Have you ever heard these questions: “Why do we have to learn this? or “Am I ever going to use this in real life?” Although these common questions can be frustrating, it reveals a need that students have for relevance and authenticity in their learning. Regardless of the grade level, teachers today have a long list of standards and skills to teach their students every year. While effective teachers are very focused on creating rigorous and diverse lessons to meet those standards, how often do we consider the context? In order for students to be truly successful, lessons must be relevant and authentic. The best way to create relevant and authentic lessons is to frame them in the context of real-world problems or situations. Here are the top 12 ways to bring the real world into your classroom:

Invite guest speakers

Reach out to people in your community and invite them to be guest speakers regarding topics about which your students are learning. For example, if students are learning about animals and/or biology, perhaps invite a veterinarian to speak to students. You could also invite a local author or newspaper editor to talk about the process of writing and editing in English/Language Arts class. When learning about cities and environmental effects, consider inviting a city planner or mayor. You could always ask a principal, lawyer, or doctor to come and speak to your students. Seeing and listening to people who have achieved in these areas may just inspire students and give them something to strive for.

Developing empathy

Of course, some students seem to be born with empathy for others. They are able to express love and concern for others in a truly selfless way. However, most will need some help along the way to look outward instead of inward. In almost any community, students are aware of the plight of homeless people. By examining statistics regarding the homeless in a nearby area and thinking of real ways that they can help, students will be encouraged to develop empathy for others. Service projects involving the homeless, or perhaps, those in nursing homes, can also help students begin to feel for others in a way that will inspire action. 

Current events

Particularly in the area of social studies, using current events can help make learning relevant and authentic. When there is a local or general election, teach about that and conduct your own campaign and election in class. This could be varied in many ways so that it could be used for any grade level. Use current bills that are being debated in Congress and debate them in class. Take a look at issues involving lobbyists or political activism and discuss the pros and cons.

Social justice

As students study history, anywhere from pre-Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, they can explore issues of social justice. Students can learn about the importance of standing up for what is right. They could also learn about what it really means to peacefully protest and how Martin Luther King Jr. utilized it for the greater good. They could create signs and organize marches. They could discuss injustices that they are aware of or have noticed in their school or community and discuss ways to improve this situation with classmates.

Field trips

Sometimes instead of bringing the real world into the classroom, you can take the classroom out into the real world. Finding institutions that will allow students to interact with employees can be highly beneficial for reinforcing many skills. Grocery stores, banks, restaurants, law enforcement agencies, nursing homes, and retail stores, just to name a few, provide great opportunities for students to observe skills they’ve learned being put to use and how their newly acquired skills will help them function in the real world.

Manners and etiquette

Many years ago, children learned at least basic manners at home and, thankfully, some still do. However, most educators understand that between the lack of family-time and the rise of handheld technology, many students lack some basic social skills, particularly in regards to manners and etiquette. Hopefully, you would be able to intervene at a young age to teach manners, but even if students are older it is still necessary to make sure they know at least very basic manners and etiquette. These kinds of skills will be necessary as students apply for jobs, meet new people, go to college, etc.

Finance training

So many students graduate from high school without basic knowledge of how to write a check or open a bank account. It is also important to help them understand the benefits of saving money and the dangers of credit cards and other high interest loans. Setting up a classroom economy and allowing students to choose careers/salaries and create budgets can be a powerful way to teach the importance of healthy financial habits. 

Primary source documents

Encourage better independent research skills by providing students with primary source documents for examination in the classroom. Students can work together to answer document-based questions. Learning to examine original documents to derive meaning is a skill that students will need throughout their lives.

Use the news

Whether you are teaching about community leadership, government, or nonfiction literature, a great idea is to bring in some articles from local or national newspapers. You can put students in groups and allow them time to read the articles and discuss with one another for better understanding. Students can then debate ideas about the issues being discussed and ways to improve difficult situations. 

Simulate a real-world experience

Anytime you can simulate real world experiences in the classroom there is much to be gained. One example of a simulated experience is mock job interviews. This is something that students absolutely need to be prepared for. Not only can you simulate interviews, but you can also walk them through the whole process of filling out applications and communicating appropriately with would-be employers. Another great experience to simulate is a social situation in which students can practice manners and etiquette from earlier lessons.

Community work

Giving students opportunities like feeding the homeless or raising funds for underserved communities can help bring the real world to the students in your classroom. Another opportunity is cleaning up areas that are overwhelmed with trash and litter. Students could help clean up and refurbish parks in their community. This can help students understand the importance of working together within a community for the common good. 

Life skills

Again, many of these kinds of skills used to be predictably taught in the home. This is becoming less likely and therefore, more important to incorporate into our curriculum. As basic as it may seem, all students need to know how to prepare food, at least on a very basic level. By showing students just a few very simple recipes, they gain a better understanding of meal preparation. There are other skills related to household management that students will need to know. Basic cleaning and self-care skills are skills that many students don’t get taught at home and are critically important for students to know how to do before they are on their own. And, as unfortunate as it is, some students can benefit from those skills more immediately than others as some children, due to parents’ demanding work schedules or situations of neglect, find themselves in the difficult position of taking care of themselves and sometimes their younger siblings as well.

If you are able to successfully integrate these types of real-world experiences into your classroom, you won’t hear questions like “Why are we doing this?” anymore. Students will not only understand and achieve in the given skill or standard, but they will also understand the context. This is when truly authentic learning takes place.

*Updated July 2021