How Do We Prepare Students for a Real World that Doesn’t Yet Exist? #change11

I’ve previously written about my annoyance with the term “real world.” It really irks me like few things do. Perhaps I’m sensitive to being accused of not living there, despite the fact that each year I try to teach over 200 students how to write more effectively. Given that most work environments value good communication skills, and that most workers with college degrees spend 20% of their time writing, I think my job qualifies as “real world.”

Then why am I resistant to Jan Herrington’s notion of assigning “realistic tasks in academic settings?” (illustrated here on an excellent YouTube video of her matrix.) After all,  I’m currently finishing up a class, Writing for Business, where I’ve assigned a number of tasks (memos, info-graphics, instructional manuals, etc) that fit her Lower Left quadrant.

Here’s my problem: in this rapidly changing world, “realistic tasks” quickly become fantasical (or, even worse, nostaligic.)

A 2009 Fastweb article called “Ten Majors that Didn’t Exist Ten Years Ago” makes a good case that if we focus on the present, we’ll lose the future. Given that most biology textbooks are outdated in two years, and that the hot jobs five years from now might not exist today, does today’s “real world” have value for tomorrow’s life-long learner?

Here are a few things that are more crucial than real-world application (which might be a mere transitory illusion anyway) and should be emphasized as the foundation of any education (not an exhaustive list, just a doodle of sorts):



Big-Picture thinking





Adult psychological development

Emotional Intelligence




Sure, any one of these could be utilized in real-world tasks, applied to a job, and be made to fit a specific major or profession. That’s fine. But, since most people change majors, jobs, careers, and callings, and since we don’t know what the job market will be looking for in the future, I think it makes more sense to focus on these foundational, underlying qualities that can be applied to anything, and that, in my opinion, signify what it means to be educated.

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  1. Practice making ridiculous connections between things, behaviors or unrelated events. Break sequences of cause and effect by inventing new patterns, explaining unlikely outcomes or observing from unfamiliar viewpoints.

    Most of what constitutes the “real world” is formed by social agreements, which are based on models which are constrained by how we imagine they “exist” in the real world. Sure there are limits like gravity but after the invention of the airplane those limits suddenly grew exceptions. Maybe this could be partly taught by asking why the “wrong answer” is wrong and how the world would look if, in fact, it was the right answer?

    • Andrew Neuendorf

       /  December 16, 2011


      You wrote:

      “Most of what constitutes the “real world” is formed by social agreements, which are based on models which are constrained by how we imagine they “exist” in the real world.”

      Couldn’t agree more (except for undeniable empirical and scientific data, as you mention later in referencing gravity) and this makes me think of behavioral economics which attempt to show how we really make decisions (irrationally, it seems) as opposed to the expected outcomes reached by rationality and algorithms.

      “Maybe this could be partly taught by asking why the “wrong answer” is wrong and how the world would look if, in fact, it was the right answer.”

      That’s sounds awesome. I hope to try that. Any examples of once-wrong answers later proven true? Thanks for the comments!

  2. Can think of political miss-steps like Weapons of Mass Destruction, the Vietnam War, recent mortgage disaster but those also complex social disasters based on mass delusion and not simply wrong. Based on hindsight, all past decisions appear pretty foolish. Adding in evidence from large scale historical outcomes doesn’t teach much about thinking as a tool right then to apply to things at the scale we can all relate to.

    Twisting things a bit seems more productive. I used to ask my apprentices why we didn’t just run the furnace we installed backwards by reversing the fan. After all, since our problem was cold air in the house, sucking it back through the ducts and shooting it outside through a connection to the chimney would leave nothing but the warm air (what we wanted) in the house–and save burning gas to make heat. The first reaction of it being a silly idea had to be countered with a request for an explanation or it would just be and absurd notion without need of thought or answers. Once the imaginative situation is established the students can deconstruct it with principals they have learned or continue the warped thinking process to turn the whole model world they are creating upside down.

    My take on this is it permissions the students to construct their own ideas and probe away at absolutes. They also get a picture of wrongness as malleable rather being a fixed limit they are not “qualified” to question.

    Have had people call this technique relativist junk or disrespectful of methods of proper reasoning. Is learning a process of only confirming the thoughts and conclusions of others? That seems to me to be mostly what school does at present.

    Part of my job is to research programs that don’t yet exist (the rests it editing and course assembly). I’m directed to be 5 years out and to find things we can do, not just build imaginary worlds. It isn’t futurology or some secret skill, though I seem to be the only one on staff that can do it. I ask questions about things that don’t quite exist and it’s hard to explain the process to adults.

    Thanks Andrew, I like your list. Found a “21st century skills” list that was so specific there was no room for dealing with the unknown. I figure anything that would have gotten me fired in the 70’s and 80′ is definitely right for the list.


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