Real-world problems with real-world projects, revisited

I was reminded of this old post from Out In Left Field yesterday when LinkedIn’s algorithms suggested I connect with a former student of mine whom I’ve never forgotten. Many years ago, this student submitted two projects to me. The second project was a redo of the first. The problem with the first project was that it was based on a program for autistic students that, with just a bit of sleuthing, I was able to determine didn’t actually exist. The problem with the second project was that, while it was based on a program that did exist, it contained word-for-word replications of the interviews with the fictional teachers from the fictional program, with only their names changed.

Because the student was connected with people in high places, they (the student)1 were able to get their grade converted not just to a passing grade, but to a grade that, as I was told privately by someone higher up than me, I would rather not know the details of.

The student’s LinkedIn page is commensurately impressive2

Real-world problems with real-world projects

I’ve long had reservations about the real-world projects that much of the K12 world is infatuated with. They often detract from time spent on foundational content and basic skills. They often involve a large ratio of effort/time to learning (with time lost to travel, assembly, and other logistics). They often don’t match the actual real-world demands that students need to meet upon graduating. And, to the extent that they do, they are perhaps better learned out completely outside the academic setting– i.e., out in the real world. Let the academic courses focus on what they’re most suited to: generalized content and basic skills.

Recently a more practical downside to real-world projects has occurred to me: they’re much easier than traditional assignments are to fake. No one’s looking; no one’s checking to see if the real world is as you say it is, or whether you actually went out and did what you said you did in it. Does the classroom or clinic you observed in actually exist? Are the people you interviewed real people? Did you actually conduct the experiment you wrote up and drew diagrams for? Are the results you reported ones you actually got, or merely ones you were hoping for?

Of course, similar questions apply out in the real world–as the field of psychology has recently discovered. 

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1. I’m using the pronoun “they” not to signal non-binary gender, but to hide gender altogether (“they”, seemingly self-referentially, now sometimes meaning “he/she/they”).

2. Of course, there are lots of people out there who include all sorts of invented achievements in their public proclamations about themselves. Once enough key people have died or retired or forgotten about you, you can make all sorts of claims about awards, fellowships, and grade point averages. But it is, nonetheless, an astonishing thing to witness when one happens to have access to inside information about someone that completely contradicts the claims they make on LinkedIn and elsewhere.

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