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The Gap Between the Real World and the Academic World

alesnick's picture


David Garcia-Pedrosa
A strong essay on the matter of gaining real world experience through academia.


 The Gap Between the Real World and the Academic World
The Empowering Learners handbook article, ‘Don’t Let Formal Education Get in the Way of Learning: Incorporating Students’ Perspective to Engage their Academic Learning’, by Rachel Francois, bring up interesting and relevant topics on which to comment. In her entry, Ms. Francois writes about the disconnect between ‘academic life’ and ‘cultural experiences’. She has found that some students do not learn as well in traditional classroom settings because it does not engage or incorporate cultural experiences. A strong example of this is seen though her work with a student named Jerome, who enjoys hip-hop music. Jerome resisted when Ms. Francois instructed him to read an article and critique it, however was very receptive when she modified the assignment to critique the article using various rap lyrics.
            According to many, including Ms. Francois, students should learn about cultures and the ‘outside world’ in traditional classroom settings. Ms. Francois goes as far to say that it is the “responsibility of the educator to create a venue in which ideas and cultural perspectives can be exchanged[1]”.
Indeed, it is entirely possible to offer an education about cultures and ‘outside world’ experiences through mentoring. In fact, this article shows, once again, that with a knowledgeable mentor who connects with his or her student, the mentee can engage in academic learning by incorporating cultural experiences. This is not the first piece of evidence to support this claim; Herman and Mandell write in their book, From Teaching to Learning, about how they helped one of their mentees, Doris, realize what she wanted to study academically through exploring her cultural and personal experiences. However, what raises the most questions about this article is the connections between the mentoring and teaching in a classroom.
While this article proves that traditional classroom teaching must be reformed in order to maximize not only students’ learning, but also their attitude towards school, it is idealistic. Ms. Francois takes ideas that she has experienced and learned about mentoring and tries to project them on traditional classroom teaching. Can a school really offer students a worthy cultural experience? Is this a realistic expectation given the number of students that a teacher must teach? What if the teacher simply does not know about all of the different cultures of his or her students? Do all Latinos have the same culture? This exact problem arose at my placement, where none of the teachers at the school – including the ESL teachers – understood why one Mexican boy, named Carlos, didn’t know how to even sound out words in English despite his being in 4th grade. After working with him for an hour on the alphabet, reading him a story, and having a conversation with him in Spanish about his life at home – a grand total of 2 hours with him – I could confidently tell the teachers why he couldn’t read in English.
The reason is, shockingly enough, that he can’t read in Spanish. He was taught by his mother through conversation and story-telling, therefore he could not recognize letters when he saw them. At first, I was quite surprised that these teachers had not picked up on his struggles, after all, aren’t teachers supposed to reach to every learner and find the best way to engage each student so that everyone succeeds? Apparently not at this school, because there I was, a college student with no real teaching experience, explaining to two teachers, a guidance counselor, and the principal why Carlos couldn’t read. On my walk from the school to the train, I realized that most of the teachers that had asked me about Carlos neither knew Spanish, nor knew enough about Mexican culture to get through to him. Moreover, the few teachers who did have this connection with young Carlos, had too many students to take the time to talk to him and figure out how to get him to learn to read. Although this gap in the traditional education system is not entirely the teachers’ fault, it is difficult to expect a traditional classroom teacher to be able to teach many different cultures when many not only can’t speak the language, but also don’t understand the cultures themselves.
Another point that Ms. Francois brings up in her article is the need for a student to learn about the outside world. Again, this is a huge responsibility for schoolteachers to take on. How does a teacher teach about the outside world? They can’t, because most of what is learned about the outside world comes via experience. This is proven by a graduate school educated woman named Barbara Ehrenreich who writes about her time spent working low-salary, ‘unskilled’ jobs in her book Nickel and Dimed. Barbara finds that despite being highly educated, she knows nothing about this type of ‘outside world’ and that she needs to learn about how to live and survive working her jobs. Equally as interesting, Ehrenreich quickly realizes that her co-workers, despite being not nearly educated as her, know leaps and bounds more than she does about this ‘real life’ that she is living, and at points give her advice on how to cope with many different situations. Clearly, it seems that even the height of formal education leaves some lacking in knowledge of the ‘real world’.
Should traditional classroom settings teach about different cultures and about the ‘outside world’? Theoretically and in a perfect world, yes; however, the responsibility of teaching students about the ‘outside world’ and about culture might not be realistic. Some might argue that while a teacher can’t teach about culture or experience, but he or she can set the student up with a mentor to help teach and experience the ‘real world’. However, this idea brings us back to the struggle to get students to learn outside of the classroom, which will be discussed in depth later in this paper. Another important point that Ms. Francois brings up in relation to this question is that “learning is not selective and limited to the classroom but can be applied and practiced in life.[2]” People are constantly learning, inside and outside the classroom, whether it be in math class or by interacting with a friend, or by touching a hot stove and vowing never to do such a thing again. In fact, it can be argued – especially by Barbara Ehrenreich – that much of what a person learns and uses in the ‘real world’ comes by way of experience.
I believe that it is important that instead of expecting schoolteachers to teach about the ‘outside world’ and experience, a task that proves to be extremely difficult at the least, it is more beneficial to make the point that schools can’t offer this to students. This is not meant to undermine the importance of schools, but to create the norm of learning outside the classroom. Much would be gained if schools were direct and explicit about their inability to teach students about the “outside world” because by admitting this, schools would expland the realm and opportunity of learning. As in Ms. Francois article, students who learn about topics that interest them don’t consider it ‘learning’. What we can interpret from this finding is that whatever students do outside of school they don’t consider to be learning; after school ends, their learning does too. The reality that most students do not learn after school lets out is frightening, and must be addressed.
The reality that students do not learn away from the classroom is attributed to more than one factor, however, the one that is relevant to this paper is the unfair assumption that school will teach you everything that you need to know. As stated before, this is an impossible task, due to the fact – proven by Mrs. Ehrenreich – that experience plays a major role in learning in the ‘outside world’ and school can’t teach a person about their own experiences. The only way left to help make sure that students are learning/ experiencing about real life is to try to make them learn outside of school. The first, and most important step to achieving this is to get rid of the assumption that school is a one-stop shop for all learning. Only with this assumption shattered will the importance of learning about real life be visible. Ms. Francois is correct, while schools should try to incorporate ‘real world’ lessons, it is important for students to learn when they leave the classroom. It is vital, and part of the learning process, for someone to have their own experiences, because, after all, if a school tries to teach experience instead of having a person experience it for him or her self, the school will be the one robbing the student of a complete education.    

[1] Francois, Rachel. Don’t Let Formal Education Get in the Way of Learning: Incorporating Students’ Perspective to Engage their Academic Learning. 2005.
[2] Ibid