Making learning more real

Learning doesn’t have to feel separated from real life. How are Remake Learning members making learning more real for young people?

Learning is a lifelong, lifewide pursuit. The education we experience in our youth (both formal schooling and informal or out-of-school learning) lays the foundation, but the years we spend learning as adults in the “real world” are just as powerful shapers of our individual and collective thriving.

It’s in the real world that we apply our knowledge, skills, and dispositions to solving problems, navigating challenges, and creating value—both for ourselves and others. The stakes of learning in the real world feel higher, because we’re learning for a purpose. The satisfaction of learning in the real world comes from discovering our own potential. Learning in the real world feels more meaningful as the lines between learning, teaching, and doing blur.

This form of learning— the kind we experience every day as adults— was first put into a conceptual framework in the middle of the 20th century by Malcolm Knowles, a practitioner and theorist of adult education. Knowles saw potential in shifting the perspective on education from “educating people” to “helping them to learn.” In his writings, Knowles identified five characteristics of adult learners that learning experiences should be designed around:

  1. Self-Concept, or the self-directedness of the learner
  2. Experience, or the importance of learning first-hand
  3. Readiness, or the relevance of what is being learned
  4. Orientation, or the application of learning to the task-at-hand
  5. Motivation, or the internal drivers of learning

While Knowles’ work focused on how adults learn, and was indeed developed to intentionally contrast adults and young people, educators working with young people before and since Knowles’ work have created remarkable learning experiences by recognizing and building on these very characteristics.

Approaches to what might be called “real-world learning” encompass both familiar learning experiences like job shadowing and internships, as well as newer approaches to project-based learning that task students with solving real-world challenges. As part of the broader conversation about the future of work, many real-world learning experiences attempts to weave student interests, academic requirements, and workforce readiness together. Growing attention to social-emotional development and whole-child learning has put further emphasis on learning experiences that help young people build interpersonal and decision-making skills. In the context of global and local challenges, real-world learning creates opportunities for young people to take a leading role in building a just and sustainable future.

For Remake Learning, real-world learning aligns closely to each aspect of our mission “to ignite more engaging, relevant, and equitable learning practices.” Quality real-world learning experiences are inherently engaging, as they put students in the thick of things. Real-world learning experiences are relevant when they are connected to students’ personal and career aspirations, or issues and opportunities in their community. And when real-world learning experiences are designed for and by students who have been impacted by social and economic barriers to opportunity, they are equitable.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring what real-world learning means for young people in the Pittsburgh region.

Engaging Learners with the Real World

Many approaches to real-world learning involve students in active, participatory, hands-on learning where they can apply what they’ve learned (and learn by doing). Project- and challenge-based approaches abound and are time-tested across a variety of learning contexts. The key is often the authenticity of the experience.
Nothing is more authentic than the real thing, and for students studying science, it doesn’t get more real than the Hillman Academy. This summer mentorship program immerses high school students in a real research environment where they work side-by-side in the lab with world-renowned scientists. Participating students delve deeply into the scientific content, gain hands-on experience with practical skills, and grow through one-on-one mentorship. Plus, student stipends make it even more like a real-world job experience.

Another model growing in popularity is the pairing of student teams with local partner organizations. The local partner, often a business or nonprofit, brings a real problem they are trying to solve. The student team brings their knowledge, skill, perspective, and energy to designing and implementing innovative solutions. We’ll take a look at one such program, Student Powered Solutions, to see how teams of students from local schools are teaming up with a local company to tackle the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Real-World Relevance

All educators work to cultivate student interest and connect it to what they are trying to teach. Some real-world learning approaches use entrepreneurialism as a way to tie student interests to relevant learning that helps them build the skills and experience they will need to turn their passion into a profession.

Startable Pittsburgh guides high school students through design, development, production, and launch of their own businesses. From the hard technical skills needed to engineer and manufacture products, to the soft essential skills needed to build partnerships and a client base, students find out what it takes to be a founder.

Along similar lines, EdCorps Pittsburgh, a program of Real World Scholars, works with schools to turn classrooms into student-run businesses.

Towards Equitable Opportunity

Perhaps the most promising aspect of real-world learning approaches is the potential to expand on-ramps to career pathways for students who have been marginalized or face systemic barriers. Pittsburgh has one of the least diverse workforces in comparison to similar cities. In order to make the most of the opportunities the future of work will bring, real-world learning experiences need to be equitable by design.

Nothing works like work. First jobs aren’t just a foot in the door, they’re a foundational experience that can set young people on a rewarding path of lifelong learning. Learn & Earn is a summer youth employment program that matches young people with job opportunities that appeal to their interests, help them build practical skills, and equip them with real experience they can leverage into future opportunity.

The business community has a role to play, as their participation in real-world learning experiences can broaden and diversify the employment pipeline. We’ll share the example of Nazareth Prep’s internship program that has helped low-income students of color find their calling in engineering, manufacturing, energy, and medicine.

However you define it and whatever shape it takes, real-world learning is one of the ways educators can create more engaging, relevant, and equitable learning opportunities for the youth in their care.