I have just spent two days at a SparkL PD. Project Based Learning isn’t new, but I am enjoying this journey finding the new ideas and rediscovering some of those that got lost along the way. However I continue to struggle with rhetoric (if I never hear the word “engage” it will be too soon!). In particular the notion of “authentic” learning … the idea of learning tasks with real world applications is also not new! I know the phrasing is designed to challenge us to think about the learning tasks we use in our classroom but I can’t help thinking it implies that tasks that are not “authentic” are just fillers.
Today I took a year 8 textiles class so that the students could start practical work. The regular teacher was away but we had discussed the processes and projects she wanted to introduce. We have real world reasons for teaching things like textiles and even though I was trying to explain these I could tell the students didn’t really care. They have a choice of projects: a pencil-case (made on the machine), a phone cover (stitched by hand) and a beanie (knitted either on a loom or needles). All three projects have real world applications and all three attracted interest to varying levels amongst the students. However my initial problem was how to teach the basic stitches required … the best I could do was an old-fashioned sampler. Each student was required to complete a set number of rows of hand sewn running stitch and blanket stitch. I know this is a frustrating task! I know it is boring to repeat the same thing over and over again! I know that a sampler has no use other than as a learning tool and to some extent it is just filling in time but until the basic skill is achieved it is a waste of resources to begin to make the phone cover. I tried to draw the analogy between learning to write, kick the footy or ride a bike … tried to make a real world connection.
With the knitting I tried a slightly different approach … it worked with my Info Tech students so surely it would work here! I gathered a couple of boys interested in making the beanie and showed them how to use the looms. The idea being that they would then ‘teach’ another person each and spread the skill. One of them lasted three rows before he got “bored” (his words). This prompted a discussion about persistence and work ethic (one of our school values).
All the tasks I planned today had real purpose … they had “authentic” applications … they weren’t just ‘busy work’. I accept that they weren’t all whiz-bang entertainment but there was a well thought out reason for completing each task. Sometimes it is hard work getting students to see that they need to learn to walk before they can run. But I still think there is a place for tasks that just practice a skill set.
I don’t think good teachers simply fill in time … and I think any task that is well thought out and planned as part of a learning sequence to get a student real world ready is an “authentic” task. Ultimately that is our goal, to move our students through their school lives to a point where they are ready to take on the real world beyond the safety of our classrooms.