Who hasn’t heard their child at one time or another expressing frustration in their learning? When will I ever have to use this in the real world? is a statement that comes to mind. I remember saying it in high school – about Trigonometry. The response I have come up with for my kids is something along these lines:
Regardless of whether the task you are learning seems relevant or irrelevant in the real world, there is value in making sense of and mastering a task.
You have to admit: succeeding at new or challenging tasks feels good, and feeling good instills confidence. When I try a new, more complex recipe and I receive compliments on my cooking, I feel good and I’m more likely to make it again. I’m more apt to try other, unfamiliar recipes, too, due to my growing confidence.
Kids who learn how to master tasks – doing laundry, pumping gas, cooking a meal, learning long division, figuring out why the printer won’t print – are developing self-efficacy — the belief in one’s ability to succeed in a particular situation.
Applying formulas and remembering names and dates from a period in history can be difficult for some kids, hence I will never use this in the real world-type statements. Of course, many students love and can easily solve complex math problems. And other fortunate students have no difficulty remembering names and dates. (They’ll excel at Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit).
It makes sense that teachers see the value in student projects and presentations. Parents may not love the idea of time-consuming projects, but they just might if they realize these projects are mini versions of real-world thinking. Think of projects in light of kids developing these real-world skills:
- Time management (Do I work a little each day or leave it all for the days prior to the due date)
- Problem-solving (How and where can I get the materials? If one material doesn’t work, what else can I use?)
- Decision-making (What information should/should not be included? What’s most important?)
- Motivation (Should I do just what’s required for the project or should I go the extra mile and make it outstanding?)
- Perseverance (Can I keep at it without losing stamina or interest?)
- Assertiveness (Can I ask for help if I don’t understand something or need advice/special supplies?)
My kids used to participate in the Science Fair when they were in elementary school. This was a great opportunity for young kids to practice those skills mentioned above while inventing something or carrying out an experiment. Adults would volunteer their time setting up tables, serving snacks, and playing the role of judges (interviewing students and evaluating their projects). Each student would receive a score from three randomly assigned judges. You could see the pride and relief in the children’s faces, for completing a large project and for finishing the presentations.
Although some school projects and science fair projects have clearly received help from an adult (we all know the ones!), the real test is whether the student can explain the project meaningfully and answer questions posed by teachers, peers, or judges. What a skill!
But nothing encapsulates real-world learning like a group project or presentation. Why? In most cases, working in the real world requires interacting with others: getting along, dividing up tasks, sharing the workload, setting goals, managing time, problem-solving, dealing with varying personalities, and handling success or failure…
All types of groups – sports teams, instrumental groups, choral groups, theater groups, yearbook committees, cheer leading squads, debate teams — require that members show up prepared, follow rules and follow through with their responsibilities in order for the group to function smoothly.
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I was happy to read in our town paper about a sophomore I know whose robotics team at Boston College High School met with success. This extra-curricular team meets outside of school hours in the high school’s basement to build robots. Now in its third year, BC High’s robotics team participated in a challenge presented by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) at the Granite State District event on March 1.
Each team that participated was given a time frame of six weeks and a kit filled with parts to use to assemble a working robot. The challenge at the event was for robots to be able to play on a team and score as many goals as possible by throwing and catching a ball with other robot teammates.
Remember those real-life skills of getting along, problem-solving and time management? This robotics team of 20 had six weeks to collaborate — not just to design the robot but also to reach out to sponsors for funding, to trouble-shoot when the process wasn’t working, and to persevere during the long hours of time spent working, in addition to doing schoolwork. Oh, and there were a couple of snowstorms during that time, creating additional challenges.
BC’s High’s robot, named “Schrödinger’s Cat,” won the Imagery Award for attractiveness in engineering and outstanding visual aesthetic integration. Not bad. Apparently none of those obstacles could dissuade BC High’s robotics team from reaching their goal.
The skill sets these young men are developing and refining will undoubtedly help them become engineers, inventors and other types of scientists in fields that are making big changes in the world. Already, robots do intricate surgery, drive cars (supervised), go into dangerous settings in place of police and fire fighters, and search in some of the deepest waters of the ocean. In Japan, a 4-foot robot babysits children while their caregivers shop. I’m excited for the future of robotics. (Maybe some day a robot will sort and fold my laundry).
For now, I will encourage my teens to work hard at any task, large or small, no matter how irrelevant it might seem. The more tasks they master, the more confidence they will possess. The more confidence they possess, the more tasks they will try to master. The future is looking brighter already.