that back to the education that we have received and we can measure whether that education has been effective. Through this it is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that our current education is not effective – and doing more of the same simply isn’t going to make it better.
What I can do as a teacher is to take responsibility and make sure that I create a greater cohesion between the classroom and reality. I can take the children serious and listen to them and be genuine in my interaction with them. I can assist and support them to see the value of what they are doing and show them how what they are learning has a connection to reality. One of the ways I do this for example is through letting the students decide what topics and themes to focus on. Another way would be to, in math for example, take students out and build stuff or in the older classes teach them how to make budgets. But in the end, this is not going to be enough – because the disconnection is happening on all levels of the education system and in society in general. So what can be seen here is that we can also trace what is happening within the education system back to who we are as society, because obviously we teach what we know and we prioritize to teach that which we give the most value. So the connection is not only happening in the classroom. It is in fact ourselves as human beings that are disconnected from reality – and that is what we are teaching our children to do. And in the end, we can only disconnect ourselves so much from reality, because that is our basis for existing, that is who we are. I am committed to bring reality back to the education system and to bring the education system back to reality – and to create a meaningful and genuine space for learning where students can immerse themselves in subjects they are passionate about and through the guidance of skilled and educated adults can be supported and assisted to develop passion for understanding the world around and within them. That is the kind of student we require if we are to clean up the mess we’ve made in this world. A student that understands reality and their own relationship to it. A student that lives in reality and not in a theoretical head space of abstraction.
Join the Equal Life Foundation’s goal towards establishing a Guaranteed Living Income system, the first political and economic proposal in the world where education takes a front seat and where the principles of sustainability and equality guides the economic system for a world that is not only better, but Best for All in fact.