An Engaging Program of Real World Learning


Consistent with current research, many Schools We Need schools work to provide the curricular approach that many students require for motivation and success, by connecting high-quality, standards-based content with an exploratory curriculum grounded in the lives and interests of the students, emphasizing hands-on active learning. Further, these schools also meet students' needs by infusing digital technology into teaching and learning across the curriculum, providing 1:1 student-to-laptop ratios.

This real world learning is an instructional strategy that organizes learning around complex activities built on multiple themes and academic disciplines, and which requires multiple steps and an extended duration of time to complete. It includes the integrated and systemic use of the following strategies:
  • having a real audience for work
  • contextualizing locally, but connecting globally
  • using real data
  • learning content through working on projects and problems
  • framing the unit through an “Engaging Task”
  • learning more through “doing” than by “sit and get”

Good educators have always known that schools need to balance the steak and the sizzle. Schools are pretty good about the "steak" and have a good handle on curriculum. But, traditionally schools haven't been as good at the sizzle. Many students need the sizzle in order to get to the steak. This section contains information about project-based learning, curriculum organized by career clusters, and plans for engaging projects.

The separate subjects are still taught, just not as separate classes. Students learn important, standards-based content through the hands-on, project-based work that they do. Instead of test and quizzes, their work becomes the evidence of the learning. There is still lecture and reading, but only in support of learning by doing and working on the projects. Projects come first, then the occasional lecture, reading, or computer-based instruction, as needed to complete the project.

The SWN & Citadel Group approach is important because students who don’t learn well in a traditional school setting often need to know why they are being asked to learn certain curricula or perform certain tasks. Therefore, engagement before instruction, meaning before content, and purpose before subject matter are necessary for students to make sense of what they are being asked to do and to learn. The SWN/Citadel Group program offers a new environment on the cutting edge of innovative practices and geared to assist all students in meeting high standards and transitioning seamlessly to a career and success in “life after school.”

Real world learning is new to many teachers, and those teachers often find it helpful when the real world learning program is phased into implementation. Real world learning also requires a more flexible way to award credit and manage grade promotion than traditional courses.

Components of Real World Learning

Real world learning is made up of several key components. In real world learning, we start with the compelling theme or problem, then decide which tasks/activities and skills/knowledge are needed to complete the project. These are then correlated to standards.

Projects and problems are based on themes of social significance and personal interest, for example:
  • Poverty
  • Crime Scene Investigation
  • Urban Sustainability
  • Women’s Rights
  • Health Issues such as HIV/AIDs, etc.
  • Music
  • Human Rights

Real world learning (and hard to teach students) require pedagogies beyond direct instruction, including the following:
  • Connecting with kids
  • Learning by doing
  • Real world connections
  • Technology integration
  • Student voice & choice

Although it is important to acquire new knowledge and skills, real world learning focuses on higher order thinking.
  • Lower Order Thinking: Remember/Understand
  • Higher Order Thinking: Apply; Analyze/Evaluate; and Create

Real world learning also requires an alternative plan for granting students credit and grade promotion. Instead of seat hours and course credits, real world learning needs a system based on "hours logged" and "standards met."

Examples of the types of thematically organized project-based learning activities that might be designed for students include:

Community Resource Map – Students would be engaged in identifying, researching and graphically representing different types of “resources” in their own neighborhoods, for example: where is the library? Where are the parks? Where are various types of businesses? What services are offered at these sites? How can families access them? Where should the neighborhood prioritize building new resources? Students would learn research skills, communications skills, graphics and computer skills as they work together creating an actual map of their neighborhood, with important sites identified. An accompanying directory could be created, or even a documentary video. Students could learn how planning, literacy and math skills are foundational in all curricular areas as they put together and present community development proposals.

CSI/Criminal Forensics Lab – Students would utilize scientific principles and methods to conduct research and develop solutions to medical, forensic, and environmental issues that impact our community. Students would use investigative science techniques to solve intriguing problems involving the law. Students would use scientific evidence to paint a picture of what happened in the past. DNA, fingerprinting, physical evidence analysis, scene reconstruction, and biotechnology are some of the techniques that would be introduced. Students would explore issues in medical science and human anatomy/physiology through their involvement in scientific research projects, and would investigate how a healthy body functions and how it reacts to disease. Students would conduct field research to develop an awareness of the impact of human activities on the environment. The data collected could be used to design and produce environmentally friendly products, solve problems and investigate policies that ensure sustainability and stewardship of the Earth's resources. Students could develop skills in surveying, geographical information systems (GIS), aerial photography and satellite digital image manipulation; digital mapping, and geographic positioning system (GPS) topographic data. Students would investigate the inner workings of the human mind on the chemical level. They will learn why people behave in certain ways. What factors influence behavior? How is behavior controlled, changed and modified?

Sample ResulTech Real WorldLearning Units


Resources for Teachers Using Real World and Project-Based Learning in their Classrooms


Benefits of Real World Learning

Given a near-universal standard that students and their educational experience should be judged by what the student knows and can do, this blended curriculum approach is the most closely aligned instructional method with this expectation as projects integrate academic knowledge and hands-on activity. Motivating student and teacher alike, a blended curriculum of real world learning can be designed around themes relevant to a given school and its surrounding neighborhoods, and to the economic development and workforce demands that students will face upon high school graduation.

Further, real world learning allows students to practice thinking across disciplines in organic, natural ways akin to what will be expected of them once they leave their formal education. Because projects reflect real-world challenges and unknowns, students work within a complex environment that requires and refines their ability to structure and solve problems. Students will be required to plan their tasks in advance, sequence their work, check their progress, and, in the end produce a product, exhibition, performance, or some other method by which learning is demonstrated. Moreover, most projects involve collaborative and group learning scenarios which reflect the demands of the modern workplace.

Through their ability to integrate various content areas and instructional methods, real world project-based designs are particularly well suited as an avenue to support the many demands that teachers face today—such as compliance with standards; demands for authentic instruction and assessment; inclusion of higher order thinking skills; and instruction designed to attend to varied intelligence levels, student interests, life experiences, and students’ readiness to learn.



State Curricular Standards




The Schools We Need Project

Because some students need more than direct instruction.

The Schools We Need Project is a joint project of the Maine Center for Meaningful Engaged Learning at the University of Maine at Farmington