Thursday, March 14, 2013

Real Life Is …

One of my favorite sayings is that “real life is an open book test.” I don’t remember where or when I first heard it but it is something I repeat rather regularly. I was thinking about this and other things that the real world is and decided to ask search engines what “the real world is”. The image below is from Google. The one from Bing was similar.


We talk about preparing students for the “real world” without really talking about what the real world is. To our students school IS the real world. As real as any they know. The real world is a lot of different things to a lot of different people though. So how do we prepare our students for the real world? Or more accurately the world after the relatively safe boundaries of school and home. I’ve been thinking particularly about two things that I believe “the real world is” but that we don’t always prepare students for in schools.

The real world is an open book test.

As a professional software developer I was never expected to know everything. I was expected to know a lot to be sure but it was always expected that I could and would refer to the documentation to learn new things. Looking things up though is a bit of an art. You’d be amazed at the sorts of things I have heard students say isn’t in the book or even not on the Internet that really was there.

Recently I have been letting students in my applications classes use their textbooks for chapter quizzes. This does not seem to help grades very much. In fact many students spend so much time looking things up that they run out of time early. I have some ideas of why this is but short of closed book tests (which I am considering) I’m not sure how to fix it. Teaching how to look things up is not exactly in the curriculum. Forcing them to memorize more may help in the short term but will it be as useful preparation for life? There is a balance to be found between knowing what information one has to have at their finger tips and what can be looked up when needed. That balance if different for everyone. How do we help students find their balance?

The real world is collaborative

Schools struggle with collaboration. Our big problem is that we want to make sure that students are learning. This is hard to do if we can’t easily distinguish their original work from that of their peers. The problem we have with plagiarism is that it means that students are not learning and if we don’t catch them we don’t know that they are not learning. And yet we know they have to work together in the real world. Another issue of balance.

I listened yesterday as a group of students worked out a problem together. Each of them understood a piece of the puzzle and shared their piece with their peers. At the end they all had a solution (in this case some working code) but the code still represented their unique interpretation of “the answer.” A success to my way of thinking. But how to keep it that way?

These are things I struggle with. I know that students learn well from each other. I know that they learn better from teaching each other. And yet I have to grade them and to make sure they are doing their own work. Not as easy as anyone would like.

Figuring out how to help students find the balance between knowing and being able to look things up and how to collaborate without copying. These are two big issues I am struggling with now. How do you deal with them? Looking for ideas.

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