Measuring heights for The Egg Drop Project using a clinometer
Would you ask a person wanting to learn how to canoe to write out rules, memorize strokes and label parts of a canoe diagram first or would it be better to provide them with a few basic paddling and safety tips then let them pursue a paddling experience? Would you expect a basketball player to memorize a rule book before they even handled a basketball? Of course not. Unfortunately this is what happens when education systems prioritize content over exploratory processes.
When this happens the vital relevance factor is removed making it hard for students to make those essential, meaningful connections. These essential connections can only be developed through multi-sensory exploration. As each student is unique, the time to develop those personal connections and their experience base will differ. One thing is clear - providing relevant and meaningful tasks for students to engage in, activates the learning process. Many times in a school day a student's exploration and immersion is diverted towards a trail of paper or another subject that detracts from this natural engagement.
This inevitably happens when too much lesson time is devoted to transferring content rather than providing students with opportunities to explore, manipulate, make personal connections and interact holistically with their environment. That direct, self motivating relationship, to the meaningful task at hand, is relevance. It's the glue that allows genuine learning to stick and relevance has a lot to do with connecting with ones' personal learning experiences. We hear the phrase "connecting with your students" when a teacher has the ability to understand and value a student's experiences so they can move forward in a positive way. So by providing a plethora of connected, relevant experiences to students we are better equipping them for their learning journeys.
So what is relevance?Relevance is the ability of a person to acknowledge and align oneself with a purpose that's meaningful, one that will enhance their survival or success.
Unfortunately, when there are far too many topics and expectations to cover in a curricula, then one of education's most valuable resources, time, is squandered. Time during a school day is one very precious commodity. It requires substantial segments of uninterupted time for students to grasp and explore the deeper understandings of problems. Longer durations of time, working on relevant tasks, immerses students in processes that activate the mind and propel the students to deeper learning. We need to make sure that the curricula content and the numerous expectations are properly balanced to provide much needed, valuable exploration time for our students.
When entering school for the first time there are students who arrive with deficits in their life experiences, due to their lack of exposure to stimuli and they are already at a disadvantage. Without those vital, meaningful experiences to build upon, their learning journeys are greatly impeded. Again, there's the old adage, "Knowledge begets knowledge." Good teachers, however, provide visuals, stories, manipulatives and multi-sensory experiences to activate their students learning but the sad truth is, it's already not a fair playing field. The wider the variety of personal, quality, sensory experiences provided to a person the more readily these people will be able find relevance, thus learn.
Parents that provide their children with these "opportunities of experience" are priming them with neurological groundwork for even more positive, connected learning to come. These students are able to connect more efficiently and find meaning far easier than a child who is "experience deficient". Sadly, there are education systems today that don't think twice about assessing and comparing student abilities on this uneven playing field.
So what do I mean by experience rich versus experience deficient? For example, if a child from southern Ontario, on a family holiday has experienced the beautiful trans Canada drive to the Rockies via Calgary, their ability to understand the geology of prairies, foothills and mountains is going to be far richer than a child who has never experienced the landforms of such a journey. But its not just the obvious landforms that make this truly an amazing learning experience. There's the the distance and duration conservation, the flora and fauna, the habitat connections, the museums and curiosity stops, navigation, budgeting for souvenirs and the list goes on and on. Humans are sensory beings that respond positively to the stimulation of the senses and the more the better. Multi sensory interaction and exploration is paramount for students to make lasting, meaningful connections - thus learn.
In many instances, the older the student gets, the less multi-sensory stimuli they receive in their classrooms. Even the teacher to class size ratio becomes larger despite the students getting bigger. Ask any dairy farmer what cow-to-grass acreage is needed to produce successful milk yields and you'll get a good answer. Ask a gardener what distance is required between sunflower stalks to optimally grow, there's a proper answer for that too. Ask an educator what the best student to classroom area ratio for a grade eight student to maximize their learning ....?
It's imperative that we provide ample experiences to provide our students with rich, learning environments. Our education systems have to reassess what the image of a successfully, engaged student looks like in an optimal learning environment. Is it solely hovering over desks doing predominately paper tasks or are there more relevant ways to stimulate students through applied, multi-sensory activities? It is vital for educators to understand that they cannot any longer be the content dispensers of the past. The age of computers and online resources has made that job description nearly null and void. Cooperative, creative and multi-sensory learning - that's another story.
It is also very important that we consistently reevaluate the processes in which we deliver education. To do that we have to step back and always consider the best ways forward. Are we really looking at optimal learning as the main goal or are we still trying to find ways to optimize learning in a less than optimal environment? If it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck and acts like a duck - it's probably a duck. If students are consistently at desks and tables, the teachers are still controlling all aspects of the collective creativity and there's a shortage of multistory tasks being readily engaged and there's little interaction with life outside the class, it's still traditional, industrial age education.
Our school systems must provide greater opportunities for our students to have more creative license, to explore more regularly, collaborate more frequently in resource and technologically enriched environments. Let's find ways to let students do their connecting, on their own terms and do less of the connecting for them. Allowing students to make their own vital, individual connections is "real" learning while making the connections for them is just window dressing. If a teacher is handing out more paper and spending more time preparing students for tests, then authentic learning is not happening. If, on the other hand, at the end of a learning event, significant student time has been spent on independent or collaborative exploration, with many of the elements I outlined in "Essentials" being engaged, genuine learning is really taking root.
