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Teaching with Real-World Problems

Teaching with Real-World Problems

This is the fourth post in a series on Progressive Pedagogy in which I very briefly summarize some pedagogical theory and offer an exercise (or two) that you can use in your classroom to put that theory into practice. To read my first post in the series, click here.

bell hooks comments in Teaching to Transgress that her current students demand more from professors than her own generation did. She was writing in the 1990s and now, in 2019, the same is true of my own students.

9/11 happened when I was a high school student, and it opened up my sheltered world but, even then, I never thought to ask education to change. Then the stock market crashed the fall of my senior year in college and it hit me that the "real" world I would enter was not at all like the world my parents and teachers had prepared me for. 2008 deflated my hopes and dreams. I moved in with my grandparents, worked full-time, took a full course load, and paid out-of-state tuition for a Master's education that was, outside of academia, meaningless on a CV. I've learned a great deal from teaching at CUNY, but most importantly, flexibility. My students manage food and housing scarcity, poor transportation accessibility, and many of them are immigrants or, like myself, are descendants of immigrant families, and have it far worse than I did. Millennials, in my experience, are the least spoon-fed generation.

hooks writes about her students in 1994: "They do want an education that is healing to the uninformed, unknowing spirit. They do want knowledge that is meaningful. They rightfully expect that my colleagues and I will not offer them information without addressing the connection between what they are learning and their overall life experiences" (19). 

In my last post, I wrote about growing with students, intellectually and spiritually, and how entry/exit tickets aid that process, establishing a line of communication and dialogue between student and teacher. In this post, what I want to add in response to hooks' words above is that we must take opportunities like entry/exit tickets and Think-Pair-Share responses and connect our course materials to students' real-world problems and issues. What I'm offering is not a specific classroom activity but a strategy, praxis, or approach to course content that could be applied using the entry/exit ticket activity from my previous post.

For math, science, and STEM classes, we need to give students situations to work through that are close to home, assign them real-world problems that they can relate to. We all need a healthy climate, clean water, and waste disposal. So...solve for X. 

X = reducing the carbon footprint of Y facility

X = potable water in Y county

X = Y% more efficient waste disposal between W and Z locations

Or, if you teach literature like me, we need to find the timeless issues in literature that are relevant to today's issues, that resonate with the sorts of problems students are working out for themselves. Choose to follow the story lines of minor characters. Teach Octavia Butler's Kindred alongside American slave narratives to connect the discussion to racial violence today. Compare Thomas More's Utopia to different national governing structures and political value systems across the world. Follow the love stories between female characters in Shakespeare's plays. Lead discussions about consent, sexism, and domestic violence, and about diversity, tokenism, and inclusion on the college campuses where students struggle with these problems and issues every day. 

hooks writes about the fear of bringing the self into the classroom because the conditions of the self might interfere with the teaching process (17) but she found that the opposite was true: self-actualization through critical thinking allows students "to assume responsibility for their choices" (19); bringing the self into the classroom dispels the myth that professors are "all-knowing, silent interrogators" (21) and instead models self-actualization and personal accountability as well as the vulnerability and honesty required for the deep and intimate learning that changes a life, reaches the souls of students. 

Sharing one's standpoint, bringing the self into the classroom first, as hooks recommends in engaged learning, is a start. Then, set up problems and questions to which there are no single right answers. Give students real-world problems to solve and questions to answer for themselves (very different from answering to get something right), problems and questions that require consideration, care, and personal reflection, growth, and development. 

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