School Doesn't Prepare Kids for the Real World

What would it look like if school prepared us for life?

Emily Veno
April 18, 2023

Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community

The Gap Between School and the Real World

A few years ago, a meme blew up online about what we learn in school. There were several variations, but the joke was that school didn’t teach skills like how to do taxes, buy a house, get good credit, or find a job, but it did teach...that “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.”

The meme was relatable to anybody who has ever reflected on whether or not they learned useful information in school. Do you ever remember saying, "Why do we need to know this?" while doing proofs in geometry, learning about ancient civilizations, or analyzing Romeo and Juliet?

Whether traditional school prepares us for real life is a genuine concern many have about the education system. Especially in the wake of the pandemic, when parents got a direct view into what their kids were learning, many have wondered if the current model of traditional education should be completely rebuilt. Some have taken matters into their own hands, choosing to withdraw their children from public schools and switch to homeschooling, worldschooling, or innovative virtual schools, such as Prisma.

At Prisma, one of our learning values is that education should prepare learners for the real world. 98% of Prisma parents say that our school does a better job preparing their learner for the real world than their last school. “The real world problem solving the learners do is unlike anything they do in more conventional schools,” says one parent. “If anyone tells you kids aren't ‘ready’ to consider meaningful topics like the world refugee crisis, neurodiversity, building a business, or scientific research, don't listen!”

In this blog post, we will explore what it means to prioritize real-world learning, and provide concrete ideas from our program for making learning more real-world at different grade levels.

How Traditional Education Doesn't Prepare Kids for the Real World

We hear a lot about the need for real-world learning, but what does that really mean?

Here are some of the ways traditional schooling doesn’t prepare kids for the real world:

  1. Schools focus on academic work and knowledge in “school subjects”, and neglect important learning outside of these narrow topics, from life skills like financial literacy, cooking, and job hunting, to social and “soft” skills like building friendships, empathy, and executive functioning. These are skills that we use all the time in our adult lives regardless of our careers, so why aren’t they in the curriculum?
  2. School isn’t designed to prepare learners for real-world careers. Many learners go all the way through college without knowing exactly what they want to do, missing out on what could be valuable opportunities for training, career exploration, and building marketable skills.
  3. Topics covered often don’t align to real-world problems. John Tan writes that instead of asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, we should ask them what problems they want to solve. Identifying an urgent problem and feeling empowered to learn how to contribute solutions, instead of just learning facts about topics, could make education more meaningful.
  4. Work is meant for the teacher, rather than serving a real purpose. In the real world, when we work hard, it’s because we know our work will have an impact. Nobody would ever write an article for just one person to read, but we expect kids to try their best on an essay that will only be read by their teacher. Real-world education advocates argue that schoolwork should serve a real purpose, and have an authentic audience. This would help motivate kids to work harder because they see the value of what they’re learning.
  5. Traditional education tries to develop kids who follow directions and sit quietly. In the real world, most adults aren’t given step-by-step instructions. Highly successful people know how to take initiative, build something from scratch, and solve their own problems. This is why one of the key skills Prisma is focused on developing is Initiative and Follow Through.
  6. School prioritizes individual work rather than collaborative problem-solving skills. Work in the real world involves working on a team, but in schools, kids either work on their own, or do frustrating “group projects” that don’t mimic how collaborative work functions in reality. (See this brilliant blog post by Alfie Kohn for more on that).

Real-world learning is an approach that equips students with the knowledge, skills, and experiences necessary to succeed in the world beyond the classroom. This involves teaching students how to apply their learning to real-life situations, exposing them to various career paths, and providing opportunities for hands-on, project-based learning.


Why Schools Aren't Relevant to the Real World

There are several reasons why traditional education may not adequately prepare learners for the real world:

  1. The purpose of education is not universally agreed upon. Some believe that the goal of education is to prepare students for a career path, while others think that it should provide a foundational understanding of the world. This debate goes back hundreds of years (here’s an interesting timeline). Advocates of traditional liberal arts education argue that although few adults use literary analysis or history in their jobs, understanding these subjects makes people better citizens, with a rich connection to humanity. Some say that pushing too much toward all parts of the curriculum having a purpose in the real world devalues the beauty of learning for its own sake, and may discourage kids from becoming lifelong learners.
  2. Education has struggled to keep up with a rapidly changing world. For example, though most real world work involves using technology, computer science is not a required subject in the American public school system. Some argue it isn't possible to predict what skills will be needed in the future (case in point, while a decade ago many said every kid should learn to code, today, some feel that the rise of AI will make coding a less necessary skill). However, this uncertainty shouldn't mean we don’t even try to adapt our education system to prepare students for a world of rapid change. This was the inspiration behind the founding of Prisma.
  3. Adults often don't take kids seriously. Seeing school as a place where kids are separated from the world of adults limits students' exposure to real-world experiences and connections to adult mentors who can provide valuable guidance. Real-world education advocates believe kids are capable of more. Successful child entrepreneurs, like those featured in this article, prove they can have a real impact if given the chance.
  4. Many believe that teachers are the only people who should educate children. Beyond a rare career day, most kids in public schools don’t learn from adults in different fields. Imagine if we designed school so that instead of learning biology from a textbook, kids partnered with real scientists to collect data for experiments; or if instead of writing academic essays, kids wrote op-eds for their local newspapers in partnership with journalists. Some innovative school models like Portal Schools partner high schoolers with real businesses, and some homeschool co-ops have parents with different careers trade off leading activities with kids to expose them to real, authentic knowledge.

