Sunday, October 16, 2011

My Real World

Warning: I'm going to go off the deep end in a bit. 

Inevitably, whenever I start talking about grading practices, someone eventually brings up the real world. They say, that's not how it works in the real world. You have (strict deadlines, only get one chance, get externally rewarded, etc).

I live in the Silicon Valley and so I work at tech companies during the summer. This summer I asked my boss, who presumably works in the real world, about what happens when a project is running late. He basically said "it depends" and then rattled off a whole bunch of things (in no particular order, this is just from memory):
  1. Look at the due date and decide if it really does have to be done by then. Often, it doesn't. Example: Due dates are often projected based on expected sales or on completion of other projects inside or outside the company. If any of those other projections are off, the due date needs to be adjusted.
  2. If the due date really is important, shift more resources their way.
  3. Look at the requirements of the project. Does it really need to be in completed form by that due date or is a beta version ok or even just a proof of concept?
  4. Look at the cost versus benefits. Sometimes it's more cost effective to scrap the whole project. Yes you lose the contract, but sometimes it costs more to complete it than it's worth. (Me: And what you've learned/done up until that time will come in use at another point so you can't consider it a total loss.)
He listed maybe 5 or 6 more options but I can't remember the details and I got lost a couple of times with corporate speak. 

These ones stuck with me because I think there are obvious parallels to how we should be handling due dates.

But that's not the point of this post. 

There are two.

One is that everyone's real world is different. If I spent my summers working in the service industry this post would be about how the manager told me how important deadlines are. But I don't. My world is not the same as your world so next time I tell you that something doesn't happen in the "real world," ask me, "Whose real world are you referring to?"

(begin crazed ranting voice)

The other is that our students are living in the real world right now. There is nothing more real to a student than right now. Their friends, their enemies, their greatest loves and biggest heartbreaks, their passions, their hopes and their dreams are wrapped up in a few buildings, a quad area, and a blacktop. Saying this isn't "the real world" diminishes everything there is about a student. Stop preparing kids for the real world and prepare them for right now. Teach your children how to think for right now. How to have relationships for right now. How to empathize for right now. Give them what they need for right now and however their real world changes, they will be prepared.

(end crazed ranting voice)

That feels better. Carry on.


  1. Oh I am so with you on this.

    A couple of things - one, my husband is a college professor and has to deal with more student due dates than I do (as I teach first graders). He is really strict about it. I give him a hard time about this since I know that he, and pretty much every other academic, rarely get articles turned in even within months of the deadline. Other things do get turned in by a strict deadline (tenure files for example).

    Second, I wrote my college application essay about how I was already living in the real world. I may have to see if I can find a copy of it. I was so frustrated by the talk about the 'real world' as if it was going to be so much harder than what I was living then (which was a perfectly lovely middle-class life). I wrote about a friend's suicide, another friend's death in a triathlon, friends whose parents had split and used them as pawns, etc. You are so right about everyone's, including students', real lives as being different.

  2. Really great post, Jason, particularly the rangy piece at the end. Also a lovely comment by Jenny. Thank you for sharing.

    You are, of course, exactly right, Jason. There is nothing more real to a 7th grader than their own life, in the moment, right now. Instead of focusing on this in the classroom, we have backloaded course content for calculus all the way down "the ladder."

    Schools focus on making students deliberately more future oriented. It is an inherent and tacit philosophy in what goes on, and yet students think about now, almost exclusively (or perhaps as far in advance as the weekend.)

    Wonder why kids spend time thinking about their social lives during class? It's because tying them to chairs and trying with all your might to get them to think about something else does no good! We need to embrace who they are and integrate learning into their interests today!

    If we show them that they are capable of growth and learning in the directions they want for themselves, then they will take off.

    Success in something is almost always better than failure at anything.

  3. Right on, Jason! This is absolutely "real" and while critics of allegedly "soft" approaches are a bit too hung up on what they think we should be doing, and not mindful enough of higher priorities. Learning comes first. If a student misses a deadline, my top priority has not changed. I want the student to learn the material. I do have grading policies that include consequences for late work, but they are not so punitive as to rob a student of opportunity or motivation. I could go into more detail at some point, but hopefully you get the idea. I also advise students that if they come to me ahead of time with clear reasons to ask for extensions and a timeline for completion, I will almost always grant their wishes - sometimes with some minor adjustments or negotiations. Again, my top priority is their learning. In my experiences in college and graduate school I found that instructors were likewise inclined to allow me some flexibility when necessary. So don't let anyone push you off what's right just because of their limited perspectives.

  4. Hey Pal,

    This is hands down the best bit I've ever read on due dates. I'm going to use it everywhere in my work.

    As a guy who does a fair share of work beyond the classroom too, one of the things that has always blown me away is how SHOCKED my employers are when I turn things in on deadline.

    No joke: They RARELY see someone nailing every deadline and are way more casual about it than most of my colleagues.

    Many talk about "soft deadlines" and "hard deadlines" and "drop-dead deadlines."

    This is a good example of where teachers struggle. We've never worked in any other world than schools, so we don't know that stuff.


    Rock right on,

  5. a different perspectiveOctober 25, 2011 at 12:56 PM

    hmm, so when the school district / admin inform (direct) the teacher that report cards must be sent to the office by 8:30am on a specific day (or risk discipline), the teacher should let the principal know about the 'real world'??

    Perhaps the 'real world' the teachers talk about is, in fact, the teachers' real world---change that report card deadline....see how that flies with those students' parents
    ; )

  6. I love this post because it surprised me. It also helps me to start to understand the comments on this post:
    I read it over and over and determined (as you probably will) that I do not live in the same world as one commenter, and that is probably best for both of us.

    It does beg the question, what world should we prepare our students for? The answer to that question is incredibly complicated and simple: we should prepare them for their world and equip them with the ability to give back from their own world to the whole world.

  7. Don't know how I didn't have this post on speed-dial. It reminds me of one of my greatest moments of clarity about rhetoric about the "real world."

    I spent 20+ years in Silicon Valley before returning to teaching, and early on, working in engineering organizations in which I was the least technical person in the hangar, I discovered that rigid thinking like my current admin's rants about the "real world" (much like what you describe) are completely alien to engineering culture.

    In my first few months at Sun Microsystems, I managed to blow out a motherboard on my high-end workstation. I was instantly worried that (a) I would be fired for breaking valuable equipment and (b) I would fall even further behind into the black hole of behind-ness I had been conditioned to fear all my life.

    Our division VP passed my cubicle as the IT guy was performing brain surgery on my comatose workstation. He stopped and asked the IT guy what had happened, and the IT guy told him, without looking up.

    I panicked. I started to babble about how I knew I had this big deadline for him the next day and that I would find a way to get him the presentation he needed and he just frowned at me, shrugged his shoulders, and told me, "Look. You just blew out your system's motherboard. You'll get it to me as soon as you are humanly able to. I know that."

    Then he ambled off.

    I thought about this experience the other day when one of my students started melting down about a project due that day that he was still having problems printing and getting completed in the computer lab. I told him, "I understand, and I know you. You'll get it to me as soon as you're humanly able to."

    Right then and there, he started freaking out, saying that he didn't want any more excuses or extensions or special treatment and blah blah blah, etc etc etc.

    I held up a finger to hold him off as I gathered the class's attention. "By a show of hands, could everybody in this room to whom I just granted an extension on this project please identify yourselves...?"

    Twenty other students raised their hands.

    There are times when an extension or flexibility is a signal of weakness, but much more of the time, it's a sign that the person granting flexibility is simply on speaking terms with reality.

    - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

    PS -- Even the IRS can be flexible sometimes.