If We Aren't Connecting, We're Not Learning
If we think about any small child and all the play activities they enjoy, aren't they engaged in some form of grown-up relevant tasks? Easy bake ovens, bulldozers, kitchen sets, farm figures and even dolls prepare us for relevant tasks in the real world. Not only is this fun, with relevant themes, it's also role playing. We provide our children with lots of opportunities to be immersed in role playing activities, relevant occupations and we innately understand it to be fun. Those first few years at school we do a great job of connecting to it. Fire hall trips, trips to the police station and what about all those "What My Parents Do for a Living" career presentations? It's all about the students and the connection to their world. What a perfect way to start an education. Unfortunately, as each year passes and the learners ascend the grade ladder those strong "experience to learning connections" become fewer and fewer. Seat work is given in larger proportions and rationalized as real work when mostly it's just busy work.
Students are confined to instructional seating arrangements for the most part making it difficult for teachers to engage their students in relevant, stimulating tasks. Rotary classes can be huge obstacles. With multiple 30 to 40 minutes a day it's very challenging to provide, ongoing, deep thinking opportunities for students. Deep thinking requires longer periods of time and generally there's just not enough "think & explore time" in a school day.
Imagine that it's income tax time, and as many families do, they spread their income tax files all over the kitchen table. Generally, because there's so much attention required, those papers will remain there for days or until the task and deadline is dealt with. This provides time to organize, collate, review, evaluate and cross reference when it's open and accessible. Now imagine having to pack up those income tax files every 40 minutes just to start all over again in another space and time. How frustrating. Students deal with this all the time. They are just getting into their flow of thinking when it's not long before the bell's ringing and it's time to pack up quickly and go. This is what happens when working with squeezed expectations of heavy rotary class schedules. Can you imagine how difficult it must be for many students? It can be very frustrating and for students with organizational skill deficits, it can be catastrophic.
Empathizing with our student's learning regimes will provide us with insights to better provide optimal learning environments. Remember that if we want students to be relevant in society, we have to be provide them with relevant learning opportunities. It's the only way!
My Concern for the Term, Authentic Learning
Recently, I've observed school boards and educators starting to use the term "authentic learning" in their everyday vocabulary. It's a new buzz word.My concern is that the idea of "authentic learning" could eventually be mandated to unprepared teachers and systems and this fantastic model of learning will not be genuinely embraced. I've even read that some believe that by referring to "real world" examples is an authentic learning approach. This is far from the truth. It's a genuine inference or mental gympse which is vicarious at best. It can be useful, but it's not an authentic process.
Most education boards today are still content driven with a bloated hierarchy of subject content and standardized tests to prepare for. They haven't the solid foundations in place yet to implement wide-spread authentic learning opportunities. To be truly prepared we need to rethink and reshape the way we do business in education. It's time that we provide regular, ongoing authentic learning opportunities to meet the needs of the 21st century. Education systems need only to look to the brain research that has been revealed in the past twenty years which indicate that holistic learning approaches are optimal learning experiences.
Let's be clear, if a student's learning is not directly related to a tangible, relevant product or outcome, with in-depth skill development, expert consultation for a specific community audience - it's not authentic learning.
A Sad Reality: Teachers are the only professionals without phones in their offices
In my introduction I mentioned that the teacher becomes the "guide on the side" in authentic learning events. They are managers, motivators, or consultants who provide their students with the guidance they require to achieve their learning goals. So, how many consultants or managers do you know don't have telephones in their offices? Let's take a moment to think about this.
Teachers are one of the only professionals in the modern world that cannot make a phone call from their offices, their classrooms. This accepted modus operandi reflects an "old school" mindset that is still prevalent in today's education systems and reveals a certain preparedness in accommodating for authentic learning initiatives. The philosophical resistance that prevents teachers or their students from having the opportunity to communicate outside the classroom walls daily, provides us with some insight into how slow progress really is. If one wanted to model how students should interact successfully and engage meaningfully with their community and their world, wouldn't putting a well supervised, safe phone system in place make sense?
Can you imagine the debates that would ensue over supporting this basic, progressive step forward? A phone in the classroom seems to induce many to envision teachers talking on the phone during school hours neglecting their students. What about the students making monitored calls out to the community or teachers acting as consultants and making phone calls on behalf of the individuals in the room. I don't think so! Old paradigm - old fears, old-school. If we aren't connecting, we're not learning! If school systems are having difficulty getting their mindsets around this one very, simple progression, then how can one expect regular "real-world" learning to flourish?
In 2005 I taught a gifted class in London and wanted to implement an authentic event called "The Great London Challenge". It was a mystery challenge that would encompass the whole city and give clues to the students to uncover secret locations that would require them to complete authentic tasks before receiving their next clue and their next mystery location. The administration, parents and supporting teachers all loved the idea but I recognized that to accomplish it successfully, I'd require a phone put into my classroom. Luckily, I had the administrative and custodial support to do so and the Great London Challenge became a huge success.
Over the years I've had the opportunity of having thousands of parents, teachers, superintendents, directors, student teachers, CEOs, media personnel, professors and trustees visit our authentic learning events. They have always complimented on how engaged the students are and how significant the event will be as a life memory for them. There have been a few teachers on the other hand that have observed the same event and have stated, "Well of course they enjoy this stuff, playing is fun." What they were perceiving was non-work. They've been conditioned to believe that if students are enjoying their tasks, then it can't be real learning. If they're not at their desks with pencil and paper then they're not learning.
In your lifetime, when was the last time you made a serious decision sitting down? Students are expected to do it all the time.
I like to use the example of my, then, three year old son Lee. One day when I was outside cutting my lawn and after several runs down the lawn I noticed my wife Kay, standing and pointing at the little helper now working behind me. There was Lee, just as focused and determined to keep up with the lawn cutting as dad, pushing his plastic PlaySkool version of a lawn mower. His purpose was totally relevant to him and he sure looked like he was having fun.