Authentic learning

In his 1970 book Deschooling Society, the radical philosopher Ivan Illich wrote: 'Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being "with it," yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.' 

This is a real challenge to many schools. Some of the most effective learning methods involve students doing and making, problem solving, and playing games, all of which comply with the notion of being in a meaningful setting. This kind of situated learning is powerful because it immerses students in contexts that are authentic. Medical students learn through problem based learning, often a complex situated form of education that places them in the role of decision maker. Pilots do a lot of their training in simulators, where 'real life' problems and challenges can be presented to them, and to which they must respond. This kind of learning, according to Jean Lave (1988), is powerful because it is rooted in context, and avoids much of the abstract nature of content that is delivered traditionally. Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) agree, believing that authentic learning contexts are vitally important if students are to acquire and develop cognitive skills that are transferable to real world living.
So how do we bring these powerful ideas into school classrooms? Often, we see children bored or demotivated because they are presented with content that is abstract and meaningless, or without a specific context or 'situatedness'. It's not all bad news though.

There is evidence that some schools are beginning to adopt authentic learning methods., a school near to my home, managed to get around this issue by placing children in situations where they had to use tools and techniques to solve real life problems. In their small working farm located within the grounds of the school, they kept chickens, pigs and goats. The children took turns managing the farm, and were often required to purchase food for the animals, or sell eggs at the market. To do this they needed to know about how a market operates, and had to understand concepts such as supply and demand, profit and loss, sell by dates, and so on. Teaching them how to use an Excel spreadsheet would have been dull and boring if it was kept within the four walls of a classroom or ICT suite. Taking this skill outside and putting them in a position where they had to learn by applying spreadsheets to the problem of buying of corn and the selling of eggs at a good price and maintaining records placed their learning within a meaningful setting. There are endless examples of situated learning in a school near you.

In one American school I visited, teachers chose two students each day who were tasked to edit and present the following day's morning news programme on school radio. All of the children took it in turns to be the morning DJs and news presenters, and their responsibility was to make sure their school was kept up to date on current affairs through their research, editing, filtering and presentation. Many schools in the UK are adopting the School Radio approach too, and children are relishing the challenge of informing their classmates and teachers, deciding on music playlists, reporting on weather and sport, while acquiring authentic critical, organisational and reflective skills. This is learning by stealth, and it is incredibly powerful.

Ultimately, it is the teacher's role to create learning contexts that support authentic learning. If teachers can situate learning in meaningful contexts and real life (or realistic) settings, not only will students become more motivated, they will also acquire authentic transferable skills that they can call upon for the rest of their lives.

Brown, J.S., Collins, A. and Duguid, S. (1989) Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42.
Illich, I. (1970) Deschooling Society. London: Marion Boyars Ltd.
Lave, J. (1988) Cognition in Practice: Mind, Mathematics and Culture in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Photo by Cobalt123

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Authentic learning by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Rhonda Riachi said…
Thanks for this, Steve. I still remember a school visit to a dairy farm when I was seven years old. This is partly because in the introductory lesson the student teacher asked us to close our eyes and try to work out what she had put in front of us (it was a piece of cheese). Then came the visit to the farm, with all the cows and the milking machines. I wonder how much more I could have got out of that experience if we had been given the opportunity to keep learning from the farm by doing meaningful activities as you suggest. So much of childhood in modern society is about keeping children away from things; no wonder so many get bored.
Steve Wheeler said…
It's great to hear from you Rhonda (after all this time!), and thanks for your comments. I too recall with great clarity the visits I made to farms, zoos, factories, galleries and museums as a school child. These situated experiences are powerful not only in what children learn at the time, but also in the lasting impact it has on their memories and senses years down the road. I agree that we need to bring children more to these 'realia' experiences.
Sweedie-The-Cat said…
Nothing wrong with having kids do things. Good idea!

But, you have to put some knowledge, some "gas in the tank", before you can go off and do things. Both kinds of learning, instructional, AND learn by doing, are needed. (Along with some other types.) One, gives you the basics, and gets you started. The other, lets you take the theoretical knowledge you learned, and turn it into experience. Which, if you have interest and talent, can result in something useful.

Pilots, by the way (since I have known a couple), do a lot of "in class learning and book learning", and even "slide-show", video, and movie learning, too. They also spend time acting as "trainee & co-pilot", before they actually get to take over the plane, whether it be in the simulator, or the real thing.

They used to "almost do it all" with real planes, (and the odd wooden "props"). But those real planes cost a lot of money, and a lot of fuel to fly. And an error can result in a very BIG mess. So, they went to simulators as a cost savings measure, and as a safety measure. The simulators more than replaced the "props".

Actually, crude simulators have existed for CENTURIES. Don't think that only the modern computerized ones are the only thing. See: "SHUTTLE", by David C. Onley, Futura Books, 1981. Pp.234-36. You may want to Google the man...

Plus, there are several things a pilot needs to learn and practice at.... that are very scary, risky, and even dangerous to do in a real plane, flying overhead. In a simulator, the risk and danger are removed. The fright? Well, some of it. Modern simulators are pretty realistic. Plus, there is the "failure frustration" phenomenon. For an example of that, see the movie Apollo 13.

But make no mistake: Hours are spent learning things AND doing things, before they ever set foot in the simulator. They still cost big bucks to run. And they are needed for many many more hours that they are available. A simulator crew is a dozen people or so beyond a graduated experienced pilot and a trainee. Moreover, there is the maintenance aspect...

One good thing about simulators, is there are many kinds. Some (not all simulators have to do with planes!) are even available for various school instruction, at all grade levels. Teaching kids the basics, and then letting them "learn to do" in as real (and as safe) an environment as possible, is a good idea. I recently read a net article about those old caves with the animals on the walls. It seems they were an early type of hunt simulator. (Some tests were actually run.) What is new, is sometimes old. What is old, is sometimes useful in a new way.

What matters the MOST, is the "type of teaching that fits the kids" that you are teaching. Different kids, need different things, and in different quantities. And that mix, that is the hard thing to find. But, it can be done.
Portos said…
The value of situated authentic learning experiences cannot be overstated. I remember fondly a weekend field trip to the Wallops Island Oceanographic research center near Chincoteague, VA in 7th grade. we got hands on experience with real field scientists, i.e, measuring plankton presence in brackish marshes. Another time, as a 6th form student at a London comprehensive school in the very first GCSE courses (1987-88), the class visited Epping Forest north of London. Our instructors assigned us discrete roles and tasks in collecting field data about invasive colonizer weeds in open pasture. Two wonderful experiences I still recall vividly.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your comments Portos. I kinda wish I went to your school now.
Anonymous said…
Steve, the example you mentioned about pilots learning in simulators is a great example of situated learning but how can teachers do this within a publicly funded school (where funding is extremely limited) so that teachers deliver this rich approach to learning?

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