Culture of Learning

Creating Authentic Learning Environments

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” 

These words of wisdom hold especially true for education and learning.  They have probably been quoted countless times by frustrated teachers – since this is the biggest obstacle that they see.  I have probably thought or voices these words myself as I grow as a teacher – frustrated that the students aren’t responding as I had hoped to my lessons.

But these words of wisdom don’t need to be words of resignation or defeat.  They can be inspirational.  Yes – the teacher cannot make the horse drink – and acknowledgement of this limitation is a freedom to focus on what the teacher can control.  This module discusses in great detail how learning is far broader and more comprehensive than simply the teacher doling out information to students.  Rather than focusing on making the horses drink, teachers can raise their eyes, take in the learning environment, and change the things that they do have control over.

  • Is the horse on sturdy ground when it’s drinking?
  • Is the water rushing by too quickly, and perhaps diverting some into a pool would be preferable to the horse?
  • Do fences need to be put up so the horse no longer worries about predators and can relax enough to enjoy the drink?
  • Does the water need to be purified?  Is there something in it that the horse won’t drink?
  • Does the horse respond if you scoop the water into your hat and hold it up to it?
  • Was the horse dragged and whipped and spurred as it was led to the water, so it is thinking more about that than the water in front of it?

In short, what, other than the actual content, can the teacher change that would remove obstacles to the student learning?

This module talks about reorienting our perspective and approach to teaching.  That Authentic Learning and real teaching, is not about the day’s topic per se, but rather the skill-building and character building that it provides the student.  And this reorientation provides the answer to the perennial question:  “Mr. Mullany.  Why do I have to learn this?  When am I ever going to use this in real life?”

Which, quite honestly, is a darned good question!  Just last year I was talking with a Chemistry professor and explaining what I was teaching and she said “Oh wow, I’d forgotten all about that stuff.”  Because, of course, a Chemistry professor wouldn’t be thinking about High School level Chemistry.  So what about people who don’t plan on doing anything remotely involving Chemistry?  Again, this is a Darned Good Question.

So far, my answer to this has been to discuss Neuroplasticity and how it is challenging your brain to grow so that you will have the neural connections in place to learn the skills for the next thirty years.  Not bad.  But incomplete.  

What this lesson has brought to my attention is that I am still orienting my thinking with a Standards-based mindset and then extrapolating.  Starting with Chemistry and projecting outward.  If instead, this summer, I approached lesson design with the idea that my goal is to develop the students’ skills and character, and each Standard is merely a means towards that end, I wonder what change that will evoke?  At this point, I don’t know.  But I am curious.

This is a broad, philosophical lesson – one without a defined application.  Each teacher will have to wrestle with how it will impact their own class.  Which, ironically, highlights the need for this type of education as this is they type of problem that our students will face in their own future careers.

My early thoughts are that this reinforces my Innovation Proposal.  If students are freed to learn at their own pace, then they aren’t being led to drink at the same spot at the same time as all the other students.  Drinking will be their own decision. 

However, since this isn’t drinking and there’s no biological imperative to learning how to properly name a covalent molecule, I will need to serve as a motivator/coach.  The Learning Environment needs to be a pathway as well, so that even when I am not coaching them they have a goal, and a path, and that will serve as an ever-present motivator.

A small, practical, change I can make (now that I think on it!) is that, before we begin learning Chemical Nomenclature, I can have them think of their hobby and write down as many words or terms that are commonly used in it.  Then I’ll have them write sentences where those terms are used wrong.  This would be a great class discussion as they could try to make each other laugh through incorrect usage of names…and then perhaps this would reinforce how it’s important to name chemicals correctly – and more importantly, for them to learn how to acquire the professional vocabulary of their chosen profession later.  HOLY CRAP!  This may just work!  The above was a stream-of-consciousness (hence the “Holy Crap”) exploration of how to apply this reorientation to Chemistry, and I randomly picked out Nomenclature. 

I struggle to find these tie-ins to real life, but perhaps this reorientation was just the trick I needed.  This summer’s work on lessons may be an interesting and productive one.