Real-world learning: linking education to ‘real life’

Gary King

Gary King is deputy headteacher at Isca Academy in Exeter, where he leads Teaching and Learning. He frequently writes an educational blog focusing on all aspects of teaching, learning and wellbeing, and is also a keynote speaker. Gary works with every member of staff across the College to promote excellence in the classroom, and his vision is to encourage collaboration across the learning community to ensure Isca’s young people are the best they can possibly be. 

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I’m constantly reading articles in broadsheets, such as; “We’re so well educated - but we’re useless” and “The dead hand of central government is weighing down on children and schools”. It’s obvious that the government’s curriculum reforms, as well as proposals to devalue vocational courses, really has meant that schools and colleges need to be creative and look at more innovative strategies to link learning to real life. We need to realise that the pressures of exam results run the risk of turning students into examination machines without actually preparing them for life.

So I asked the question; within lessons, can students link their learning and the skills they are developing to real life? Can they understand the relevance of the subject in a real life context or do they just see school as something that happens before they are let loose into the ‘real world’?

We know there is an overwhelming amount of external pressure on students and staff to achieve and get results. However, if any student, at any given point through their curriculum journey, can link / contextualise what they are learning to real life scenarios, then surely attainment, progress and active engagement in learning will improve as a consequence?

This is something I’ve been developing with a team of staff over the last two years. We’ve been exploring innovative approaches to how education can bring real life into all aspects of learning, for all students. I’m not necessarily referring to a field trip or a work experience placement in isolation, as may traditionally takes place in many schools. What we are considering here is a much more embedded learning experience, one that links common threads of the real world across the whole curriculum, immersing students learning in the ability to link these transferable skills to real life situations and therefore developing understanding of progression routes available to them. An open-minded approach sees this as an opportunity, a chance to improve the learning outcomes of all students.

How? A college improvement team was formed to set about transforming learning and placing the real world firmly at the heart of curriculum. The next consideration was ‘who’? The team needed to be a dedicated group of staff who felt very passionately about linking learning to real life. It’s worth noting at this point, as our college had never explored anything like this before, we needed advocates, change makers, people who would proactively lead on this and ultimately lead others on its implementation.

Looking at lessons and learning episodes in the first instance, it was decided that the strategy would be centred on equipping the teacher to deliver a new dynamic to learning. In the simple sense, these ideas ranged from explicit learning objectives linked to real life, lesson starters focussing on scenarios set in a real world contexts and home learning where students would be asked to case study famous / successful people who succeeded in particular subjects when they were at school. There were also some more complex examples such as employers getting involved with the planning, delivery and assessment of units of work. One example included conference calls to magazine editors based around the country, setting students a brief with strict deadlines and also student journalists following world changing events, such as the Olympic Flame journey, reporting live on the radio and writing up their report for the local newspaper.

To summarise, our key priorities arising from these early stages were:

  • Producing proven examples that work – forming the basis of a teacher ‘tool kit’.
  • Evaluating the success of the initial trials by asking the students their views
  • Continuing to build extensive links with the business community
  • Identifying a strategy to deploy this across every subject area within our curriculum and how?
  • Investigate how we can map delivery across the curriculum and also bridge the gap between education and the business world/real life
  • How do we support staff in the delivery of this? And how do we quality assure it?

Over time, as a college we have become extremely outward facing. We have developed extensive two-way working relationships with local, national and international businesses and organisations, other colleges and universities where we all work towards the same goal; enhancing the curriculum and learning experience for all. As part of our real world learning strategy, we have been actively engaged with our local chamber of commerce and also in building international links with global organisations.

A real world forum now bridges the gap between education and real life. Convening once a term, the forum is made up of key members of the business community, students and faculty champions. It’s an opportunity to engage in dialogue about how learning and curriculum design is impacting on students and also an open forum to discuss current trends that could provide exciting opportunities for all.

So what does this mean for the teacher and students? How does this work in practice? How will it improve the learning experience for all students? Ultimately, we aim to facilitate real-world learning by providing teaching teams with the links to organisations / companies / experts, enabling them deliver various aspects of their respective Curriculum in a variety of ways linked to real life, through:

  • Case studies
  • Guest Speakers/master classes
  • Joint planning of projects/units of work
  • Educational visits
  • Up to date labour market information and emerging trends to inform subject specific information, advice and guidance (IAG)
  • Work experience episodes
  • Video conferences and weblogs
  • Scenarios based upon real life contexts
  • Collapsed Curriculum days focussing on entrepreneurial learning

A key indicator of the impact of this work to date is our destinations data. Of our 2012/2013 year 11 cohort, consisting of 266 students, only one student was classed as NEET (not in education, employment or training). This would suggest that real world learning, supported by a comprehensive IAG process is highly effective. I feel that working with students to develop their skills for life should be a key priority for all schools and colleges nationwide.

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