Focus on Learning Series: Real World Learning

This article was originally posted on the Connected Consulting blog by Drew McConnell.

I had just conducted a training to help university English majors learn to use Camtasia. Camtasia is a screen capture and video editing program these students were using to create digital stories, a method of storytelling using visual images and audio narration. As I typically do, I had the professor bring his students to the computer lab. I then facilitated as each student created their own video.

This was the learning process.

After the session, the students left but the professor hung back to speak with me. He appeared excited and began to thank me for the training. He said: “I’ve never had anybody train one of my classes by actually having them use Camtasia. They seem to have learned a lot and really enjoyed the training.” I was dumbstruck. How can anybody expect to learn to edit video without editing video? For that matter, how can we expect people to learn any skill without having them do said skill? This seems like a no-brainer for tech training, but too often we fail to take this stance with learning other types of skills.

I have known many college students who spent summers working internships related to their major. Without fail, every one comes back proclaiming “I learned more from my internship than I have from my classes.” We need to recognize this for what it really is: a giant sign for educators at all levels. It reads:

People learn by doing!

Everybody wants to fix education, but nobody agrees on how to do it. Perhaps the answer is right under our noses. Students claim they learn more from internships than from classes. Many university programs even require students to complete internships before graduating. Why do they do this? Because they know the value of real world experience. So this begs the question: if we recognize the value of real world experience, why do our classrooms not look more like the real world?

In the real world, employers do not begin by teaching facts, then understanding concepts, then applying. That’s called micro-managing and nobody likes it. In school, we call that teaching. We begin with vocabulary, and then we move onto using the words in sentences, and then expect students to use the words in normal conversation. Or we start with solving meaningless equations and then expect students to magically be able to calculate how long it will take them to drive 200 miles to grandma’s house this weekend. And we wonder why our students are bored? In the workplace, employers give their employees a job to do and say “go.” And guess what? The employees do. They complete the task and they learn in the process.

As educators we often perceive our students as lost sheep who cannot do anything without our guidance. This is simply not the case. Our students, whether kindergarteners or doctoral candidates, are capable, curious people who simply need us get out of their way. They need us to design an environment that motivates them to grow, explore, collaborate, and most importantly, fail. They need challenges and real-world problems to solve (and I’m not talking about word problems on a worksheet). Think about what real-world skills you want your students to learn, and then put them in a real world situation. It will be difficult. They will struggle. You will be tempted to walk them through every step of the process. But if you allow them to explore and discover instead of listen and consume, they will learn more than you could ever design.

Dr. Billie McConnell and Drew McConnell of Connected Consulting are experienced Vision & Learning Facilitators and Atomic Learning collaborative partners. Looking to make a shift in your district? Check out this free workbook that helps pinpoint areas for consideration and further development.

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