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


Think school transformation: “As work gets more complex, 6 rules to simplify” #TED

A archetypical tale of (and great advice for) school transformation…if you listen closely enough!



Yves Morieux: As work gets more complex, 6 rules to simplify


I wonder why we don’t have schools, departments, and/or MOOCs for “edumorphology.”

I mean, we have schools, departments, and MOOCs for geomorphology.

Recently, I was listening to “Reading the Rocks,” a long-form radio interview on the program On Being with Krista Tippett. Krista was talking with David Montgomery (“David Montgomery is Professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he leads the Geomorphological Research Group. He’s the author of The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood and Dirt.” – from the On Being program site)

Maybe if we had Edumorphological Research Group(s), we’d understand better and build more wisdom around school transformation.

What if…


At intersections of thinking and doing. #SchoolTransformation #PedagogicalMasterPlanning

As I continue the work on Pedagogical Master Planning here at Unboundary’s studio, I engage blogging as a way to think out loud, test ideas, benefit from co-thinking with commenters, and connect dots with other educational leaders. Just this morning, @akytle, @LisaLpez1, and @HollyChesser/@SAISnews offered invaluable insights within this collective exploration and 21st century ethnography of school transformation (https://itsaboutlearning.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/it-works-in-architecture-and-urban-planning-it-can-work-in-ed-transformation-too-pedagogicalmasterplanning/). Now, @GrantLichtman adds what I see as an invaluable extension of our ongoing conversations and a critical intersection with the morning exchanges with Angel, Lisa, and Holly. Grant provides a strong “case study” of the work demanded by school communities, of school communities, and for school communities to embrace harmonizing the incredible efforts of administrators, faculty, parents, and students. It is transformation work that insists on collective sense making, systems thinking, strategic designing, and the requisite time and attention to engage in such adventure TOGETHER.

Inspired by possibilities of #PBL – how are we engaging our students with problem finding and solving?

Two emails and a nearby creek have me giddy about #PBL possibilities. Yep, that’s right – I said giddy. I admit that I have an issue – whatever it is I think I see… becomes a PBL to me.

Giddy-up #1: Soccket! Yesterday, my long-time co-teacher and learning partner @jgough sent me a link to this amazing invention – a soccer ball that functions as a generator. Incredible – Uncharted Play: Innovate. Play. Empower. Watch the video, at least!

Giddy-up #2: Hopscotch Detroit! Thanks to a subscription to The Daily Good, I was invited into a story about a community building the largest hopscotch court in history. The goal – to encourage a city to find communion in playing with each other.

Giddy-up #3: Seeing students in Peachtree Creek. I wish I could give you a link to this one. As I was driving to work this morning, I noticed a school activity vehicle (a.k.a. “bus”) stopped near Memorial Park. It appeared that high school students were collecting water samples in Peachtree Creek. Yes! I have dreamed for a few years that more schools would engage our city creeks in such a way. I only with I knew who it was; I’d love to talk with them about what they’re trying to accomplish.

So, when I read and see these examples, I imagine a cohort of students posing questions and curiosities to a facilitator (known as a teacher in the olden days). Through expert contextual guiding, the facilitator enables the students to pursue their own passions. One group is interested in energy, and one of the team members had recently read about using a piece of playground equipment to pump water in an African village. Another team member wondered what other play things could be turned into energy generators. The soccket – or something like it – is born. In another group, the student-learners are crazed at thinking that they can turn the city streets into something like an adult playground. Perhaps they’ve watched Kiran Bir Sethi’s TED talk about teaching kids to take charge, or maybe they’ve seen the video about turning steps into piano keys. They are inspired by the Indian children’s zebra-stripping and the feet symphonies of subway exiters, and they want to go large scale to with a Hopscotch Detroit idea. And a third group feels passionate about improving the water quality of the creek that runs in front of their Atlanta homes. They decide to do something about it, and their facilitator organizes an activity vehicle to cart them to the shores of the waste-ladden waters.

Oh, the possibilities! There’s science, math, English and language arts, history, sociology, economics, psychology, anthropology, design and city planning, architecture, prototyping, community interviewing and communication, making a difference with things that matter and affecting real audiences.

It’s not 50 minutes of math, 50 minutes of science, 50 minutes of English, and homework to check and grade the next day. It’s as much transformational as informational. It’s not unstructured and loose; it’s hyper-structured and necessarily tight. It requires more of technology as field equipment than just a digital replacement for a notebook. It’s engaging and inspirational. And it’s highly and gloriously doable.

But more schools could be doing it.

Just imagine…

No, don’t stop there. Get started…

What’s your school’s pedagogical master plan? Will your students systemically have such experiences?

They could be.