Authentic learning is a useful approach for encouraging our learners to develop the critical thinking skills and confidence needed to tackle real-life situations. However, it can be hard to get out of the more traditional mindset where the teacher is the source of knowledge and assessment of information learned is done through the use of clear right or wrong answers to standard questions.
The definition for authentic learning is rather encompassing and may make it difficult for a teacher to get a handle on how to approach its implementation and direct learners in questioning. However, if you have seen kids in an engaged classroom, you may have stumbled upon one of the pillars that are fundamental in an authentic learning experience.
Educators want a deeper level of learning to occur that stimulates the development of skills our children will need as adults. Fostering necessary connections and learning how to ask relevant questions to create an authentic learning experience in your classroom are the keys to opening those doors.
What is Authentic Learning?
At its core, authentic learning is based on using “a wide variety of educational and instructional techniques focused on connecting what is taught in school to real-world issues, problems, and applications.” Self-direction, open-ended inquiry, open discourse, social learning and use of situations that mimic the type of work done by professionals are all part of the themes supporting authentic learning.
Teachers can assist learners as they define their group’s line of questioning, identify primary resources they may need, and find an outside audience willing to participate in the presentation of findings.
Learning that is more relevant to their lives will theoretically motivate students from within, making it easier to help them grasp and apply new skills and concepts.
Authentic Learning Questions and the Sciences
The first step is to build a lesson or theme around an observable event. When teaching the scientific method, learners experience a local natural habitat and then must support a hypothesis through designing and conducting an experiment. Findings are written up, presented, and defended to a panel of scientists. An authentic experience gets children away from using textbooks as the sole source of information or using multiple-choice testing as an assessment tool. Real experiences and real people that can refute or question a student’s explanations are encouraged.
What type of questions are asked in an authentic learning experience? Questions that are open-ended without a clear “right” or “wrong” answer are encouraged. Real life is ambiguous and there may be multiple solutions to a specific situation. Teachers act as a guide and encourage learners to think deeper but often with simpler types of questions. Some simple questions teachers can ask include:
- “What do you think?”
- “Why do you think that?”
- “Can you tell me more?”
- “How do you know this?”
Students need to learn to inquire more rather than memorize, and must be able to find out answers for themselves and apply findings in authentic situations. This fosters a child’s critical thinking skills and sets them up to willingly test theories for themselves and not simply rely upon the information given in a textbook as the final answer.
Probing Questions and the Lifelong Learner
Teachers are in the unique position to help learners get to the heart of the matter. Using of questions that stimulate genuine inquiry and that make students dig deeper are vital to the process. Educators have hit the proverbial nail on the head when a question results in:
- Genuine inquiry into core content and big ideas;
- Deep thought and animated discussions that lead to sustained inquiry and additional questions that come from the learners themselves;
- Consideration of alternatives and the need for learners to support ideas and justify answers;
- Rethinking of assumptions, prior lessons, and big ideas;
- Connections with personal experiences and prior learning; and
- A transfer to other subjects and situations.
Authentic learning questions are multi-disciplinary and reach into the subject areas of Social Studies, Math, English and more as children develop ways to approach a project, define its scope, consider applications, assess and measure findings, and gather and present material.
Students are naturally invested in proving or disproving ideas and may approach a project at a unique angle. They tap into what they know and use and find resources to develop their understanding. Eventually, they gather the material and results and organize it in a way for delivery that demonstrates an intimate knowledge of the subject.
Questions that arise in subject areas may include:
- How should findings be modeled? Are there any weaknesses in the model?
- Are their differences between a stereotype and a cultural generalization?
- How do the tools we use to measure influence what we measure?
- Why was it that one specific species thrived while others became extinct?
All such essential questions ask our learners to explore concepts and how certain factors led to specific results. When they look to present information they will be aware of any weaknesses within their own model or measurements taken, and be encouraged to provide additional support, justification or recognition when other parties test their theory or hypothesis. Authentic questions help kids uncover the tools, strategies and critical thinking abilities they can use in future situations.
Setting Up and Stepping Back
In a blog by teacher Shelly Wright, she writes:
“My students spent the first week researching both primary and secondary sources. I began by teaching the difference between the two. That was the extent of my teaching. For the rest of the week, my students scoured the internet for resources, used Delicious to bookmark important sites, and checked the credibility of sources. The first thing my students do after they log onto the computer is open their delicious accounts. I don’t even tell them to do it anymore.”
This snippet itself is telling. As Wright has prepared learners beforehand and encouraged them to create and design their project, they eagerly tackle the task of the moment: identifying credible resources. They are in pursuit of their own learning, and authentic learning questions occur throughout the duration of the project for guidance, inquiry, and reflection.
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