Saturday, March 21, 2015

Authentic learning involves risk of failure

Most of my experiences with learning in my K-12 schooling occurred in a traditional classroom setting. Most of those classrooms had desks in straight rows, a teacher at the front of the room, a pencil sharpener on the wall. That was fitting because most of the learning was done with pencil and paper, often answering questions at the end of the chapter. Even within that traditional setting, I had some great teachers that really inspired me and made me think. But for the most part, my education lacked inspiration and did not require critical thinking, creativity, or communication.

But one of my experiences during high school was very different. Every student in our high school was required to take a full year of speech as a graduation requirement. For the first semester, the course was like a traditional public-speaking course. We developed and presented a variety of speeches. It was certainly a positive experience. The fear of public speaking is well-documented, and this was a good growth opportunity for me.

But the thing I remember most about the course was the second semester, where our class was entirely project-based. Everyone in class was assigned to a team, and we worked to develop and produce a newscast on local closed circuit cable TV. Our school had a TV production studio and each week we produced a full broadcast with anchors, reporters, producers, camera operators, studio technicians, etc. Pretty cool, don't you think?

When our project team was assigned to develop a feature story about a topic that was important to our community, we did a piece on illegal dump sites in our area. We were allowed to leave school to go take video footage of some of the places people were illegally dumping trash. We interviewed law enforcement and other community leaders about the problem. The learning experience was incredibly authentic. 

Our mentor through the entire process was Mr. England, our teacher. He was an incredible educator. The entire course was developed under his leadership. I think there are several reasons it was so effective. First, it was a project that was real. We were doing things that professionals in the field actually do. It involved community. We felt like our story was important because it involved a real problem that needed to be addressed. There was a chance of failure, but also recognition of success. Our work would be shared with a real audience in our community, so if we didn't meet our deadline or we produced a poor segment, it was completely on us.

So what are the barriers that are keeping schools from providing more authentic learning opportunities, like what I've described?

1. "We are time-bound and standards-driven." If we are going to offer more authenticity in learning we must embed standards in the learning, but not let the standards drive the learning. Some of the best learning experiences may not correlate to higher scores on standardized tests. We have to establish priorities that don't place test scores ahead of authentic learning experiences.

2. "Our students can't or won't learn this way." It's hard for some teachers to trust that students will succeed when give the option to fail. In a compliance-driven culture, teachers hold more control over instruction, and it's hard to think about allowing students to drive more of the learning. It will require some serious work on the front-end to help students take on greater commitment and responsibility. They have been used to being "spoon-fed" for most of their years in school. 

3. "Our school can't afford the technology." Although technology is not a requirement for authentic learning experiences, it does help. Certainly, not every school has the resources to provide a fully functional television studio. But even a cheap smartphone device that is several years old can be used to research, create, and assist in the development of authentic learning opportunities.

One of the benefits of Mr. England's class was the opportunity to learn outside the classroom. We were allowed to leave school to work on our project. I remember how weird it felt (and how great) to be away from campus for part of our school work. Students can't always leave school to work on projects, but I do think there is value in moving learning beyond the classroom walls. In my next post, I'm going to consider some ways to make the classroom walls less restrictive. 

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