Real and relevant: adult and child worlds on a Sunday morning

I spent Sunday morning this week with my daughter at Kidzania, the ‘indoor city for kids’ situated in Westfield Mall at White City, London (and replicated in various major cities across the world). For those of you who don’t know Kidzania, it is designed so that children aged 4-14 can explore a replica ‘city’, with a range of structured activities centred on establishments such as newspaper offices, a fire station, a detective agency, a hospital and a pilot training facility … the sorts of establishments, in fact, that can be found in any city, but just condensed (and shrunk in height) to make them entirely accessible to children.

It was not in fact my first visit, but I found it as highly stimulating as my first – and do remember that the adults are not really supposed to be involved in the activities; my interest came purely from my observations and reflections on the concept and practice that I could see. The children were joyful, moving purposefully from activity to activity, making choices about where to go, counting and managing their money (they earn a salary for some activities, and have to pay for others), and generally taking charge of their learning. As an educator, what could be more exciting?!

Reflecting on the session, I returned with renewed vigour to the question of how our schools can replicate a sense of this meaningful, relevant, work-orientated learning as part of their curriculum. Schools, after all, are mandated by society to nurture and develop the interests, skills and awareness of their students, and part of this mandate must be to ensure that these young people can connect with the sorts of experiences that they will have when they start to work in paid employment in their twenties.

(Note that I resist here the temptation to write ‘when they enter the ‘real’ world’; I believe more and more firmly that we do not take seriously enough the fact that our children already inhabit the ‘real’ world – they work, live, experience the world around them … how much more real can the world be? This will be a topic for another blog…)

When I speak at conferences and work with schools on social and global mobility, I emphasise the importance of community involvement in developing relevant work opportunities for students, and I sometimes refer people back to a paper which was written in 1998 but which still rings true today. Written by researchers at Brown University, as part of the drive to facilitate a better transfer of people to the then ‘workforce’, the paper makes a particularly salient observation:  

“The most important factor in a school’s ability to put [the vision of developing a strong school-career path] into practice is the involvement of a broad community of adults in the learning experiences of young people. This is by no means standard practice in our schools. For most of this century, what students have been expected to do in school has been dissociated from the life and work of the community in which they live. Unlike the last century, when young people participated in the farming, small businesses, and trades of their family and neighbors, the work of adults has become largely invisible to today’s young people. There are few, if any, opportunities to work alongside adults, or to be taken seriously in an enterprise worthy of adult concern.”

The authors then take the reader through a series of very practical ‘how to’ steps, based on the 6 As of planning work-related experiences and strategies (Academic Rigor, Authenticity, Applied Learning, Active Exploration, Adult Connections, Assessment Practices), which – as they demonstrate – help teachers and school leaders see students going out to work as a rigorously and carefully thought through part of their learning journey. It is often said that the old ideas are the best – and certainly, ideas which have stood the test of time as these ones have are absolutely worthy of our attention.

What we should perhaps consider carefully is that education systems on the whole have not really embraced these notions – ‘work experience’ is often seen at best as an add-on (and at worst as a distraction) from the ‘real’ focus of preparing students to achieve high academic grades … ignoring the fact that these are systems where the majority will (no matter how this is packaged) by definition fail, because they won’t be able to reach the highest grades, upon which the rest of their future is predicated.

Experiential learning – learning by reflection on actual doing – is how we learn as adults, and so (unsurprisingly!) so too do children. Let’s start by talking more about how we can all work together to integrate and embed whole world experiences more effectively into the education of our schooled children. Learning is for life, not just for Sundays, after all …

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