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So what's the big deal with authentic learning?

Updated: May 20, 2021

If there's any industry with its list of buzz words, it's education. As a career switcher, learning the language of education was critical. I found that I often knew what people were talking about in principle, but did not use the terms educators used. Quite frankly, even now that I know the terms, I prefer speaking in plain English. So let's talk about so-called authentic learning!

Authentic leaning is an instructional approach that allows students to explore their learning in real-world context and use methods that are relevant to them. You may have also heard of project-based learning, which is one method of authentic learning. Authentic learning typically consists of the following:

- real life relevance which includes activities that closely resemble those of a professional. How often do people take timed quizzes on their jobs?

- an ill-defined problem that isn't easily solvable or doesn't have an obvious answer. In our classroom, sometimes this simply looks like deciding what one will choose to do as their activity. Other times the activity itself may be difficult to complete. I find this can be the hardest aspect to which students need to adjust. Our societal norms suggest that children should be told what and how to do things; so the idea of making these decisions can initially be daunting for students. You will often hear me say, "Try it. I promise nothing will blow up."

- sustained investigation such as projects that need to be completed over time. Sometimes students need time due to the nature of the work they have chosen. Other times, they may just need to grapple with the problem...maybe even take a break and come back to it. (We will discuss productive struggle in a future blog.)

- multiple sources and perspectives including distinguishing useful information from irrelevant. At times I may ask a child, "how can we figure this out?" Sometimes students may encounter a math task, for example, that includes extraneous information. We love to do puzzles and challenges like riddles and breakout games. All of these activities enhance the student's ability to decipher what matters most in problem solving. Furthermore, with authentic learning, students understand that there are often many different solutions or ways to approach a task.

- collaboration where success requires social connections. With our age group, it is so heartwarming to see them check in with their peers. Whether it's a planned 'turn and talk' or unscripted solicited feedback, learning from each other happens all the time.

- reflection on their learning and setting goals accordingly. All students, including our youngest learners, have some type of weekly work plan. Additionally, you will often find me conducting informal check-ins about goals and plans.

- interdisciplinary perspective whereby instruction is not limited to a single subject or set of knowledge. Not only will students use a variety of skills to complete their work, we often make connections to deliberately showcase all the different subjects we're using during our learning.

- integrated assessment woven seamlessly into the task or activity. More about assessment and grades will be discussed in another blog post, but it suffices to say that I strongly believe that timely and specific feedback is more helpful to learning than a teacher's grade assessment. For example, seeing that something they built doesn't work the way they intended encourages them to persevere and ask additional questions about why it isn't working and what can be done to improve it. Grades don't naturally enhance growth mindset in the same way. Likewise, you will notice that our student progress reports reflect this perspective as well.

One of the benefits of the homeschool environment is that learning can truly be student-led. I may introduce an idea, person, or concept and subsequently students can choose how they want to explore further. For example, we may read Mae Among the Stars, a picture book about astronaut, engineer, and physician, Mae Jemison. One student may share their dreams in response to a writing prompt. Another student may want to learn more about NASA and how to become an astronaut. A third student may want to build a space shuttle from recycled materials in our art studio. Furthermore, a student who does an art project one day may opt for written work another day. Students may also get excited about reading other books we have on astronauts and the mathematicians who helped launch them into space. From those explorations, a student might be challenged to practice their math facts and so on. The key is that they can make connections to real life rather than find themselves asking the unfortunate, but too often asked, student question-- "when will I ever use this?"

It is also important that the students learn by doing, rather than learn by listening. Of course they will listen to me. If not, why have a teacher? But my nuanced understanding suggests that their learning doesn't only come from my teaching, but rather it mostly comes from their engagement with what I've taught. I understand my place in their learning-- I wonder with them, help them set goals, and encourage them to meet challenges. The benefit of authentic learning is that children learn skills that make them successful beyond school. If you've read or watched, Most Likely to Succeed from my September 2020 blog post, you have seen authentic learning in practice and understand its value for career and life success.


Ms. Amaya

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