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"Let us move forward with boldness and not retreat back into the comforts of the past." - David March

Creating Authenticity

There is no doubt that all educators want to make learning as relevant as possible. Often times our current standardized testing system makes it complicated for teachers to feel like they can teach "the stuff" that brings the real world into lessons. While we would all like to see teachers providing learning opportunities that are engaging and enriching, there is a dynamic that is difficult for classroom teachers. Sure administrators can expect certain things, but what do you do with that student that is so far behind that the lack of basic skills makes it nearly impossible to allow them to think critically and relate prior knowledge to new ideas. This challenge is very real, and with schools that have high populations of low socioeconomic students the gap that exists make the challenge even greater. This dynamic often times leads teachers to feel like "the test" makes it impossible to teach at a deeper level. With that reality, what can schools do to ensure that learning experiences are truly authentic, and relevant?

Tony Wagner has been a longtime proponent for authentic 21st century learning as this video points out. He discusses key skills that lead to innovation and success in the innovation era. If you have not listened to Tony's Ted Talk do so below.

Wagner's Seven Survival Skills

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  2. Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence
  3. Agility and Adaptability
  4. Initiative and Entrepreneurship
  5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
  6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
  7. Curiosity and Imagination

So how can educators deal with the many challenges they face and still have time to create truly authentic learning experiences? For the Math teacher that is trying to get students up to grade level on basic skills, a cross curricular collaboration could provide huge dividends. We often talk about the importance of education reform being an elimination of high stakes testing. Let's be realistic though, there has to be some sort of testing system in place. We have to have data that ensures students are reaching levels of success as they move along the system. I understand the impact current testing has on student learning and I do not believe that elimination of all testing makes much sense. I'm all for some serious changes in the system, but I also am for schools changing current practices to ensure students are learning at deeper levels. The reality is standardized testing will not be going away entirely anytime soon, so what can we do? I firmly believe we must engage in cross curricular collaboration and learning opportunities.

In a recent conversation with a high school art teacher in my district this possibility began to take on real meaning. Let's discuss how this teacher can impact the core subject areas with what he is already doing. He is currently using a 3D printer with his art students, and they have designed smaller jewelry pieces. With sites like Bonanza, Uncommon Goods, Silkfair, MadeitMyself, DaWanda, iCraft, ArtFlock, and any other ecommerce platform available today, an authentic learning experience begins to take shape. Or tie in your school web design classes and let them build a site for you on a platform that helps ensure ecommerce safety.

Cross curricular possibilities begin to take shape. Math students could analyze pricing, sales trends by graphing data from sales, and 3D design elements that tie into lessons on volume, surface area, etc. English classes could create sales materials, write content for the Online store, and persuasive advertising pieces, touching on various writing styles. Science could look at the impact that the materials being used to create the jewelry have on the environment. Perhaps they find and make suggestions for more eco-friendly materials, or prove why these jewelry designs are better for the environment than other alternatives. Social studies classes could study cultural differences and help decide what design styles might sell best in certain cultures. Business classes of course can have a real business to study as they work to make it successful and study what mistakes may have been made and how to address those mistakes. This example could also tie into the Service Learning concepts by using profits toward a local social concern that students choose as a worthy cause.

Of course the example I mention here is just one potential idea. When teachers and students collaborate I firmly believe that they could come up with ideas that would immediately impact the world around them for the better. In my example, everyone of Wagner's 7 survival skills are addressed, and I believe that subject area essential skills could be connected at various grade levels. I believe schools must embrace these kinds of learning opportunities in order to make school relevant, and engaging for students. My district is doing a great job of getting teachers time to collaborate. Unfortunately that collaboration is mostly limited to same subject matter collaboration. And in many cases, the elective teachers that can help bring learning to life, are still not getting extra planning time.

What are your schools doing to bring cross curricular learning experiences to life. I would love to see and hear more about your examples. Authentic learning is a must for our students. Sharing ideas and working toward these kinds of lessons needs to gain momentum.

Problem and Project based learning can accomplish this as well, but I often see people discussing these trends within one subject area. If your school has adopted a project or problem based curriculum emphasis I would love to hear how you might be tying those projects together with cross curricular examples. Leave your comments here or better yet, share with us on Twitter so your ideas are shared with an audience beyond the readers of this article.

Learning can be authentic and must be considered as you look at what your school offers. We must continue to work to be relevant in a time when charter schools and other alternatives are gaining steam. Public education has to begin to look at the fact that we have to serve our communities by producing students that are ready for the real world. 


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