In this space last time, I related an incident that occurred ‘back in the day’:  I had made a careless arithmetic error that affected my test score and, while I had worked the problems with the ‘correct’ procedures, my teacher had told me that ‘in real life, you don’t get partial credit for a building that falls down.’

Let’s leave that incident itself (and the participants) back in the ‘60s, but move that thought into the present. With an eye on the future, let’s explore the broader issues in play, along with some others.  For those broader issues and dilemmas are still very much alive.

As an educator it seems that the basic underlying question is this:  How do we prepare our students to learn the skills they need for their future professions, and still allow them to make the necessary mistakes that allow them to learn those skills in the process? Where do we draw the line?

Clearly, we want to prepare our students for ‘real life’ situations, and the ‘perfection’ those situations require. (If one builds a bridge, it must stand up to decades of brutal treatment.) Yet our students are NOT in ‘real life’ yet, and they are often far from having developed the skills they will need when they arrive.  Is that not what ‘school’ is for, after all?

These important questions are not restricted to any one discipline, of course.  How do we teach youngsters to ride bicycles without knowing they will spend some time losing their balance, and skinning their knees?  How do we hone the skills of a young future Hemingway without putting up with – and correcting – some pretty boring and pedantic writing in the process?  How do we encourage a future Yo Yo Ma who has just picked up his/her first cello, and who will make some interesting sounds in the beginning?  The analogies are abundant.

As we prepare and work with our students in all their disciplines, it makes sense that we must be patient and allow – even encourage – the missteps that will occur along the way.  It’s all part of a learning process that prepares students for ‘the real world’. Part of what makes a good teacher is knowing when and how rigidly to walk that fine line for the benefit of all.

Interestingly, though, there is another side of the same coin.  There are often places where we are shortsighted in the other direction, and could do a better job of preparing for ‘the real world’ earlier than we do.  In my own discipline, for example, I have often wondered how we prepare students for the ‘real world’ where folks work in teams, use technology (both for communication and computing), and often extend projects over weeks at a time, when we force them to do arithmetic problems by themselves, using paper/pencils only (no technology), and operating within a time limit!  It doesn’t make sense.  Other such examples abound.

As always here, the ongoing task of educating our youth for the future is a long-term process that is a delicate tightrope walk.  We must simultaneously keep our eyes on the future product, while focusing on the present, and working with students as they are when we get them.  It’s a delicate and dangerous balance.  It’s one small part of what makes education both a challenging and a rewarding endeavor.