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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Reality check

Education often fosters too big a gap between theory and practice

Reality check

(Thomas Barwick/Stone/Getty Images)

“We’ll prepare you for life,” the colorful school brochure assured me, “the way it really is.”

It has become an educational shibboleth: “We’re here,” schools at every level claim, “to get you ready for the real world.”

But do they? If that’s a significant measure of a school’s success, a painful list of them deserve failing grades. For what many schools—both public and private—have to offer these days is an incredible distance from life the way most of us really live it.

Schools make these claims about “preparation for real life,” of course, precisely because they have a built-in reputation for being otherworldly. When we talk about something that’s not real, we tend to dismiss it as “only academic.” So almost by definition, schools live in another realm. The distance between most schools and life the way you and I know it is very big.

A few folks learn for the sheer joy of it. Most of us learn only when we have to.

That is true largely because a school operates out of context. School is, by design, an artificial anticipation of all the problems a student is going to face and all the questions he or she is going to need to answer. The smartest curriculum designer is the person who can guess in advance exactly what information the greatest number of graduates will find useful during their lifetimes.

Yet however typical that may be of a school setting, it’s not the most efficient way to learn. Nor is it the way we do most of our learning in life.

I’ll admit there are some people who, when they buy a new gizmo, immediately sit down before opening the box and read the owner’s manual from beginning to end. Before flipping a single switch, they want to know the default setting for every accessory available.

But most of us learn by trial and error. Most of us can’t wait to plug it in, turn it on, and see how far we can get before finally, as a last resort, going to the table of contents line that says, “What to do when ...”

A few folks learn for the sheer joy of it. Most of us learn only when we have to.

A good school, then, is perhaps one that resolves the tension by bringing the two realities into some kind of equilibrium. But not many schools do that very well. It’s difficult—and usually expensive—to establish an artificial context that faithfully imitates reality.

Airlines (and the military) do that exceptionally well in the training of pilots. Sophisticated flight simulators reproduce the sounds, the sights, and even the vibrations of particular flight plans so well that pilots can supposedly step from the simulator to a real cockpit and be ready to fly.

Would that it were so easy in every educational setting. Granted, most algebra books include some dreaded “real-life” problems: “If a boat chugs upstream at 8 mph when the downstream current is 3 mph, how far will the boat travel in 3 hours and 20 minutes?” But there’s a big problem with “real-life” problems. They’re phony, and everyone knows it. Role-playing has its place, but when you do it all day, every day, for a dozen years or more, it’s way too much like reading the owner’s manual without ever getting your hands on the levers.

One reason I’m involved in publishing today is that my father introduced me when I was not yet 7 years old to the marvels of movable type and a tiny 3x5 Kelsey printing press. And it was not just a hobby. We printed real church bulletins and birth announcements and missionary prayer cards. I discovered the real pain of missed deadlines. It surely beat just reading about Johannes Gutenberg.

When the educational process doesn’t take place in the context of reality, other bad things do happen. Schools tend to operate in a never-never land disjointed from reality. Schools use budgets and calendars that would drive other enterprises out of business.

So starting with curriculum and classroom content, and then taking on one issue after another, maybe it’s time for teachers, administrators, board members, parents, alumni, and donors all to say, gently but firmly, “Let’s get real.”


  • John Kloosterman
    Posted: Sat, 09/29/2018 01:02 am

    I'm starting to wonder if the problem is less with schools and more with people's demand for "real world" education.  Education IS about the real world, it's only that people have stopped applying it to life.  History, English, and Philosophy are all much maligned "useless" subjects that have enormous relevance for life as we live it--except students ignore everything their teachers have to tell them, because their parents assure them it's not really important.

  • CovenantWord
    Posted: Mon, 10/01/2018 08:45 pm

    This article has correctly observed that much of modern education is, from a strictly utilitarian viewpoint, a waste of resources. I hear this complaint daily from my high school math students. The essential distinction is that training, which the article advocates, teaches how to do; whereas, education teaches how to think. The problem, I suggest, is that a significant fraction of students would be quite well prepared for their anticipated lives through training alone; but society calls upon schools to educate all students, almost entirely without reference to motivation, aptitude, or prospects. As long as this demand continues, any effort to "get real" cannot succeed.