Spring 2019

Authentic Learning Made Memorable by Nature

At one point or another, as education professionals we are asked about our education philosophy. Throughout my entire career in education I have had this notion that my job as an educator is to create learning experiences that will foster an environment where students feel safe in the learning space. Within the learning environment, we can provide guidance to students that will foster many 21st century learning skills. 

Authentic learning can be found across learning styles and across curriculum. It can involve problem solving in Math or discovering how to create new technology in science. Authentic learning can involve finding out the unknown and allowing the learners to self-direct their learning path to find the answers when they may not even know what their question was.  Discovery and curiosity can lead the learning journey in authentic learning. 

By now we are all aware of educational movements to get outside. Why is nature important in authentic learning? 

Recently, I took some time standing in front of several schools outside of Canada realizing exactly why this movement is important. Staring at fenced-in brick schools, for the most part, there was not a patch of grass in sight! This is a stark contrast to every school I have visited in Canada and thus the need for nature connected authentic learning is profound. Young, Haas, & McGown (2016) explain that as educators we have allowed for outdoor learning to be replaced with sedentary learning and the result has affected child development (p.7). This idea ignited me to think about my own experience as a learner. And although my elementary years were over 3 decades ago, they were sedentary learning years. Questions arise: How many decades in Canada has education been predominantly a sedentary learning experience? Does sedentary learning provide space for authentic learning? More importantly, do we even remember authentic learning from our own educational experience?

Asking educators, parents and learners to describe their earliest memory of authentic learning resulted in the need to define what authentic learning is to the respondents. Curtin University (2015) explains that “authentic learning is experiential learning located in settings that reflect complex real-world problems.” Furthermore, it allows learners to demonstrate their skills, complete real tasks, research and investigate, collaborate, and reflect. 

The role of the educator in authentic learning allows for unfolding of curiosity. Nicaise, Gibney & Crane (2000) state that “in authentic classrooms, the roles of teachers change. Teachers discontinue being information providers, tightly sequencers of information, and test-creators; instead, they adopt the roles of guides, scaffolders, and problem or task presenters.(p.80)”  Given this idea of the role of educators in facilitating authentic learning from information provider to that of guide, the examples provided as memories of authentic learning illustrate that authentic learning can be as simple as teacher providing an environment.

In the 80’s we went outside for recess and we went outside for lunch. I could only recall the annual trip to a local heritage site when it comes to authentic learning outside the school building. My earliest authentic learning in a natural setting was in grade 6. Our teacher took us to a nature park on the far edge of town. We rode our bikes to get there. We explored the forest trails and the small lake, some students did some fishing. It was an entire afternoon of freedom to learn in nature. Upon return to the classroom we delve into a science unit on ornithography. I was able to draw a bird I had observed there which I had been unable to name until our teacher guided us on learning how to identify birds. Eight years later I did a practicum at a wetland conservation centre so needless to say that learning and those skills proved beneficial.

 An overwhelming number of authentic learning memories are based on the natural environment. Nature influenced authentic learning examples revealed wonderful memories from multiple decades of education.

Three have been chosen as examples:

  • 1980’s: We would go out to Squamish area for a week to live in cabins and study salmon, etc. We fertilized their eggs and learned about what the spawned salmon give back to the rivers. What I like about the outdoor school though was that it was a chance for us to be immersed in nature. We went canoeing, practiced archery, went on wilderness hikes and every night we sat around a campfire. Many city kids rarely get these types of opportunities.
  • 1990’s: In high school, as an at-risk student who found themselves in an environmental program, the teacher asked students to create projects to solve environmental problems in the community. This assignment proved that 24 learners could have a huge impact building community trails, writing articles for the newspaper, and even starting community recycling programs.
  • 2010’s: Learners wanted to study Praying Mantises for part of their science program. Aside from providing us with much literature about these insects, the most interesting part of the curriculum were the kits the teacher provided us that enabled us to watch them grow. At the end of that study we went outdoors and released them into their natural environment. That was the only day that year our learning was outdoors.

We rarely remember our best day of sedentary learning; we need to make the most of the time we have with learners. Young et al. (2016) declares “find a way to interact with nature in the raw…. use wood to make fire; use plants for food and medicine… you might even learn to grow your own food and learn to hunt and fish” (p.68). More specifically – be the educator or administrator that will take the time to plan for learning in nature, posing a question that will initiate curiosity, wonder and exploration, while creating memorable authentic learning.

E.D. Woodford is a former Principal and currently works as an Instructor of Indigenous Studies with the University of Lethbridge Calgary Campus and as a Learning Consultant.
Curtin University. (2015). Authentic Learning. Retrieved from https://clt.curtin.edu.au/teaching_learning_practice/student_centred/authentic.cfm
Nicaise, M., Gibney, T., &.Crane, M. (2000) Toward an Understanding of Authentic Learning: Student Perceptions of an Authentic Classroom. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 9(1), 79-94.
Young, J., Haas, E., & McGown, E. (2016). Coyote’s guide to connecting with nature. Santa Cruz, CA: Owlink Media Corporation.

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