How Should We Define “Real World”?

Jordan Tinney, superintendent/CEO in Surrey School District in British Columbia, Canada, posted a piece earlier this year about preparing students for “the real world.” He raises the question of what people mean by the phrase, which, considering how often the term is used, certainly merits investigation.

Tinney argues that the only way secondary students’ “real life” experience differs significantly from adults’ “real life” experience is that secondary students are not typically financially independent.

Tinney writes:

Separate from financial independence which is a huge deal – is life in secondary school as you remember it much different from life at work? Were the social situations similar, did you experience power structures, expectations, were there consequences for not doing things you should? Did you have opportunity, and were there both times of celebration and times of disappointment?

Although I agree with Tinney’s point that students’ life at school is as real as adults’ life at work aside from the issue of financial independence, those rhetorical questions bothered me. After chewing on them for a few weeks, I’ve concluded that although life at work and life in secondary school may have broad similarities, secondary school and post-secondary-school work as I experienced them were different in three significant ways.

One of the big visible differences between school and full-time work was the technology used. At school, we had the latest electronic gadgets; at work, I was expected to use equipment that I’d only seen stacked in the back of the janitor’s closet. Not only was I expected to use what I thought of as antiques, but I was expected to know how to maintain those devices.

Employers still expect employees to be able to hand write a short note legibly. Windows XP is still the dominant operating system in entry-level employees encounter in today’s businesses. And employees are still expected to be able to operate and maintain fax machines and mail meters without instruction, even though they may never have seen either before.

A second major difference was in the way deadlines were treated. In school, students were allowed to take as much time as they wanted as long as they met the deadline for the assignment. At work, I was not only expected to meet the deadline for the project but to do it without working any overtime and while completing all my other work on time.

The third major difference between my secondary school experience and my post-secondary work experiences was that my employers didn’t try to make work fun. In school, teachers assigned projects that were supposed to be fun and to allow students to be creative. They rarely succeeded, but it wasn’t from lack of trying.  On the job, I was told what to do, forbidden to deviate from the directions, and expected to keep busy, but not so busy that I worked hours for which I wasn’t scheduled.

In my post-secondary work life before I got professional credentials, I cleaned rat cages, shelved books, opened mail eight to 12 hours a day, and sterilized eight-ounce brown bottles. I did not find any “times of celebration” in my work,  although I did get a pair of gerbils to keep.

I don’t know whether my personal experiences are representative of anyone other than myself. I do think, however, that since so many people use the phrase “real life” as a antonym for school, it’s important to know what they mean by it.

Maybe Tinney is right in thinking that school life adequately prepares students for work life aside from the actual transition to financial independence. I suspect, though, that there are elements of entry-level jobs available to secondary school graduates that are qualitatively different from their secondary school classwork equivalents.

How do you see the issues?