Make it Real, Make it Good : Thoughts on Authenticity and Purpose in Student Learning, pt. 1

It has been far to long since I have had the time to blog. This spring has been increasingly busy as I have prepared to take on a new role as the 7-12 Humanities Chair at St. Anne’s-Belfield school. Over the next few years, we will integrate our traditional English, history and religion courses into new humanities courses modeled in part on the approach of our American Studies class.  This is an exciting and challenging time for all of us as we look to build courses that have few models and integrate a variety of different types of texts and pedagogies which we hope will benefit our students as we make more transparent the interconnectedness of history, literature, the arts, and the wisdom traditions. I will be writing much more about that in the coming weeks and months. In preparation for this move, many of us are participating in a week long professional development opportunity offered at our school and crafted by Alan November which is the true subject of this post.

Among the materials provided to help us prepare was Alan’s 2011 Ted Talk about the virtues of giving students authentic, purposeful work.

In my own learning I have had the privilege of studying at institutions that prioritize authentic student contributions to the intellectual world. I am a graduate of the Francis W. Parker school in Chicago, Illinois, a school modeled on the philosophies of Parker and John Dewey, and where learning by doing happens in every classroom from preschool through 12th. Based on the principle that “ideal citizenship demands for the individual the highest degree of knowledge, power, skill and service,” a Parker education is one that prioritizes student voice from the wholly student run student government to the yearly student run county fair fundraiser 9th grade students take center stage as the logistical organizers and juniors and seniors compete over who raises the most money, and fifth graders act as guides.

Not surprisingly, I looked for the opportunity to again learn by doing as I moved on to higher education. The American Studies Program at the University of Virginia was a study in authentic and purposeful learning. All undergraduate and masters level American Studies students were not only invited, but required to contribute to the noteworthy xroads website. Even as as third years in college we were engaged in the authentic tasks of creating e-texts and e-projects that scholars used and continue to use today. In my own teaching, my team and I have sought different way to engage students in this kind of learning. Whether it was the creation of an artifact project where students made websites based on artifacts from the University of Virginia’s special collection, the use of Peerwise where students write multiple choice questions for themselves and each other to practice mastering the content that would be tested on the APUSH test, or the requirement that students create and craft their own blogs, we have attempted to engage our students in purposeful work. With an entire week devoted to the development of these kind of projects, I am confident that we will work on creating even more purposeful assignments.

Anyone who has been in the classroom for any length of time understands that students do best when they are invested and take ownership of their own education. With a literal plethora of resources at their fingertips, never has the time been more ripe for student driven learning. Yet, those of us who have been engaged in this kind of teaching also know that students need to be held to high standards and that just having an authentic task doesn’t necessarily lead to students doing their best work. In fact, the web is laden with examples of poorly executed student projects complete with typos, factual inaccuracies, and sloppy work. The challenges facing us as teachers are exacerbated as kids become increasingly comfortable online and see the web not as a place of work. Student’s fluency with social media, reliance on text messaging and the inherent lingo of these platforms makes it more difficult for students see the differences between online audiences. With my own students, I have found that their writing on the blog is often less well edited than any paper they would submit. I have seen them make the mistake of spending tons of time playing with the layout of a website or blog, and spending an inadequate amount of time creating the content. They sometimes struggle to see their work for a public audience as demanding not an equal amount of effort, but in fact an increase in their dedication to the creation of their final product.
Just because they have an authentic audience or task, therefore, doesn’t mean that they understand or address the expectations of that audience. I believe we have reached a point in our desire for authentic, purposeful student voice where we must ask ourselves how we make sure that voice is not only heard, but articulate. We must expect our students to be engaged in doing purposeful work, but we must also demand that that work be of the highest quality. We must teach our students that what they say and put out into the world matters, and also that how they say it matters just as much. We must teach them to be models of intellectual inquiry and excellence so that their voice doesn’t become part of the sea of voices muddling the world wide web.

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