George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Key to Preparing Difficult Students for the Real World

Dr. Allen Mendler

Author, speaker, educator
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Some of the best and most effective practices to motivate difficult students and improve their behavior at school are met with skepticism and even dismay from more than a handful of educators. These educators argue that using such practices fails to prepare kids for the real world.

The practices and objections include:

    Practice: Involve them in classroom decisions such as developing rules and consequences.
    Objection: It's nice if employers involve employees in workplace decisions and probably better for overall productivity, but they are under no obligation to do so.

    Practice: Take their interests into account when structuring lessons to make learning relevant.
    Objection: Employers are not going to change the job description to fit the worker. It is the employee who must adapt, and if not, he or she will be out of a job.

    Practice: Appreciate and focus on the student's strengths rather than emphasizing and punishing shortcomings such as lateness, lack of productivity, and disruptive behavior.
    Objection: Any one of these shortcomings could easily lead to dismissal.

    Practice: Grade each student based on how he does in comparison to himself rather than according to whether he has achieved a group-based standard.
    Objection: If you can't fulfill at least minimum job requirements, you won't get hired or keep the job for very long.

Important Differences Between School and Work

While preparing students for the "real world" is certainly important, there are important differences between the workplace and school. Students have no choice but to attend school whether they like it or not. While there, they are told what classes they must take, when they must take them, and how they have to perform in order to move to the next level. If they aren't very good in a subject, they have to either continue taking it or get remedial help until they pass. If they are unmotivated or disruptive, they may get suspended -- but they can't get fired.

By contrast, the real world allows workers to leave jobs they don't like or aren't good at, and employers to dismiss anyone who exhibits unsatisfactory performance. Most jobs require mastery of fewer things than school, therefore considerable success can be achieved even with numerous limitations. For example, I think of myself as a good teacher, writer, and speaker, but I can't do much else particularly well. Rather than spend my time trying to fix a toilet, build a shelf, plant shrubs, or repair a walkway, I call a plumber, landscaper, carpenter, or mason while I work at getting even better at my talents. Students don't have those options.

A More Realistic Goal

Since school success as represented by credentials like diplomas and degrees is now required for entry-level jobs in virtually all fields, make it really hard for students to fail school. Not impossible, just really hard! Common Core goals of career and college readiness can only be achieved if we make it hard for our lowest-functioning and least-interested student to fail. Along the way, make sure that students understand the connections between how their poor work habits, inadequate social skills, and/or inappropriate behavior may affect them if there is carry-over later on. Do what you can to impart important life skills such as a solid work ethic, promptness, patience, and getting along with others. Have rules and, as much as possible, "logical" consequences for unacceptable behavior. (For example: "Work needs to be completed. You can do it in class with others, at home, or during recess.")

Let the employer decide whether or not our uninterested student has a work ethic and set of skills appropriate to the job. Let the employer determine what strategies are necessary to get the best out of him. Ultimately, the employer will make hiring, firing, and salary decisions based on whatever criteria are used in that particular "real world." As the "school employer," I know that I am far more likely to motivate an uninterested student with poor attendance to show up, and therefore make it more likely that she will pass my class and graduate, by telling how much we missed her during her absence rather than by giving her a zero on missed assignments. For example, I might say:

You are an important member of our class, and I miss you when you aren't here. Also, you are falling farther and farther behind, and I worry that you won't be able to catch up. Help me understand how we might be able to get you here more often.

Success in school does not always portend success in life. At the end of the day, if a student "irresponsibly" passes my class, she gets a better chance to find success later in life or perhaps experiences the consequences of failing to meet her job's expectations. Kids who are the "square pegs" that can't or won't fit into the "round hole" are better served if they can look at school in the rear view mirror one day while pursuing their own path to success. Isn't it far better to prepare kids for a "real world" they cannot yet understand rather than expect them to produce behavior they haven't yet learned?

I welcome your thoughts.

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Lauren Casella's picture
Lauren Casella
Professor, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles

Dr. Mendler,
Thank you for posting on this issue. I agree in allowing the future to be the future.

In my reflection on this topic, I am drawn to the works of John Dewey. Dewey presents the argument in "My Pedagogic Creed" that states, "It is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be in twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions." And furthermore he adds, "Education, ..., is a process of living and not a preparation for future living."

In education, a teacher's purpose is not meant to train students for their future life. This is their world - as a 6th grader or senior in college. Allow these persons the experience of living in their world - and make school, skills, activities, assignments, purposeful to their lives. Now is life. Telling a student "a future boss will not accept tardiness" will not effectively serve as motivation for a student to be prompt. Provide the situation where a student leader will begin a class discussion at 10:00 sharp to review each students' proposals for next month's field trip. Let the students own their learning.

Lastly, assignments matter in schools. Elliot Eisner says in his piece What Does It Mean to Say a School Is Doing Well?, "There is too much labor in our schools - and not enough work. Work is effort from which you derive satisfaction." Let's make students work in school. Can we please eliminate busy work from students' lives?

Again, thank you, Dr. Mendler, for posting on this topic. It's a worthy discussion. I too welcome comments.
-Lauren Casella

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator

Thanks Lauren for your very thoughtful comment. In particular, Dewey's definition of work is central to this theme. Kids who are turned off in school don't derive satisfaction from the work they are given, and are mostly given work they haven't chosen. While they need a base of literacy to learn about the world beyond their immediate reach, teaching this literacy more often through their interests and passions is likely to achieve far better results for many.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

I'm curious to hear more about what you mean by "make it hard to fail." I agree that we should look at natural consequences rather than create false ones based on "what work is like" - but it's also essential to hold high expectations for at-risk or "difficult" students. High expectations aid success; low expectations lead to dropping out.

I agree with Lauren that a great strategy is to make the expectations MATTER - love the example of starting with meaningful work at 10 sharp, rather than having 15 minutes of "busy" work that most of us wouldn't feel motivated to start on time. When I hear folks say "students are lazy," I hear, "I don't know my students very well." When we know what motivates and what challenges our students, we can better serve all of them.

Michelle Farkas's picture

the definition of work is what jumped out at me and summed up the topic. Thank you all for an enlighting read.

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