Happy learner

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user horizontal.integration

It’s action research time for my Professional Learning Practice cohort, and through our project design we hope to engage our students in relevant, connected, and authentic learning experiences. After presenting the specifics of our project ideas to the cohort, the always-supportive Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach offered constructive criticism and ideas for refinement, and perhaps most importantly, she asked us to define authentic learning.

What is authentic learning? After discussing this topic for only a few moments, it became uncomfortably obvious for my teammates and me, although able to compile several ideas and examples of what may be authentic learning, that deriving a definition of authentic learning was proving to be tricky business. Like I often do, I decided to enlist the help of my Twitter friends.

I appreciate Gary’s point that authentic learning can be used to benefit the learner and society, thus the learning contributes to a collective body of knowledge that is greater than ourselves. If, as Karl shared, all learning is authentic, how do we ensure the learning happening within our school walls is meaningful? Relevant? Necessary? I am not entirely sure pinpointing a definition for authentic learning (or learning itself, for that matter) is as important as developing an awareness for what engaging learning looks, sounds, and feels like. Learning is personal, yes, but what are the identifiable qualities of authenticity in stimulating learning environments?

Learning goes deep.
Students pull from their own background experiences and knowledge to reflect upon new concepts and ideas, construct explanations, and consider alternative perspectives to concepts and ideas. Students immerse themselves in “big picture” ideas and delve into complexities of content (goodbye, fly-by-mile-wide-inch-deep-curriculum). We integrate curricular strands and allow students to experience thematic impacts. The bar is raised, and students are expected to reach that bar and extend beyond.

Evidence of higher order thinking.
Students pose and solve complex problems. I love the use of “provocations” to engage students in high levels of thinking. In her post Today we will be learning about…., Edna Sackson describes how her students interpret, evaluate, and create. Students make mistakes, yet they channel frustrations into re-examination of ideas and processes to promote a different outcome. Students use a critical eye to investigate subject matter. They question everything, and when they find answers, they pose additional questions. The thirst for learning is insatiable!

Real and substantive conversations.
Students talk: to the teacher, to each other. The learning environment encourages and nurtures the open sharing of ideas. Students converse through a variety of media as part of the reflective process. They create and share with authentic audiences. Students make distinctions, form generalizations, and dialogue with elaboration. If you’ve never taken a step back, found an inconspicuous part of the room, and just sat and listened to students engaged in a conversation, do it. Like, tomorrow. They will astound you.

Personal learning.
Students’ past, present, and future experiences are explored and valued. Opportunities exist for students to research, plan, and create projects, the subjects of which inspire and delight students. Students connect with others who share their passions and collaborate with them for a greater purpose. We encourage students to find that which makes their heart sing. They have choices to do so! This month, one of my fourth grade classes decided they wanted to change the world. They designed a project to help raise money for the victims of Japan’s natural disasters. Thus far, they’ve raised over $600 for the relief efforts by selling beaded pins for $1 each! The students set a goal of $50 before the project began… and they’ve simply been overwhelmed with excitement by the project’s impact. Our school community, in turn, has swelled with pride at how this class has fulfilled their passions.

Autonomy, mastery, purpose, choice, self-direction.
Instructional strategies vary and are personalized for individual learners. We create a multitude of opportunities for students to work both independently and in small groups. Students prioritize, plan, and manage their learning to accomplish goals. Students have freedoms — the freedom to choose tasks, techniques, and teams for learning. When I walk into a classroom where the students own the learning, I see a teacher on the sidelines. A teacher who is guiding, facilitating, and supporting.

21st century skills integration.
Shelley Wright describes what 21st century learning looks like. Students know how to use technology effectively, efficiently, and with a purpose. Students find and evaluate credible information. Tools are used to communicate, collaborate, and create with others. Students and teachers are skilled communicators who respectfully challenge each other’s thinking.

Everyone is reflecting, all of the time.
Teachers and students capitalize on unexpected events and ambiguities in learning, and use these events as opportunities for extending and refining thinking. Teacher and peer feedback is evident. Self-evaluation is encouraged and expected! Last week I observed two fourth graders discuss their strategies for solving a math problem with some new content. The first student looked at his peer and said, “I’m just going to come right out and say that I guessed! I just totally guessed!” The beauty of his honest response was that his partner then clearly articulated his own steps, guided his partner in examining his work, and actually, both of them left the conversation with a rather strong understanding of the meaning of the problem and what was necessary to solve it.

Administrators, what do you look for when you spend time in classrooms? What do you listen for? Teachers, how do you know authentic, real, meaningful, passion-filled learning is happening before your eyes? How often do we take the time to ask children what learning means to them?

I chose the image above to accompany this post because, no matter how many of the above characteristics we see in our classrooms, that face is the one I most want to see. Every visit, every time.

About the author
Lyn Hilt is an elementary school principal and technology integrator/coach. She believes in learner-centered, passion-driven educational experiences, and seeks to model for her students and staff the power of connected learning. Her thoughts on learning can be found on The Principal’s Posts and Connected Principals. She and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their newborn son and two rescued greyhounds, and they enjoy world travels together.