Carving Out Time for Authentic Learning

Are Twitter followers colleagues? My answer is yes, based on the number of times threads have led me to think about what I really mean in these short posts. Also based on the number of times Tweets cause me to look back at things that I recall as being effective in the past and I get to reconnect with them and (to be honest) conceptualize them as stronger evidence for what I believe. Anyways…. A recent Twitter conversation had me thinking about curriculum and the differences between the curriculum mandated by standards (or whatever curriculum guides we follow) and that driven by students’ interests.

In the thread, I tried to argue that these two types of education are mutually exclusive. I especially believe that if learning is truly authentic, then it becomes less so when interpreted in light of standards. What is learned “in the real world” has value outside of school curriculum and its richness and value is reduced when we use it to make the point the student “really learned these standards.”

For this reason, I believe standards-based education and authentic education must be separate. In public schools, this means we need to organize different periods of time for each, and it can be done.

A long time ago, I taught math is a small school. Our team taught about 80 students in grade 6-8. We were located in rural Vermont, near ski areas, and they supported winter sports activities. In short, school ended at noon for 10 winter Tuesdays, and students were bussed to a ski area, skating rink, or gym. Once there there were professionals who give lessons and supervised the students for the day. It was wonderful.

It was disruptive, too. Our team met to decide how we were going to adjust the schedule on those days. I made the suggestion we hand the time over to students for them to study whatever they wanted. I called them “personal performance projects” (following the model I had developed with colleagues over the last few summers), and I even pulled out copies of the handbook we had written over those years.

The organization was simple: Students have ten Tuesday mornings (minus one for introducing the project and minus time for advisory activities) to study whatever they want. They were required to have plans to start each session, communicate with an advisor on their progress, and have a paper to explain their project. The most interesting requirement was to have a performance at the end as well.

In the only surviving document I have from that project, I have notes on the student who learned to play a piece from the opera Carmen on their new base guitar, the student who wrote a biography of David Grisam and played some songs on their mandolin, the student who interviewed an Olympic skier whose family lived in the area, and the student who learned to weld. (The sculptures made by the welder caused the assistant superintendent who saw them in the hallway to ask how we had convinced the local folk arty center to led us the works.)

Yes, your students will learn if you give them time and space and trust them to use it. The encouragement, coaching, and direction you were going to have given them anyways it might be in a slightly different direction, but you can still do it. Giving up time and space is the difficult part, but taken find the time to carve it out. Your students will amaze you.