is authentic learning important?

The most authentic assessment is the most basic: did you survive?

Collins, Brown and Dugid’s work in situated cognition inform my thoughts on authentic learning. In short, that tasks must be situated in the most authentic context possible in order for them to be truly learned and able to be applied in a future context.

As a K-12 educator (well, a 10th grade educator) I have a few barriers to creating this type of environment:

1) I’m in a school building. There are only so many types of experiences I can create for my students within the four walls of my classroom. I have some resources, the greatest of which are the learners themselves, but I can’t really situate them in a true environment. I teach English, so the best I can do is have them read, write and think. I’m hoping those are things they will do in lots of contexts. And although I know from other research that those skills need to be specifically and deliberately pointed out for the student to make the analogy, I won’t be there to do it for them. I just have to hope.

2) Curriculum is content driven, not experience driven. How many of us have thought: “hurry up and learn this so we can do something interesting”, forgetting for a moment that it’s actually the learning itself that is pretty interesting. We operate on an entrenched belief that you must know x before you can do y. What about: we can do y to learn x?

3) Curriculum is content driven, not skills driven. We are kidding ourselves if we think that the most important thing we teach is math or English. The most important thing I teach my kids is how to talk with each other, how to function in a shared-work environment, how to manage a full schedule… how to fake it when you haven’t really prepared as well as you should. (It may be controversial to say, but this last one is a hugely important life skill.)

I’m struck, however, that this may not really be as much of an issue as I’m making it. My school is a self-defined traditional college prepatory school. The authentic environment we are supposed to be creating is that of a college. Whether or not these challenges exist in college and exacerbate the problem of an underprepared workforce may not really be my problem.
If the college changes, then I guess it will be my job to match that new environment. In the meantime, maybe we should be increasing class sizes and decreasing personal attention… spending more money on marketing and sports programs than supporting differentiated instruction… since that is what appears to be important in college.

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