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Bringing the Real World into our Classrooms

Are teachers talking about the current world situation in classrooms across the world? Generally speaking, pressing world issues or even important local issues, have a hard time squeezing into the crowded preset curriculum that most teachers feel they have to follow. Is it any wonder that children experience difficulties in connecting what goes on in schools to the rest of their lives?

In 1995, I was teaching at Doshisha International Jr/Sr High School in Kyoto, and there was a very large earthquake in Kobe. Some of our students were from Kobe, others had relatives there, and most of us felt the early quaking, even from over 400 kilometers away. I felt that we should change from our normal school curriculum and look into ways that our community could help our neighbors -- whether by money, food, blankets or time. Actually, though I do know that these questions were discussed in some classes and some teachers and students went to Kobe to help in various ways, school went on in pretty much a regular way, in spite of this earthquake and the people of Kobe being foremost in everyone's minds that week.

I wonder how the present social, political, environmental and economic earthquakes of our present lives enter into the classroom, in Japan for example? Is anyone talking with younger kids about this or other aspects of the present world situation? For example, the wars in different countries or various environmental conditions - maybe they seem bit far away from their present lives in peaceful Japan? But surely the economic changes their country - or even closer to home, their parents - are experiencing might come into their classrooms somehow!

I think various aspects of their parents' lives can be sensed by their children; certainly things relating to money at home. But children aren't generally given credit for being able to sense these things and what can they do about them anyway -- how can a child knowing anything about the economic situation of his parents have a meaningful effect? Generally children aren't involved in decision making about their own lives, which is a bit sad and ironic given that it is adults themselves who have created the present turbulent conditions their children are growing up in.

So what harm could come from talking to children a bit about the situation in the world. Perhaps a useful idea or two may come out; at least that's always been my experience whenever I ask young people to think about anything at all, from something very serious to something very silly.

One example might be to talk with children about the effect of what they eat on the environment. An article from the Agence France Press picked up and published on the internet news site of Common Dreams on February 17, 2009 discussed the effect of eating meat on the environment, particularly focusing on the future (that's the children's future!!) if people's eating habits don't change. (http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2009/02/16-1 )

Is it worthwhile for children to think before they order their next hamburger? Or to have them discuss such news items with their parents or school cafeteria staff? I believe that talking to kids and involving them in real world problems helps them take responsibility for themselves in increasingly meaningful ways as they grow older and leave the protective custody of adults.

Social/Political/Economic systems which have been created by adults don't have a logic that's easily understandable by most of us, whether adult or children. Right now people don't have enough money to live as they usually do, so does anyone advise them to think about changing their life style to reflect this? Eat a little less, use a little less, buy a little less. That would be rare solution for a politician to advocate, but it might make a lot of sense to a child.

What are our governments doing -- they're printing more money and passing it around and encouraging people to spend it. This is called an "economic stimulus", and it has been used successfully at different times during the past century. But how effective is it for the longer term, such as when our present day children are adults and even beyond that?

An interesting article called "Consumption amid Constraints" appeared in The Japan Times of Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2009. (http://search.japantimes.co.jp/mail/eo20090210ts.html). The author, Takamitsu Sawa of Ritsumeikan University, writes about different ways that the American and Japanese governments have stimulated the economy and how the present focus is more on stimulating the economy through environmental constraints. Professor Sawa notes that new products will be created in the two areas of "biotechnology and environmental protection" because people are hoping for longer healthier lives in cleaner, safer environments. Where will the ideas for these new products come from in the coming decades?

Of course, innovation comes from creative minds. How do we develop and encourage those creative minds? Some people might dare to suggest one way would be to get children from young ages to be mystified, surprised and challenged by being exposed to real situations in their world from a young age.

Closely connected to situating the classroom within the real world is the concept of "agency." I came across a bit of research reported in the Teachers College Press on-line magazine in an article called "And That's Just How It Starts": Teaching Mathematics and Developing Student Agency by Eric Gutstein.i The writer uses the term "agency" to refer to people "having a sense of themselves in the real world." Gutstein is particularly interested in developing students' sense of agency through the subject areas taught in school, specifically mathematics, since he is a middle school math teacher. Giving young people the opportunity to learn that they have the right and power to take responsibility for what happens around them and to relate what is being taught in school to their outside lives is to help learners make this connection to agency, perhaps the most powerful of powerful ideas.ii




i Teachers College is the Graduate School of Education of Columbia University in New York. Their own-line weekly publication has many informative reports and book reviews and can be seen at http://www.teacherscollegepress.com. Membership to read all articles is $15 US a year. Single articles can also be purchased. The reference for this particular article is: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 2, 2007, p. 420-448
http://www.tcrecord.org. ID Number: 12799, Date Accessed: 2/20/2009

ii a "powerful idea", according to the first user of the term that I know of, Seymour Papert, is one which leads to self empowerment and self discovery. I wonder, in all the hours in all the courses devoted to "training" teachers, how much is related to "agency".
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