11 The Real World: Stop me if you’ve heard this one

by Christine Nowik

Original Blog Post in Change is Hard: May 27, 2021



My kid is barely 20 but is working a grown adult’s job, complete with the grown adult’s challenges that come with that, the grown adult’s salary, and the grown adult’s introduction to organizational culture and politics.

I shared some of the details of my kid’s experiences with my father, who said, “Well, that’s just how it is. That’s how the real world is.”

To which I replied, “That how people AGREE it is. It’s not how it could or should be. It can be changed, and we have much better options and tools at our disposal.”

My kid and I talk a lot about org culture and leadership, and one of my primary messages is that there’s a different and better way to do nearly all the things (we have a whole body of literature!). At work, he has been criticized for developing working relationships with people across the site, for example, and for “being friendly with everyone.” He’s living his work life in a different and better way, which creates some friction, especially in his mixed-generation, male-driven environment.

On his team, there’s an ingroup and an outgroup, so his approach to cross-collaboration has little value for some, despite the organization’s espoused values to the contrary.

But in the workplace — in the organization where a social and emotional ecosystem is at the heart of its functioning — these connections matter. And my kid knows they matter because I have taught and shown him through research, experience, and modeling how they matter.

This is how we change a culture: By demonstrating that an alternative exists, by expanding the field of possible options. My kid has an expanded field of options that he enacts in his environment. Should he ever have positional power and authority, he’ll use it to empower others. It’s a choice I make in my classroom, too, especially as I consider the tools I want student to have as they navigate the world beyond my classroom.

I do my best to avoid conversations with anyone who might cite “preparing students for the real world” as justification for anything in the classroom. This line of logic assumes that “the real world” is some objective, neutral reality unencumbered by the human-created values and human-enacted culture surrounding and supporting it.

Decisions I’ve heard supported by this line of logic include not accepting late work, not providing extensions or accommodations for students with unique situations or challenges, taking hard lines on policies when doing so really doesn’t matter to learning, and just generally treating all students the same independent of their individual circumstances.[1]

“Treating all students the same” may make people think they’re equitable in their approach, but nothing could be further from the truth. Educational institutions are built by and for some people to the exclusion of others. Literally, a design feature. We’ve tried to accommodate the newcomers (anyone who isn’t a son of a wealthy white member of the owning class) but the core remains largely unchanged. I’ll flesh this point out another time because I want to come to my main point:

Nearly all of the “real worlders” would say that they want the world to be a more just, compassionate place, yet they can’t see how they can “be the change” in their own spheres of influence.

I’m using ungrading for my course this summer, and in our first discussion on the matter, one of the writers noted that she’s majoring in education. The structure of our class has her rethinking traditional educational approaches because she has now seen that an alternative is possible. That little tilt in perspective gives the machine an entirely new look, and I have shown students that alternatives to traditional classrooms and pedagogies exist.

In her book, “De-Facing Power,” political theorist Clarissa Rile Hayward shares the results of her research in two public schools: One in an affluent white, suburban community; the other in a poorer Black city neighborhood. The crux is this: The field of possibilities for white students was far wider and broader than the field of possibilities for Black students, largely because teachers and administrators explicitly and implicitly limited or expanded the field.

Students in the affluent district were prepared for future leadership. Students in the poorer district were prepared for compliance.

And that’s at the heart of my complaint about “the real world.” What world are we — in our individual classrooms — preparing students for? I’m not preparing them for careers in low-paying, compliance-driven, clock-punching work. I’m preparing them for having power. I’m preparing them for seeing what to do when they have power, and I’m expanding their field of options for using that power. I’m showing them that yes, while the world looks like X, it doesn’t need to.

It can be changed, and you have the power to change it.

  1. I’m sensitive to the labor matters at play here, and I’ll address that another time.


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