Excerpted from Will Richardson’s new TED Book Why SchoolHow Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere. Richardson offers provocative alternatives to the existing education system, questioning everything from standardized assessments to the role of the teacher. In this chapter, “Real Work for Real Audiences,” Richardson envisions students creating work that is relevant and useful in the world outside school.

By Will Richardson

So what if we were to say that, starting this year, even with our children in K– 5, at least half of the time they spend on schoolwork must be on stuff that can’t end up in a folder we put away? That the reason they’re doing their schoolwork isn’t just for a grade or for it to be pinned up in the hallway? It should be because their work is something they create on their own, or with others, that has real value in the real world.

I’m not even necessarily talking about doing something with technology. (Let’s face it, though: Paper is a 20th-century staple that has severely limited potential, compared to digital spaces.) There’s lots of creating our kids can do with traditional tools that can serve a real audience. Publishing books, putting on plays, and doing community service are just a few examples.

But what if we got a little crazy and added some technology into the mix? We could tell our kids, “You know, in addition to taking that test on the Vietnam War, we want you to go and interview some veterans, then collect those stories into a series of podcasts that people all over the world could listen to and learn from.”

Or, rather than having our students do that science lab write-up on the tadpoles in the pond behind their school, what if we rounded up a bunch of schools with ponds and tadpoles from all over the world, and then we all shared our data and observations with each other, analyzing how the differences in climate and geography affected native habitats? What if then published this global analysis online?

Or, instead of reading scenes from Romeo and Juliet to one another in the classroom, students could put on an interpretive performance, one we then broadcast through a password-protected live stream to parents and aunts and uncles and friends online, posting it also as a video on YouTube. Maybe we could even run a competition with other schools to see who could come up with the most profound or creative way of bringing the themes of Shakespeare into the modern world.

I don’t know about you, but as a parent, I’d much rather see this kind of work than the paper that comes home in the Friday Folder (or the Friday backpack). I’d rather know that my kids were creating something of meaning, value, and I hope, beauty for people other than just their teachers, and that those creations had the opportunity to live in the world. That they were thinking hard about audience. That they were learning how to network and collaborate with others. That they were developing “proficiency with the tools of technology,” learning to “design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes,” and becoming literate in the process.

Real work for real audiences is, of course, hard to find in the current standardized testing regime. How do you evaluate the San Diego Bay book project using a short-answer test? To assess this kind of work, teachers could co-create rubrics with students that identify what their work should address and what quality looks like. In this chapter’s examples, assessment might mean collecting targeted feedback from whatever audience might be watching that Romeo and Juliet performance or listening to those Vietnam veteran podcasts.

And, importantly, it might mean having students engage in some deep self-assessment on their process and product, an experience that would certainly prepare them to be better learners when they leave us. Our students are capable of doing authentic work that adds to the abundance in ways that can make the world a better, richer place.

Why wouldn’t we want to know they could do that?

How We Can Connect School Life to Real Life 10 December,2012MindShift

  • We would love for you to check out the EAST Initiative (www.eastinitiative.org). Our students take the project-based learning approach and cutting edge technology into their communities to solve real world problems. Annually, in Arkansas alone, the contribute over 1.5 millions service hours to their towns, which conservatively translates to over $15 million in economic impact.

    • even something like language learning can now have a real ‘impact’ by using tools like Duolingo. I love this short article and truly believe in a more real, streetwise approach to learning.

    • In Arkansas! I’m sold!

  • Tom MacKnight

    Gee, I guess my kid was lucky. He had school assignments like Interview a Veteran, got to go to the St. James Island to understand tidal pools, and was in plays and drama multiple times. At the time I just thought it was a good public education. I didn’t understand it was a cutting edge TED idea.

  • Trena

    Answer to headline question: YES! OF COURSE! This article is full of excellent ideas, and I hope they spread. Public education used to include some of these creative elements, and should once again. Life itself is a school! We need to bring back art, choirs, bands, orchestras, drama, speech and theatre including musicals, and a p.e. class 3x weekly for an hour each session, where kids can learn team sports IN SCHOOL, AT SCHOOL, vs. the private, expensive after-school/weekend teams.

  • v

    I think many of the ideas presented in this article are good. However, it does smack a bit of overemphasizing presentation. Of course opportunities to share student work are important, but care needs to be taken to not prioritize a sexy, high tech end product even if it is more impressive to adults who can’t decode and appreciate some of the more messy and child-like qualities of much student work.

    • Jane

      You’re not getting her point. The point is real, authentic learning, not presentation. Read between her lines!

  • Jini Loos

    Folks, this is what Service Learning is all about. Giving students a real life context to what they are learning. Giving them opportunities to become active participants rather than spectators in their world. It’s about engagement! And you don’t always have to leave school to do it. With technology you can skype, video-tape, etc. You can have schools students in different parts of the world reading the same book, sharing writings and/or dialog, and problem solving issues collaboratively. People need to understand that this doesn’t have to be an add-on, it’s helping to give kids an understanding of how the works, and how they can be a part of it. Pick a passion ~ then put it to work!

  • AmericanLearningLeague

    I am deeply involved in designing project-based learning myself; however, we also need to create engaging ways to master the mechanics of math and reading. Too many times, I see great ideas expressed as a “Do only this, never that” proposition. I believe we need to teach basics, model critical thinking, AND give ample opportunities for creative collaboration that is shared beyond the classroom walls.

  • malyn

    yes…we should connect school life to real life…

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  • treesformation

    Sounds like what homeschoolers, home-based learners, families who are learning at home and out in the community have been doing for several decades now – tying learning to real life. Except many of our kids have the ability to follow or learn about what interests them, and these sorts of experiences are all a part of that, often without mandates, pre-designed curriculum or expectations, etc.

    So, yes, I’m all for making school more relevant to the families that choose or need to be in schools, but this is hardly cutting edge. Even in the comments below, you can see examples of how some schools are already doing these sorts of projects.

    Approaches to learning are changing due to the internet, technology, dissatisfaction with the status quo. Unfortunately, there are too many people out there who are comfortable with how it is and will be reluctant to change – insist on the sorts of standards that don’t speak to successes in learning (like most standardized tests).

  • Laura Weldon

    The way humanity has always educated her young is right in the midst of a vibrant community where people of all ages participate in meaningful work, tell stories, relate, play, and help one another. That’s how research shows young people best learn and grow into mature adults. That’s why so many of us homeschool and unschool. This approach is laid out in my book, Free Range Learning.

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  • ajharmer

    Will, thank you for bring this idea to the forefront. I suggested this same during an educational presentation at an international science conference about 6 years ago and the moderator told me my thinking was way “out of the box!” This is exactly what we need in our schools!!

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  • Madeline

    What this author may not realize is how little funding many of our schools in American have for things like technology. It is extremely sad, but it is the truth. Get our government to give more money to the schools and then the curriculum can incorporate more technology use.

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