Horace Mann was an American pioneer and revolutionary in public education. In 1848, he made the link between an educated populous and a successful society. He famously opined that education was “the great equalizer.” He was right. No longer are schools a place for just the affluent and privileged. Rather, they are institutions for progress and change that are open to all. What is one of the key divisions that separate industrialized countries from developing ones? Their educational systems. In fact, in the modern age of compulsory education it could be argued that many students take the right to free education for granted. So much so that levels of student engagement and motivation are the subjects of routine discussion in many staff rooms and professional learning seminars. The good news? We have the power to fix it.
Everyone remembers their favourite teacher growing up, but why? Because our favourite teachers have a passion for their craft. They sear an indelible mark into our brains. Preeminent researcher John Hattie refers to these educators as ‘expert teachers’ who “believe that they are personally responsible for student learning” (Hattie, 2012, p. 35). Students in these classes do not ask; “Sir, why do I need to know this?” or “Miss, will this be on the test?” Why? Because these educators teach with a passion by delivering a message that what I am teaching you is worth learning. They also see themselves as learners right beside their students.
Fortunately, in Canada teaching successes abound us. Let’s be clear about that. The recent PISA results paint a clear picture about teaching and learning in Canada. We take a back seat to none. In an ever-rapidly changing world where everyone is just scrambling to keep up, educators in this country have rose to the challenge. Outdoor classrooms. Public-private partnerships. Embracing technology. Walk into any classroom in Gander, Newfoundland or Kelowna, British Columbia or Norma Wells, Northwest Territories and you will see authentic learning in action. For the purpose of this exercise, let’s take a trip to beautiful Summerford in central Newfoundland and visit New World Island Academy to watch authentic learning in action.
First, before we head to Summerford, we need to deal with the academic stuff – authentic learning is predicated on the constructivist view of education espoused by Dewey (1916) and Vygotsky (1978) where learning cannot be disassociated with real world experiences. Ascribing to this philosophy of education, then it is incumbent on the school system to respond by linking academic learning to real life experience. James Popham (2008) asserts authentic learning has “tasks more closely coincide with real-life, non-school tasks” (p. 174).
There is no magic formula or standard template for authentic learning activities. It is about knowing your students, their interests and abilities, and setting goals that link their learning outcomes to something real life. The key point is that the learning is applicable to some real life situation. Nothing is more authentic than witnessing learning from both ends of the human experience; youth and seniors. Enter New World Island Academy.
One way to make learning meaningful and authentic for students is through the development of relationships. Literacy learning involves a variety of forms of communication which are all entrenched in social interactions (Wright & Mahiri, 2012). Our youth need to have compassion and empathy for all ages. In rural Newfoundland there has been a recent trend of individuals to complete secondary school and move on to larger centres to attend college, or find work, and not return to their roots. As a result, rural Newfoundland has an aging population and a vulnerable group of seniors who need increased care and support.
The Literacy/Numeracy Committee at New World Island Academy continuously discuss and plan for rich and meaningful learning opportunities. Each December, the committee focuses on a Christmas Literacy Celebration for the students. In December 2018, under the leadership of Amanda Pelley (Reading Specialist) and Natasha Farr (Teaching and Learning Assistant), it was decided that the literacy celebration would centre on ‘Special Gifts from the Heart’, an experience that could be shared, particularly, with seniors at Christmastime. The day began with each classroom teacher (Kindergarten to Sixth Grade) reading the book Gifts From the Heart by Patricia Polacco and watching videos that promote relationships with seniors. After great conversations and discussions regarding the needs of our seniors and how to make their days brighter, each student made gifts—cookies, cards, tree ornaments, Christmas broaches, and wreaths to share with the seniors. During the afternoon, elementary students traveled to Twillingate to visit the hospital’s long-term care unit and Sunset Manor Seniors home. Primary students remained at the school and entertained seniors from the New World Island area. At each location, students read books and poems, told jokes, sang songs, and engaged in conversations. This event promoted a real world experience for students.
According to Comber (2015) students can build a positive academic identity while experiencing the everyday world. Students had an opportunity to make connections with seniors and develop compassion for others while enhancing their literacy skills. At the end of the day, one senior expressed to Ms. Farr how much she loved spending time with children. She added that there were no children who lived in her little community—a testament to the necessity of reaching out to our seniors and inviting them into our schools. After the visit to Twillingate, one student reported that she would be returning to Sunset Manor to see ‘my new friend and bring her a Christmas present.’ A heartwarming and truly authentic learning experience.
Can we capture that enthusiasm for learning in the more senior grades? Absolutely. In the very important and prescient book Deep Learning by Fullan, Quinn and McEachen (2018), the authors refer to three ways to motivate students; they feel a sense of autonomy, feelings of belonging, and feelings of confidence. This is the new ABCs of education. What do these three traits share? They are all intrinsic motivators. However, the most compelling piece of the puzzle is that we, the educators, have the power to ignite the internal intrinsic motivators in students.
Intrinsic motivation (IM) has long been understood to be correlated with positive student achievement. This is rather obvious to any educator. However, what may not be so obvious is that by offering extrinsic rewards as motivation (EM) may actually “play a more debilitating role in students’ intrinsic interest and achievement” (Lemos & Verissimo, 2014, p. 936). That is, students lose their internal motivation as external rewards, which cannot be sustained, offer more immediate gratification. So, that means teachers hold all the best cards. Therefore, if we create classrooms that are real and authentic, where autonomy, belonging, and confidence – 21st century ABCs – are the pillars of our teaching philosophy, then conversations of motivation and engagement will share about the same amount of airtime as Beta machines, rotary dial telephones, and the Pony Express. Lest you fear authentic learning is a pie-in-the-sky, flight-of-fancy initiative, consider this; “For every one of us that succeeds, it’s because there’s somebody there to show you the way out. The light doesn’t always necessarily have to be in your family; for me it was teachers and school.” It’s source? Oprah Winfrey (estimated net worth: $2.8 Billion – Forbes, 2018). How’s that for authentic learning? We look forward to the youth of New World Island Academy caring for our provincial future.References
Comber, B. (2015). Literacy, place, and pedagogies of possibilities. New York, NY: Routledge.
Fullan, M., Quinn, J. & McEachen, J. (2018). Deep Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers. New York, NY: Routledge.
Lemos, M. & Verissimo. L. (2013). The relationships between intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, and achievement, along elementary school. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 112 (2014), 930-938.
Popham, J. (2008). Classroom assessment. (5th ed). Boston, MA: Pearson.
Wright, D. & Mahiri, J. (2012). Literacy learning within community action projects for social change. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(2) (OCTOBER 2012), 123-131.