Real world skills versus school skills: Does Ted McCain frame it correctly?

by Mr. Sheehy

I have begun Ted McCain’s Teaching for Tomorrow for another development class and I will admit he’s kind of set me off on the wrong foot. In the first chapter he mentions the idea of there being real world skills and school skills, and I cannot say I’m sold on what he presents.

I really think there’s a false dichotomy in here and that somehow we miss something by separating the real world skills and school skills too much. Sure, there are skills that are particularly used in school and some out of it, but to separate them all creates a conflict I don’t think is there. I have gone to a lot of conferences and read a lot of commentary on these kinds of things, and one common idea I have seen is a lack of creativity in envisioning how traditional educational curriculum can be effective.

For example, a kid in my sophomore English class researches an issue and writes a report on it, a traditional school skill. McCain lists writing a report as one of these school skills, but then later his big call is for school to increase students’ ability to reason. Since when does good writing not involve reasoning? How does organizing writing and working with abstract concepts like ideas not help students think at a higher level? A great colleague of mine justifies the teaching of writing by pointing out that when she teaches a student to write, she is really teaching that student to think.

One thing about this line of reasoning that concerns me is that it is focused on a fear of an unknown future (for what generation was the future known? How did the Greatest Generation survive?) and once we begin to axe curriculum according to the standard of obvious relevance, few things can survive the litmus test.

Reading often comes under the chop with this line of reasoning. We should read something more relevant, so we throw out boring old white men like Shakespeare and read random pop novels that have no cultural ties and debatable literary merit. Give them choice, we claim, and so there goes Steinbeck, Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald–writers who take work to read. Few of our students will choose challenge and hard work, it’s the nature of the human individual, it seems, but we succumb to the call for obvious relevancy anyway. Seniors from my school don’t read Chaucer–not even a line of The Canterbury Tales. Men and women on horses in medieval England are not obviously relevant, but when we can’t make The Canterbury Tales relevant, we have lost our imaginations. Following this line of reasoning, I am convinced that soon literature could be deemed irrelevant, because it is just fiction. Poetry, too, surely can’t stand up to such a staunchly utilitarian evaluation.

In place of these academic items, we often feel an obligation to teach anything students don’t know, including life skills that students should be learning outside our premises (or at least skills students apparently used to learn outside of school). Thus we think we need to teach them how to write a check or cook a meal or do the laundry or buy insurance. The home is where these things occur, convincing me beyond doubt that these are things families should be teaching. I know many of my students don’t have families with structured lives, but I can’t see that we’re doing them any favors by withdrawing the curriculum and substituting it with this stuff. Should we add supplementary curriculum for those in need? Sure, but if we replace curriculum, then schools are succumbing to the idea that we are responsible for every scrap and tittle of a child’s education. How are these students better for it?

I know I’m Mister Negative here, but I am convinced that our content is relevant and the skills students develop while studying it (even the memorization) are worthwhile and can transfer to the “real world.” Don’t pin the damage done by unimaginative teaching and its brainless worksheets and regurgitation-tests on the content that is being covered. Pin it on the poor methodology.

This is not to say I think there are no real world skills that one learns out of school, however. I value greatly the knowledge one gains from experience, and I can’t see that it will ever be possible for school to replace what good ol’ fashioned experience can provide. We call it “learning the ropes” and I think it is a valid expectation that our students are willing to work hard and go through the entry level positions to work their ways up, no matter what they’ve done in school. What I think is silly is to put in on the schools to do the training that only a real life experience can provide.

McCain brings this issue up with a personal anecdote. He excelled in school and then won himself a job with a cartography company. Fresh out of college, he convinced the company’s owner that the company needed a computer to make maps. The owner agreed and then hired McCain to research computers and choose one for the company to buy. McCain failed at the task so miserably that he was fired. In his reflection, he states that his education failed him for the tasks the real world presented him with.

I am sincerely confused at the profundity of McCain’s experience. To me, the fault of McCain’s failure was not McCain’s education, as he labels it. From his description, I thought the fault was either McCain’s or the owner of the company who hired him. McCain was so busy selling his idea he may never have stopped to realize he was in over his head. The owner then assigned a major project to a guy who should have been in an entry level position.

That’s why college graduates who go to Washington DC get hired as legislative associates, then get promoted to legislative assistants, and don’t get hired out of the box as Chief of Staff. It strikes me as odd to pin on schools the responsibility to teach what the world teaches you. Schools cannot teach you what the world can.

Consider some of the obstacles and structural differences. We cannot fire you when you stink. As a matter of fact, if you are lousy at your job, we are pressured to change our tactics so you can stay on board. When you do something lousy and we call it that, we then receive pressure to change our assessment of your performance, to rate you on effort, not the objective quality of the work. It’s completely opposite of the “real world.”

McCain defends his anecdote in part by citing the numbers of students who are staying in school instead of getting jobs, or moving in with their parents, because they are not qualified for real world tasks. But in my mind it seems odd to say that the reason for this trend is clearly because their schooling was bad . Perhaps these people possess this wonderful sense of entitlement that is sweeping the land and don’t want to work hard at entry level positions. Perhaps they don’t particularly want the commitment of a full time job after enjoying summer and winter breaks for so long. Perhaps they don’t know what they want and never stopped to figure it out. Perhaps they want something they can’t have and find it easier to mooch off their parents because their parents are letting them get away with it.

Perhaps it’s more complicated than McCain lets on is my main point. He has a hunch for how the world works, but he’s not presenting empirical research. My concern is that there is a solid wave ready to overthrow a grand quantity of the curriculum I teach on a hunch and an interpretation, rather than on research.

There are other ways to address McCain’s claims, but this pitting of real world skills and school skills is one area that strikes me as simplistic. Any thoughts on this?

Thanks for reading.