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The Problem with the “Real World”

"Well, in the real world..."

As a student, I always hated that phrase. It implied that my current reality was easier than the future I would face. Well, throughout my adolescence--besides dealing with all those hormones--I took care of my bedridden mom. When I got home from school, I had to get my mom out of bed, dress her, and feed her. My world felt very “real.”

I vowed to never use that expression when I became a teacher, but guess what? I did. As a new teacher, I fell back onto the same teacher-talk I heard as a student.

Then one day, while working as an inclusion teacher at a high school, my partner teacher began scolding the students because many of them had not completed their assigned homework. Guess what phrase came up? Good guess. "Well, in the real world..." After class, a student asked me, "Mr. Hayes, why do teachers keep saying they are preparing us for the real world? My world is pretty real to me. I take care of my younger siblings because my mom works all the time."

Although the comment was directed toward this teacher, it might as well have been directed at me too. After all, I also was guilty of saying this. Over the years, I had forgotten how much I hated hearing it as a student; how those words assumed my world wasn’t “real” just because I was younger.

We want to prepare our students for the responsibilities and challenges they will face after high school. Yet, the reality is that most of us don't know what our students are going through once they go home. My teachers didn't. To a student facing challenges and difficulties, the phrase, “Well, in the real world…” can be incredibly condescending; something that became evident when I started asking students what they thought of the phrase.

So why use it? Are we trying to stress the importance of what we’re trying to teach? Is it when our students don’t seem to appreciate how a particular skill will be useful to them in the future? If they don’t see the practical application of what we’re teaching, maybe this is the conversation we should be having instead.

Edited by Courtney Hayes

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Justine Wilson
Justine Wilson

Hi Eric, Good to see you writing to share your ideas! Thank you! I was just reading George Couros and Katie Novak’s Innovating Inside the Box. They make this point as well. When we say we prepare students for the “real world” it demeans their experiences now and the idea that they could actually contribute now. Wasn’t it a 10 year old who invited the pop top? And Malala who spoke out for change in girls’ rights? And Greta who is on the world stage for climate change? And a million other smaller ways kids make the real world a better place every day. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!!


Elyse Hahne
Elyse Hahne

Great post! I loved the notion about if students need it in the future. So true!

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