My journey down the authentic learning path started in 1985, soon after introducing my grade eight students to an egg capsule design project. The mission was simple: to build a capsule to protect a raw egg when dropped from the roof of the school’s gym onto the pavement below.
Upon completion of the activity the reactions I witnessed by students and parents were inspiring. Little did I know that this activity would be the catalyst of my career’s work in pioneering what I termed “authentic learning.”
I could see the numerous possibilities of real-life applications and the potential curriculum connections that could be bridged. Gravity, air friction, recoil, egg-laying creatures, clinometers, eggs in mythology, parenting skills and simple structures were just a few studies that directly evolved from this experiment. With student input, consultation and research over the years, this modest beginning matured into a full-fledged initiative that became known as The Egg Drop Project. From that time on I was committed to researching and implementing the next learning event.
As a child I was captivated by the pioneer and First Nation villages that demonstrated how people lived and worked in early Canada. Inspired by these historical living museums, I introduced my students to a similar concept by transforming our classrooms into ancient Roman, Medieval and Egyptian marketplaces. Students performed as tradespeople, dressed in costume, presented and worked on authentic crafts in a market decor that reflected the sights and sounds of days long past. After six weeks of deeply focused, connected learning, performing to hundreds of visitors, the students were saddened to see the end of the unit. What used to be a humdrum exercise of regurgitating names, places and dates in history class, had become an exciting resurrection of living, breathing ancient pasts.
I’ve witnessed many magical moments and marvelled at my students passionately engrossed in their learning tasks. I’m not talking about the one-off lessons or activities that intermittently delight students, but I’m referring to those profound moments when all of my students functioned optimally, while immersed in rich, deep, prolonged learning. It wasn’t uncommon to see students so committed to their tasks that upon the ringing of the bell, they’d sigh, “Ahh, can’t we stay longer – please?” This became a hallmark of authentic learning experiences.
It didn’t matter the theme or topic, the results were always the same. Attendance became more regular, student behaviours became more positive and the working atmosphere was enthusiastic, productive and confident.
I was invited to speak about Authentic Learning at The University of Western Ontario teacher’s college and I wanted the student teachers attending to experience a little of the magic I’d come to know so I planned to bring a couple of students. Two students volunteered to portray their Roman personas as they had done at our living museum three months prior. These students did not just adopt trades, wear costumes and create products, they became the personalities. One was a shrewd, analytical tax collector while the other was a stern, gritty blacksmith. A student teacher walked late into the presentation while they were explaining who they were and the kind of work they did. He was zealously questioned by the tax collector on why he was interrupting and if he was more responsible in paying his taxes. The surprised student teacher apologized and scurried to the back of the room while the others chuckled. The Pompeiian tax collector abruptly snapped, “If you think this is a laughing matter then perhaps your taxes require extra attention next year.” A collective oooh went around the enthusiastic room.
I encouraged the audience to ask deeper questions about our guests’ families and origins, the gods they believed in, and even what they had for breakfast. They were astounded by the young actors’ knowledge and their specific trade skill sets such as using an ancient abacus and smelting metal. After fifteen minutes of rigorous questioning, the boys went to change into their regular attire. The ten-year-olds returned, willing to share their experience from a student perspective. When asked, “How much time did you prepare for this presentation?” They looked at each other and replied that they hadn’t prepared at all. They hadn’t even reviewed their notes since their living market three months prior.
When students are immersed in rich, meaningful, emotionally charged, relevant settings, then real, deep learning occurs. What those student teachers saw that day was a glimpse of what I had experienced over years of practising authentic learning.
I’ve implemented themed dinner theatres, slope car challenges, claymation film festivals, robotic challenges and video productions, to name a few. What distinguishes an authentic learning initiative is that it’s designed to interact purposefully with a community.
There must be a tangible product or a significant, quality outcome produced for a specific audience beyond the classroom to meet authentic criteria. Once this happens, a whole new level of consultation, skill sets and networking needs to be pursued. It’s the difference between writing anti-pollution letters vs producing full-fledged environmental podcasts. The difference between a skit and a theatre production. An authentic approach brings a whole new dimension of relevant, vibrant layers of skill sets, expert consultation and marketing to the forefront. Over the years I observed elements that consistently became an integral part of an authentic learning experience.
I can’t say that implementing an authentic learning initiative is easy. In fact, it’s the most demanding, time consuming and challenging thing you’ll ever do as a teacher. On the other hand, it will be the most rewarding education experience you’ll ever encounter. It takes good planning, consulting, communicating, negotiating, flexibility, research, patience and life skills, but the benefits are significant.
As you work alongside your students, you are modeling professionalism while empowering your students. You are providing a working template on how to successfully prepare for long-range goals and how to execute processes effectively. You are providing students with opportunities to pursue personal learning while being a critical part of something much bigger. You are introducing and refining relevant skills that promote enterprise and innovation.
Aren’t these the skills that students require for meeting the challenges of the 21st century and beyond?
The great thing about authentic learning is that it’s a fertile setting for any learning pursuit. It can be anchored in any topic or subject and adopted to any medium. Whether creating apps, podcasts, music videos, business initiatives, community services or robotics, authentic learning practices are genuinely accommodating.
Start small. Perhaps once in the school year introduce an interactive learning activity that has the potential of being shared with the community. Give it a go, reflect, refine and then redo. Be open to the input of others, network, embrace lifelong learning and let your authentic initiatives grow over time. With each implementation, you’ll experience the wonder, the excitement and the deep learning that authentic learning provides.
As I recently retired from the classroom, I’ve come to realize that the authentic learning experiences I provided my students were the greatest learning gifts of all. I am grateful I travelled down this educational path and I invite you to do the same. When you do, you too will understand the remarkable, impactful journey that only an authentic learning experience can create.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Revington is an educational speaker, author and consultant from London, ON. He has designed, implemented and promoted a wide variety of authentic initiatives, most notably The Egg Drop Project. He’s written articles and produced videos, and hosts Google’s number one website on Authentic Learning. He received a TV Ontario Teacher’s Award for his innovative practices (1994) and an Associate Teachers Award of Excellence from The University of Western Ontario (2013) and was selected as one of fifty finalists for the inaugural Global Teacher Prize (2014). He also received the Prime Minister’s Award of Teaching Excellence (2016). Steve’s work can be found at: authenticlearningweebly.com. Twitter: @AuthenticEduc
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2018 issue.