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Answer these 5 questions to unlock authentic learning experiences

/ Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad

WeVideo drives authentic learning experiencesImagine how motivated students would be if we stopped assigning work and instead provided opportunities for them to create amazing things that make them feel proud. That’s what we strive to achieve through authentic learning experiences.

Authentic learning starts when students engage in learning that is both meaningful to them and related to the world they experience outside the classroom. That direct correlation with their daily lives is the antidote to the age-old gripes of “when will I ever use this” and “what does this have to do with my life?”  Kids don't care about or relate to pretend scenarios. True authentic learning happens when students are inspired genuinely, not forced. It stimulates students to take action to improve their school or community and to use their voice to make an impact on the world.

How can we create truly authentic learning experiences, that are rich in content, deepen thinking and learning, but don’t feel like “doing school?” These five questions that are designed to  help you start to build the framework for an authentic learning environment for your students:

  1. How can I create a classroom environment that is fun and doesn’t “feel like school?”

Let’s admit that many classrooms still tend to be cluttered with desks, lit by unnatural fluorescent lighting, sprinkled with uninspiring posters, and, of course, with a homework assignment written on the whiteboard.  Most of us know this is not the best environment for enthusiastic learning--after all, we toil in those spaces ourselves! Renovating one’s classroom may not be an option, but there are still plenty of things we can do to enhance the setting.

Sometimes just getting away from the classroom or the school building is the best way to experience authentic learning. If it’s not possible to step outside the classroom, we can re-imagine the classroom space to create conditions that mirror the outside world and provide space for students to dream, design, and create. Reconfigure those desks, dedicate different locations in the room to interesting themes, and use the space to mirror genuine social interaction. Compelling spaces immerse us in surroundings that push convention, challenge traditional thinking and allow us to see and feel things in unexpected ways.  The classroom culture, which should be positive, collaborative and authentic, should also influence classroom configuration. Organize your space to support high energy, laughter, fun, and an inviting tone. This is how we hope to encounter the world and why should the classroom be any different? (Check out this post for more ideas).

  1. What do I intend for students to aspire to achieve with the new learning?

When I ask students, “what’s something interesting you learned today,” they will often share a compelling fact they learned. When I follow that by asking, “what does that mean to you,” or “what are you going to do with that new learning,” or “what  does it inspire you to do,” I will frequently get a shrug, a confused look, or the classic, “I dunno.” Interesting and surprising tidbits are absolutely helpful hooks when engaging in new learning. But if students only remember the hook and don’t use it in some practical application, we aren’t providing opportunities for students to engage in deeper learning or to think with complexity about the concept. We want students to think critically. We want them to ask, “why me and how?” Truly mastering a concept means a student can connect classroom learning to predictable and unpredictable situations outside the classroom.

  1. How will I create an experience that sparks intrinsically-driven inquiry?

When we see the word “inquiry” we often imagine an activity that uses question prompts to help students ask additional and better questions. A truly authentic experience flips that script, fueling an intrinsic drive for students to ask more questions. These student-generated questions can take them to depths not predicted by the teacher. Strategies like the Question Formulation Technique, The Question Game, or the Socratic Seminar may help students develop questions, but it’s important that teachers also frame the experience in a way that motivates students to want to know more. Because intrinsically-driven questions are built out of the students’ own perspectives, they more effectively encourage students to dig further insight into how they and others see the world. The teacher’s role is to find out what students care about and create the context for students to then find solutions to challenges posed in their world. It’s important to note that the strategies mentioned don’t drive the students to ask questions. The goal is to create an experience that is so exciting that kids want to ask questions. The educator’s strategy is to ask questions that leverage students’ intrinsic motivation so they have an opportunity to think more deeply about the concepts their exploring.

  1. How will I create experiences that balance individuality with teamwork?

We often talk about how students will be required to work in teams when they enter the workforce. We use this as justification for grouping students when they work on challenges and projects, all in the name of collaboration. Additionally, we are integrating the latest tech tools to provide connectivity so students have easier access to their teacher and their fellow students.

But is it always better to solve problems by collaborating with others? A look at the real world suggests that is not the case. Learning to collaborate is important, but collaboration is a technique; a means to an end.  New research by Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein (2018) suggests that “always on” may not always be effective. Instead, “intermittently on” might be better for complex problem-solving. Rather than force students to be in constant collaboration, the best approach, and the one that reflects the world, strikes a healthy balance between group work and individual think time or reflection.

  1.  How will you help unleash your student's talents?

Our primary goal as educators is to help students discover their passion, purpose, and their voice. Everyone has the capacity to impact the world, but we all need encouragement and support to help tap into our talents and strengths. Once students identify their strengths, they gain the confidence to take action and lead. This cycle creates the momentum to learn and spread ideas, which makes the experience feel natural, exciting, and authentic. We can help students unleash their talents by not only affirming them but removing the barriers that keep them from discovery. Rules, policies, rigidity, tests, etc. keep students stuck in playing the game of school, jumping through hoops, and not seeing the connection between school and the world.

Authentic learning experience matter because they model the world. It is a safe place for developing the tools for functioning in a complex, evolving world. This includes letting students experience failure so they can learn how to overcome it. We must give them the freedom to make their own choices. Let’s help them recognize what they're good at so they can feel confident about the choices they’re making. Learning doesn’t result from rules and mandates, activities and tests, but from a shared commitment to doing work that is fun and that matters.

Let’s hear in the comments how you are transforming your classroom to embrace authenticity.

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