If school is supposed to prepare students for real life, then why doesn’t it look more like real life?

If school is supposed to prepare students for real life,
then why doesn’t school look more like real life?

For more than a decade, this question has lived at the heart of my research and practice as a professional educator. While I worked at Unboundary, we created a Brain Food devoted to exploring this question.

A number of educators and school transformation agents connect to this question through an entire branch of educational practice known as “authentic learning.” At the end of January, #EdChat Radio featured the topic of authentic learning on an episode. And Dr. Brett Jacobsen, of Mount Vernon Presbyterian School and the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation (where I work), recently interviewed Dr. Yong Zhao for his podcast “Design Movement,” and much of their conversation connects with this topic of authentic learning.

Given the habits formed by decades of industrial-age, delivery-based pedagogy, though, educators must explore and experiment with different structures in order to make room for more authentic learning – learning that is meant to serve a greater purpose than only a grade in a grade book and a future locker-clean-out session in late May or early June.

Exploring such new structures can be challenging for schools. In fact, some structures point to entirely different paradigms for schools – like “giving an education” rather than getting an education, taking a course, or whadya-get-on-that-test assessment.

Some school people imagine such paradigm shifts would lack structure – that it would be too free form, loosey-goosey, or soft-skills heavy. This is really a false set up for thinking about the structural-shift needs of schools in transformation. How “loosey-goosey, really, is your project work and real-world problem solving in your career and life?

As Tony Wagner says in Creating Innovators, it’s not a choice between structure and no structure to allow for more authentic learning. It’s a choice to build a different structure for School 3.0 – one that allows for student-learners to explore their passions and real-world purposes while engaged in challenges that exist in the world and yearn to be defined and solved. Structures that empower learners to engage in more authentic learning flows.

Creating Innovators - Structure

But how do educators make such shifts and create different structures? I believe one way we do this is to explore avenues and portals to empower students to engage in real-world problem solving. Instead of only organizing the curriculum – the track of learning – around subject-siloed disciplines, at least part of the curriculum could be organized around exploring and venturing into authentic, real-world problem solving as organizers of product-and-process-oriented work.

In my own life and work, I’ve explored opening such portals through #fsbl and #Synergy. Much of this work involves immersing oneself and other learners into the Innovator’s DNA traits – observe, question, experiment, network, and associate – through the methodology of observation journaling and curiosity-curated curriculum.

Of course, other ways exist to open those portals and explore into those worlds of authentic learning and real-life problem solving. Here are but a few inspirations and possible ways in…


Resources for engaging in real-life solution seeking:


Open IDEO is an open innovation platform for social good. We’re a global community that draws upon the optimism, inspiration, ideas and opinions of everyone to solve problems together.


NPR – All Tech Considered: Innovation

An exploration of interesting ideas that solve problems, introduce new experiences or even change our world.

Do Something

DoSomething.org is the country’s largest not-for-profit for young people and social change. We have 2,439,780 members (and counting!) who kick ass on causes they care about. Bullying. Animal cruelty. Homelessness. Cancer. The list goes on. DoSomething.org spearheads national campaigns so 13- to 25-year-olds can make an impact – without ever needing money, an adult, or a car. Over 2.4 million people took action through DoSomething.org in 2012.



Choose2Matter is a call to leadership and an accelerator to connect individuals and communities with a conscience. It combines technology, innovation and mentorship to solve problems that matter. It’s an important opportunity for business, brands, and communities to join forces in the causes and issues most important to those they lead and serve.

What has been inspired by students, has led to the official launch and creation ofCHOOSE2MATTER – a crowd sourced, social good community.


50 Problems in 50 Days

I’m on an adventure – to explore the limits of design’s ability to solve social problems, big and small. To do this I attempted to solve 50 problems in 50 daysusing design. I also spent time with 12 of Europe’s top design firms.

Peter Smart


InnoCentive is the global leader in crowdsourcing innovation problems to the world’s smartest people who compete to provide ideas and solutions to important business, social, policy, scientific, and technical challenges.


TED Prize

The TED Prize is awarded to an extraordinary individual with a creative and bold vision to spark global change. By leveraging the TED community’s resources and investing $1 million dollars into a powerful idea, the TED Prize supports one wish to inspire the world.

Ideas for Ideas


Paper or plastic? Work that blurs the lines between school and real life. #Synergy #iDiploma

If school is supposed to prepare kids for real life, then why doesn’t school look more like real life?

