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Two ways to help students build real world skills

How do we take students beyond the curriculum? With a range of requirements placed on schools, this question can sometimes feel simply aspirational.

However if a school doesn’t prepare them to apply their skills, knowledge and creativity outside of our curricula, what are we actually offering?

In my own experience, I have found that applying school curriculum to the real world and inviting student voice are two ways that schools can start to take students beyond the curriculum.

 

Applying School Curriculum

My last school’s curriculum framework was exclusively project based. It was a challenge, but at the centre of every project I had to find a “real world” connection - a relevant application or problem that required the academic skills outlined in my curriculum. It’s probably easier to explain it in practice rather than principle.

 

Developing leadership skills

I taught a leadership course one year. I wanted my students to “do” leadership not simply learn about philosophies and tips. Prior to the school year starting, I contacted community organisations to identify possible needs my students could address. Early in the year, I scheduled a representative from each of the organisations to come in and pitch their project to the class (about 35 students in total). In between presentations, we would discuss as a class what it would take to accomplish the project - project team size, time, etc. Once all of the organisations had presented, students organized into project teams around their interests. They then set to work. 

My traditional class lectures and activities focussed on providing them with the key skills and tools needed. I gave them a tutorial in using Trello - a free project management software; we did budgeting exercises. I coached them in developing their communications via email, on posters, making phone calls, etc. Every two weeks, they started Friday’s class with a team meeting.  I would give them feedback and provide progress grades based on biweekly reflections. Once they had a clear plan for the project, they had to present it to the class and receive feedback.  

Eventually, they pitched their solution to the organization and carried it out. I had students design an addition to a local park; others ran a Lego donation drive for a local primary school. Some students spent part of a school day teaching primary school girls about the importance of STEM through activities. One group painted the interior of a homeless shelter. 

Sound complicated? It was. That’s the truth of it: learning is messy, especially when applied to real world problems. G-Suite and my school’s VLE were indispensable. I provided feedback, set up student collaborative work spaces and organised key learning materials. Was it worth it? Absolutely. My students had skills and accomplishments they could readily add to a scholarship application or CV. Better yet, they had the confidence gained by meeting a need in their community.

What ways could you and your teachers get students applying your curriculum to real world problems? With Ofsted’s increased focus on well-rounded students, schools, I think there’s the latitude to experiment. Here are a couple resources to get you thinking:

 

Inviting Student Voice

I was assigned to teach a psychology course several years back, and I got an idea: structure the course through questions. At the beginning of the year, I had them take a survey to vote on a list of pop psychology questions. Armed with a list of ranked questions, we worked through the curriculum. Periodically, we revisited them to reflect and rerank. 

It worked really well because I had their buy-in by prioritising the questions that were most relevant to them without compromising my curriculum.  I had our first unit on the brain’s structure already planned so that gave me time to structure the curriculum in order to answer their questions and meet standards in a sensible sequence. It felt like a big risk when I set out, but I saw it succeed in practice.  It got me thinking about other opportunities to involve student voice. 

 

What gets your students’ attention? What do they want for their future? 

Schools are perfectly positioned to help students explore their interests at different stages in the journey. Many schools survey their students on their interests. What happens with that information at your school? Many schools I work with use that information for university and career mapping. However, the role of the students is largely passive after this point as far as the school is concerned. They don’t necessarily do much with the result of those surveys.  

What if students were tasked with independently exploring resources and activities connected with those expressed interests? Your school might not currently offer coding courses or niche humanities courses, but you can connect them with tools like Codecademy or Open University. Give them a chance to go beyond the courses you currently offer. From there, schools can reenter the conversation. What did students learn during their exploration? How does that impact their future planning? A little planning and the right tools could make this process both impactful and sustainable.

 

Means and Ends

What should our students receive from their school experience? The exact details of the answer are bound to vary, and they should. Learning is messy. No two students are ever the same. Each individual student changes and grows while we journey with them. 

Programs like VEX robotics are helping schools craft a more timely, relevant journey for students. Ultimately, our curriculums are just practice runs for students’ long term success beyond the curriculum. What opportunities do you and your school have to help students achieve their full potential? Consider them carefully. With the right approach, we can go the distance with them.

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