Authentic learning contexts

In a number of forums recently I’ve heard teachers discussing how they go about looking for authentic contexts on which to base their project-based or inquiry-based learning approaches with students. The challenge they discuss is how to make the focus of the activity meaningful, and not simply a ‘tokenistic nod’ to some sort of local or global issue.

If we are to take seriously the need to prepare our young people for a world of uncertainty, change and complex decision making, then we need to ensure that the contexts we decide to use as the basis of their studies are authentic indeed, and do allow them to experience the challenge of addressing ‘real’ problems in areas that matter. That’s not to say that every child is going to become a Greta Thurnburg, or grow to become a political leader or social reformer. The responsibility for addressing the issues that confront us is a shared responsibility, and it requires a high level of engagement and social action on the part of all.

To this end we need to be considering how we might engage the learners in our schools in projects and areas of study that have significance in their lives, and to do so in a way that builds deep understandings of the issues, building critical thinking and problem solving skills as we do so.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide a useful framework to begin thinking about where to start when looking for such contexts. They provide a shared blueprint for a peaceful and prosperous planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

While these may seem lofty, and for many out of reach goals, intended more for politicians and global leaders than schools and learners, the framework is a useful one to help link local projects to global issues. Used in this way the notion of authenticity is linked to making the things students engage with meaningful to them and their lives – and also to the life of the planet.

Take, for instance, a school that decides to reduce or eliminate the use of plastic on the basis of what they have learned about the impact of plastics accumulating in our ecosystem. While that is certainly something that is to be encouraged, the real impact of this as a context for learning at school comes when students are actively engaged in researching and evaluating the many perspectives there are on this topic, and are confronted with the scope and scale of what is required to address it. Such activity requires meaningful and long-term engagement, and cannot be addressed simply by fitting it into an hour long lesson as part of a science curriculum for example. It requires meaningful engagement beyond the school – into the community and beyond – to activate the interest and support of all who are likely to be impacted by the decisions that are made.

Linking what is happening locally to what is happening elsewhere, both nationally and globally, learners can be encouraged to understand that their actions are contributing to a larger effort and that their ideas and contributions have just as much value in this enterprise as those of ‘experts’ in other places. Joining projects such as those suggested on the TeachSDGs website, the Teach the Global Goals Participate site or the Good Life Goals can be a great way to find projects that can be used as a catalyst in your own classroom or school.

The impact of creating meaningful, authentic learning experiences like this is well illustrated in the video below from Ngunguru School in Whangarei, where cultural narratives are entwined with science and environmental studies in an Earth Education project that has been continuing for some time.

The EarthEd programme aims to embed the role as protectors of the environment (kaitiakitanga) into the everyday life of students, and is more than just educating about the environment. Through this school wide programme students develop meaningful and authentic connections with the local environment and local history, and with the earth.

Perhaps we could see more of this sort of learning in schools around New Zealand and the world if we were to use the SDG framework as a way of identifying the start points for thinking about how we could bring any one of these 17 areas ‘to life’ in our local communities.

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