This question lives at the heart of my research for the past decade. This question largely drives my work.

Many people ask me, “So, Bo, what do you mean by ‘real life?'”

Well, one aspect of blurring the lines between school and real life involves reimagining the kind of work that students engage in during their school experience. What if more of the student work had real-life application? What if more of the student work were aimed at targets well beyond the grade-book columns and end-of-year locker clean outs?

For example, what about the question, “Paper or plastic?” You know – at the grocery store. How should we respond to that question at the conveyor-belted check-out counter? (If, of course, we don’t bring our own reusable bags.)

From that question, a group of student designers and solution seekers might find themselves on a path leading to the investigation of the refrigerator and the crisper drawer.

“What?!” You might ask. What if student-learners actually worked on product design for such things as refrigerators, water boilers, etc.? What if students really knew the best answers to “Paper or plastic?”

Watch this TED talk from Leyla Acaroglu, and you might just see what I’m talking about – what I dream about…

Student-learners engaging in real-life work that goes well beyond a grade in a grade book and provides the weave-work and relevancy hooks that integrate and amplify the core purposes of our school-segregated subject areas. Work that recognizes and respects the systems of which our products and our persons are all parts of the whole…


Innovation Diploma @MVPSchool

The Future Project #WhatIfWeekly

From The Future Project

We embed Dream Directors in schools—a new character that we invented after listening to what students and teachers believe is missing most. They’re the only true cost of our model, and they make magic happen.

Part human catalyst and part social entrepreneur, Dream Directors recruit and train volunteer Future Coaches from the community and clear the way for students to dream up and build Future Projects of their own, each with potential to reawaken entire schools. We saw that last year—and this year we’re taking it one step further, committing to inspiring at least eight in ten students in each of our partner schools to either become part of a Project or lead one as a Fellow.

More about The Future Project:

What if we all did more to support missions like The Future Project’s?

We’re on a mission to transform America’s high schools into Future Schools. Places that value taking risks and taking action. That show students they have what it takes to innovate and to lead. That unleash passion. And power. It’s a whole new vision for education, and a revolution in which everyone wins.

Design for America – an incredible realization of empowering real-life problem-solving students.

From Liz Gerber, “Design for America: A Network of Students and Designers Solving Real-World Challenges,” published on GOOD, January 23, 2013 at 8:00 AM:

When I was an engineering student, many of my professors assigned me to a team and asked us to solve invented problems, like how to propel a ball across a room using only cardboard and rubber bands or how to build the tallest structure out of toothpicks and marshmallows. Other professors asked us to design specific things, such as laparoscopic suturing devices or fetal monitoring devices. But my favorite professors allowed me to choose my team and encouraged us to find our own problems to work on. Those assignments were the ones that made me feel I was helping others most. As a design engineer, I wanted meaning—and I wanted to choose my team.

And, a bit later:

What kind of community could I create to help students think that they were capable of helping others? What kind of process could I teach that helped students to think that they could collaboratively tackle the messiest and more daunting problems such as our obesity epidemic, failing schools, and polluted waters? As a professor, my job is to teach students how to reliably and creatively come up with answers to engineering design problems. Could I create an organization or environment that, like the Obama campaign, would inspire students to carry out their mission—as they envisioned it—in their own creative ways?

Here’s what I created: Design for America pulls together teams of volunteer faculty, students, and professional mentors in a local community. Interdisciplinary student teams meet weekly. Anyone who wants to be part of a design team can be. The only requirement is that participants must work, not just talk about the enormity of the problems. DFA doesn’t give students problems to solve; it guides them to walk around their community to find problems they believe are meaningful.

It’s like Synergy 8, but for college. (Link to the Synergy 8 category on It’s About Learning)

(HT to @SAISNews for making certain that I saw Liz Gerber’s DFA piece!)

Rappin math versus wrapping math

“You know, when my dad lost his sight, I started doing accounting for him, and math was the one area that I was able to succeed in,” Scott says.
from NPR’s 2 Pi: Rhymes And Radii, Jan. 8, 2013

The podcast quoted above is a touching story of a teacher working really hard to connect with his students and help them succeed. I’m intrigued by his tactics of putting math to rap and hip hop. Very creative.

But what’s even more interesting to me – he says math really clicked for him when he had to start doing the family accounting. How might he apply that insight to his classroom and instruction?

So, is math rapped as powerful as math wrapped (in real-life context)?