Real Life Learning

By Hope Wilder

  This is the counter where we talked!

This is the counter where we talked!

The other day I was in the local hardware store, and I overheard the family that runs the place talking to their teens who were unhappy about school.

“Don’t worry, son, school isn’t like the real world.  It’s not like school was much use of me anyway. I just put my head down and got through it, then learned most of what I need on the job.”

“Hear, Hear!” I interjected from the next aisle. “You guys are speaking my language!”

Then I told them that I was buying letters for the mailbox at a new program I was founding, sort of like a school for people who hate school. A place where you are free to decide what it is you need to learn, how to learn it, and who will help you, if you need help getting where you need to go.  They couldn't believe me that such a thing exists, and I proved it by showing then this website. The teens seemed disappointed that they’re over our age cutoff of 14, but they wanted to know more.

  This is the mailbox I was shopping for!

This is the mailbox I was shopping for!

We talked excitedly, and then they came to the big question- “But, if kids do what they want all day, what are they learning?”

“They’re learning how to learn,”  I said. “And that’s what you need to live in the real world.” Heads nodded in general agreement.

Life happens. As an adult, how do you deal with unpredictable circumstances that come your way? Hopefully, you’ve learned how to learn what you need to know to overcome the obstacles of daily life. Also, I hope that you have learned things that are useful for your life since you last spent time in a classroom!

Here’s an example. I recently injured my knee. So the learning I am engaged in right now looks like:

  • How to use crutches

  • How to interface with the complex medical system

  • Anatomy of the knee, in painful detail*

  • How to move things around the house without use of my knee and do the practical parts of life- paying bills, buying groceries, doing laundry, with a new disability.

  This is the knee which I busted! (Standing inside the Pathfinder space in our largest room.)

This is the knee which I busted! (Standing inside the Pathfinder space in our largest room.)

So I’m hobbling around. I’m inspired by watching guys dance on crutches on YouTube. I’m learning to let go of the idea that my house has to be tidy, because I simply can’t do it. I’m adapting and finding new solutions, like carrying a bag around my shoulders to take things from room to room, using my travel mug instead of an open mug so I spill less tea. Learning how to ask for help, how to be gracious in need.

An injury is truly a terrific real-life learning experience!

Are any of the things I’m learning successfully and generally taught in school? Should they even be?

How could anyone 15 years ago anticipate the fact that I would need to know, at age 33, how to walk on crutches?

Or…does life simply present the lessons one needs to learn along the way?

Another example:  As a teenager, I made my own GeoCities websites for the fanart, costumes, and (cringe) fanfiction I made for various anime series I was into. I worked long hours into the night with HTML. I don't think the products were particularly anything to brag about, as literary endeavors, and the websites were cluttered and clunky. But thanks to my hobby, I now have the skills I needed to learn how to use the website platform I needed for Pathfinder. A frivolous side pursuit was a much more important skill for me than most of what I learned in school.

Let’s take a look at another angle. Imagine you’re hiring someone new in a profession you are familiar with, it could be a current job or a former workplace, even somewhere you had a junior position, imagine yourself to be in the role of selecting promising candidates. Would you rather hire someone with 5 years hands on experience in the field, who learned “on the job,” or someone with 5 years of schooling and related degrees, but no practical experience?

I don’t have a problem with academic schooling. I have a problem with forced academic schooling, and locking young people away from the world in which they will have to live, the world they will help to co-create in the future.

At Pathfinder, we believe that people learn best by doing, and that the young people of today will learn to be adaptable, to figure out what they need, and how to get it on their own. As prior research shows, incredibly independent, resourceful, and resilient people come out of self-directed learning environments. We’re creating that environment today, for kids to learn the way that we believe is best: through real life experience.


*-The funny thing is, Anatomy and Physiology is the ONLY required college course I failed. Failing the course was one of the most educational parts of my college experience, in terms of real life learning.