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Authentic learning can create a generation of thinkers – but are teachers themselves authentic enough?

By Michael Vergien, English A: literature teacher, Coppell High School, Texas, USA.

What’s your definition of “authentic learning”? After speaking with many educators, their definitions vary, but it seems it’s generally defined as: “skills learnt in school that can be taken to higher education, the workforce or the community. These skills could include the ability to work well in groups; good study habits; strong writing skills; and excellent real-world problem-solving skills, just to name a few.”

This made me think. Not just about my own students’ learning, but authentic learning in general. It’s great to have students attempt a mathematical formula connected to a real problem because it gets them thinking outwardly. But how do we, as educators, make it more than just another assignment they have to do? And ensure we create thinkers rather than employees?

We all want more for our students. We want them to do more than just be able to work well with others, prepare for an assessment, write a coherent expository piece that will be sent to the town council or research real world issues and put the findings and solutions on a poster. By design, authentic learning requires less of our expertise. Its style aims to broaden the variety of learning methods available for students, ensuring student learning isn’t only determined by what the teacher knows. I fully support this steer away from simply providing students with information via lectures.

However, if we don’t know enough about our subjects, how can we know when guidance is needed? To spark the love for passionate learning our students require, we need to know more about our subjects, and not just learning in general. We need to become what we want from our students, and wholeheartedly believe in what we teach, encouraging our students to possess the same passion. We must live, breathe, eat, and sleep what we teach. How can we ask students to solve real world problems in a meaningful way, if we aren’t doing the same? How can we look a student in the eye and tell them that an author wrote something with an intended effect, if we don’t write with intention?

How can we tell a student that research is the key to seeing both sides of a historical argument, if we don’t relish the research too? Furthermore, how can we ask them to read and think about difficult literature, if we don’t see the beauty in the difficult ourselves? Instead of creating doers, let’s create thinkers and lovers of knowledge. As the American author Thoreau wrote: “Instead of noblemen, let us have noble villages of men.” Let’s provide our students with more than the ability to interpret what those in charge want them to accomplish. So, instead of assigning a real world mathematical problem, let’s show students what it means to be a true mathematician; one who sees the beauty in the numbers that make the world magical. They should see the joy we get from seeing mathematical patterns not just in the project, but also in the patterns of our lives. Our love for numbers should be so infectious that they can’t stop seeing it everywhere for themselves. If we teach science, we shouldn’t just create an assignment asking students to develop their own solutions to greenhouse gas emissions. They need to see how the interconnected web of life affects their own everyday lives.

As an English teacher, I don’t want their analysis to end when the bell rings. I want students to understand when ‘displacement’ arises so they know to show compassion in return. I want them to see the poetry floating in the atmosphere just as the 19th-century poet Emerson did, and have an urge to write it down and share it with the world. We need to show students the authenticity of our lives so they can see it in their own. If we continue celebrating success in students who simply know how to solve a problem because we tell them to, we are in danger of perpetuating the factory model of education, which limits students’ potential. As teachers, we determine if students see learning as something to be done, or something to be lived. Let’s create noble villages to live in.