There are two basic types of resources: information students need, and materials students need. As educators, we frequently view ourselves as the supplier of these resources. A good teacher is prepared, correct? But spending our time locating the resources students need, and gathering materials for them is really taking away from their authentic experience. Even the youngest students can come up with ideas on how to find information and materials needed. And if the whole point of authentic learning is to get children ready for a future that we can’t even imagine, then they need to be able to find the resources they need, and put those resources to use.
That doesn’t mean a good teacher isn’t prepared. A good teacher is like the manager in a store. You make sure your store is fully stocked. You know what is in the store and where everything is at. You know what you want to sell. You train your staff how to function in your store. You set the tone for the staff (working together, helping each other). You provide direction. You have very specific goals. And then you let the staff do their jobs in the store.
When I started to write the above analogy, I was using a salesperson and a customer in the store. However, I realized that students are really more like staff, if you are functioning authentically. A good store manager wants to make it easy for the buyer to purchase something. That is not the goal of authentic teaching. The goal is that each staff member learns, grows, has great ideas to improve the store, owns their job…and someday takes over the store – so the manager can retire and move to Fiji!
A friend of mine recently sent me a text from a day trip to Washington, D.C. It was one of our first beautiful spring days and she had gone down to enjoy the spring flowers.
I had just finished two blog posts that needed pictures from Washington. I asked her if she could take a picture of the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian Castle. As an afterthought, I asked for pictures of other Washington icons.
She was not able to get the two pictures I needed. (Oh well, guess I will need to grab the husband and make the four-hour trip from Pennsylvania down to Washington to get the photos…and go out to lunch, do some shopping…) However, looking at the gorgeous pictures she did send me, I immediately had ideas for several future blog posts. The pictures were total authentic inspirations. And, of course, my hope is that my blog inspires authentic teaching and projects.
Then it dawned on me, looking at the pictures, that perhaps we do field trips with children backwards. I did the majority of my teaching career in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. We frequently took field trips to iconic D.C. places at the end of units of study. The thought was that at that point, the kids would have plenty of background knowledge and would benefit the most from the field trips. But authentic projects should start from an inspiration. The kids were the most engaged when something real inspired them, and then they took the project from there.
So maybe instead of waiting until nearly the end of a unit of study to take kids on a trip to see what they were actually learning about, we should take kids on trips to see what inspires them, and then start the authentic learning from there.
Quilt by Chris Staver
As I have often mentioned in my blog, so many different things can inspire an authentic project. A girlfriend of mine creates amazing quilts. I call what she does “painting with fabric.” I was at a museum exhibition of her work recently. Several of her quilts have environmental themes. One of her quilts depicts toxic waste drums. (Unusual for a quilt, and absolutely incredible work!) This got me thinking about waste management.
We produce so much waste on our planet that we need to dispose of. There are several ways a project could look at this issue. Ideas about how to produce less waste. Recycling ideas, disposal ideas…
The important thing to remember when teaching authentically is the starting point is just that, a starting point. If somehow this project turns into recycling old cookbooks, which results in the use of, or the improvement of, an old recipe…that is exactly what authentic teaching and learning is. The goal is for the student to read, write, use math, investigate, produce…
When students are engaged, they learn!
Who invented the donut? Why do donuts have holes? How do you make donuts?
Authentic projects often start with a few simple questions and end with a student developed recipe for delicious tasting zero calorie donuts! ( My blog…my fantasy!)
The picture at the top of this post and the picture at the bottom of this post were taken on the same day. And they were both taken on the same island in Hawaii!
How is that possible? Snow in the tropics? On the same day the young lady went from short sleeves to a winter coat? (Hint – she was high up on a mountain at an observatory in the second picture.)
So, what impacts weather? How many places can you think of where someone could wear a summer outfit and a winter outfit during the same day? Take the authentic learning experience from here…it may end up being a long authentic project about what impacts the weather or a short authentic research experience about what the young lady is standing inside of in the top picture. Or maybe even a huge authentic project about the Hawaiian Islands. With authentic learning you never know where you will end up! Aloha!
Adults often do many things for children that they can do for themselves, especially when preparing for a project. We all know how important it is to be prepared for a lesson with students. But being prepared, and adults doing work that students can learn from, are two very different things. Planning and gathering materials for a project are important activities that students can and should be involved with. When plans miraculously happen, and materials just appear, many learning opportunities are lost.
When we presented the State Fair to other groups of students, many math opportunities occurred. There was measurement to plan how to set up the fair in the space we had available. There was discourse and compromise among students to agree on how to place each state in the fair – Alaska wanted to display the states alphabetically, Texas by size, California by population… A schedule was developed – after the students figured out how much time each group would need at the fair based on number of displays to visit and how much average time would be spent at each display. Groups were invited based on this schedule. Then the schedule was adjusted for groups that had a conflict with the available times. Then the schedule was re-adjusted after the first day when the students realized larger groups and older students needed more time at the fair than smaller and younger groups, etc.
There are many math opportunities for parents working with children at home as well. When inviting other children over make sure your child is involved in this discourse. You would be surprised how much math you use every day without even realizing it. (Except of course when I balance my checkbook. Then I totally realize how much math is involved as I try to make sense of the usual mess I have made!)
Doing projects with kids is a great starting point for learning. But the goal should be for the authentic learning experience.
Following directions for an arts and crafts project, or following a recipe, is definitely great practice using reading and math. However, if it stops there, the opportunity for real authentic learning is lost. I don’t think we can state often enough that we are raising children to function in a world that we can’t possibly imagine. Many of the jobs they will hold in the future don’t exist yet. And more importantly, many of the jobs people hold today, will not exist in the future. The children we are educating today need to be able to think outside the box if they are going to have a chance to really succeed in the world they will live in as adults. Simply following directions to get from Point A to Point B, or repetitive drills filling in correct answers on a worksheet, is not going to prepare them for the future.
Following a recipe, or a set of instructions, should just be the starting point. The real authentic learning occurs when adults listen to what children are saying while they are working, and follow up on this discourse. Why just one cup of chocolate chips? What would happen if we used two cups? Do generic chocolate chips really taste the same as the more expensive Nestle brand? Can you taste the difference in the finished product? How can we test this?…
Sometimes adult prompting is needed to take the project to the authentic level. But often, just listening to children, really listening, provides the springboard to that authentic learning experience.