Ingrained in my memory is an activity my teacher had my classmates and I do in 6th grade. Ms. Tillett divided the class into groups. She gave each group a document which described our situation – our income, the number of people dependent on us, our living conditions and we had to prepare our life’s budget according to the situation we’d been handed on that piece of paper. I’d been handed the life of an impoverished mother struggling to care for her family. I had to choose between feeding my children and sending them to school. I remember, as a 6th grader doing a class activity, feeling an incredible weight on my shoulders – a painful burden that I couldn’t escape – all because of the paper I’d been handed.
I went home after school that day. I no longer had to live the situation handed to me on that paper. However, the weight of the decisions I’d imagined making lingered. Fifteen years later, I still remember the valuable lesson my 6th grade teacher helped me experience through authentic learning: a lesson of empathy. I now find myself living in Haiti, managing an organization in which I’m privileged to empower parents who were “handed” a situation of poverty much like that I’d been handed on a piece of paper in primary school. I’d learned not only to manage budgets but to empathize with people in a situation completely different than mine.
Living in Haiti and working with children, I also see so clearly the consequences of a school system void of authentic learning: children in Haiti are taught to memorize paragraphs and their success is measured by the number on their report card, while their knowledge, participation, and problem-solving skills are not even considered. This contrasts strikingly with the creativity, practical learning and social engagement I was privileged to experience in the Yukon Education System. In French class, for instance, I recall going on outings in which we were to converse only in French. After finishing high school this was exactly how I became fluent in Haitian Creole: through conversation.
Authentic learning allows students to develop more than just academic capacity; it gives them the experience and skills to actually apply that academic knowledge in the ‘real world’. Through authentic learning we are not only teaching students, we are also developing tomorrow’s leaders.