Redesigning Education for Real-World Skills

What would it look like to redesign education to focus on real-world learning?

This was our approach at Prisma:


Education has focused on knowledge (learning facts & information) for a long time, but in the 21st century, when all the world’s knowledge is accessible at the click of a button, we believe skills are more important. To design our learning framework, we consulted research from organizations like McKinsey and the World Economic Forum on what skills will be needed in the future of work. These skills included critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and adaptability. We designed our curriculum to build those real-world skills over any particular piece of content knowledge.

How does this work in practice? For example, instead of forcing every learner to learn a certain set of facts about a historical era we decided is important, Prisma learners get to choose which historical eras they’d like to research, and use hands-on project-based learning to create podcasts, museum exhibits, websites, and more inspired by history.

Communicate the Relevance

To see the value of learning, students should know the purpose of their learning experiences, rather than being told, "you need to do this because I said so." Teachers should explain how academic subjects connect to real-world experiences and students' future lives.

How does this work in practice? At Prisma, we begin each live workshop and project with a chance to explain how the activity is relevant to learners’ goals and lives. We ask kids to reflect on how they’ll use the information or skill in the future.

Include Experts

Schools should provide opportunities for students to engage with professionals, exposing them to diverse career paths and broadening their horizons. This could involve inviting guest speakers, organizing field trips, or establishing partnerships with businesses and organizations.

How does this work in practice? At Prisma, we invite parents & other experts to serve as mentors when one of our interdisciplinary themes aligns with their area of expertise. For example, we had a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist speak to learners when they were working on a news article, and had engineers volunteer to help on projects when learners were working on engineering inventions.

Real-World Learning Opportunities by Grade Level

Not all real-world learning opportunities are appropriate for all ages. To make learning more real-world, different approaches should be taken at various grade levels:

Elementary school

Implement project-based learning that is hands-on and engaging. Project-based learning brings more real-world relevance than traditional education because it is collaborative and more focused on building problem-solving skills rather than regurgitating information.

  1. When possible, bring in expert guests and mentors that expose kids to different types of careers, though truly authentic learning is more difficult when kids are still learning the basics of reading and writing.
  2. Simple life skills like cleaning up, comparing prices, and time management should be taught, with a special emphasis on social skills. Avoid going too in-depth into financial literacy, which kids won’t absorb at this age, or real-world problems, which can be overwhelming for younger kids.

Middle school

Learners of this age are ready for curriculum that addresses real-world problems. For example, students could work on a sustainability project, learning about the environment and collaborating with experts to develop solutions for their community.

  1. Project-based learning should allow for more independence and choice. Prisma middle schoolers get to choose which project they’d like to complete during each theme based on their interests and which skills they want to gain.
  2. Middle schoolers are ready for more authentic projects with real audiences. Prisma middle schoolers have built their own businesses with websites, participated in international competitions like Games for Change and YDC, and partnered with local organizations to design service projects.
  3. Life skills instruction can introduce more complex skills like cooking, investing, and budgeting. Digital media literacy should also be a focus, as kids spend more time online.

High school

Real-world learning is the most important at this stage, when kids are about to enter their adult lives. We offer work experience and learning opportunities where students can explore different career paths. At Prisma, all 12th graders spend a significant portion of their week engaged in a virtual or in-person internship.

  1. Project-based learning should emphasize authentic audiences and always serve a real-world purpose. Additionally, high schoolers should be encouraged to design their own projects based on real-world problems, rather than being given a pre-designed project to complete. This experience more closely mirrors what projects are like in adult life, and teaches important project management skills like taking initiative, setting timelines, and communicating with stakeholders.
  2. The LaunchPad program at Prisma High School explicitly focuses on college and career path exploration, allowing each high school student to explore their options and prepare for their chosen next step. They are given the opportunity to build a portfolio & resume, practice interviews, and even gain certifications through online programs or electives.
  3. Life skills education at this stage can more directly cover in-depth financial literacy topics like credit, debt, and money management. Unlike most schools, our high schoolers take a weekly Life Skills course. Check out this blog post to see the full list of what we cover.

In Conclusion

A real-world education should involve hands-on learning experiences, a focus on problem-solving, and opportunities for students to engage with mentors and authentic audiences. By redesigning education to emphasize these elements, we can better prepare learners for the challenges they will face in higher education, the workforce, and life in general.

By providing students with real-world learning opportunities and fostering critical thinking skills, we can empower the next generation of entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, and innovative thinkers to make a meaningful impact on the world.

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