Why is the need for authentic learning more important than ever? We all know it can be difficult to engage learners: their attention is pulled in a million directions and technology offers ample distraction. And, while all that tech can be wonderful, our learners also need to "learn by doing." Authentic learning tasks can take many forms. For example, there are schools that build gardens to provide fresh vegetables to their communities. Students research what would grow best, actively participate in working the garden, and cooperate in open market opportunities to give their harvest to needy families. In an endeavor like this, they are compelled to think critically to solve real problems. The great news for us librarians is that by their nature, authentic learning projects benefit immensely from collaboration with the library. Need more convincing? Take a look at these essential elements of authentic learning tasks—and consider the central role of the library in all of them:
- Real-life relevance tied to a problem that needs to be solved
- Sustained investigation using multiple sources and perspectives
- Collaboration among learners and educators
- A physical space designed to enhance collaboration, allow for creativity, and provide ownership
- Time for reflection by learners and purposeful authentic assessment
Using a project grounded in real-life application can be the key to driving student engagement. Sometimes a project is not planned in advance but arises out of a student's experience; a learner shares with the class that the local food pantry is short of food stores every month. Here is an authentic problem that needs a solution. Students could hold food drives, of course, but they could also mount a campaign to recruit other community groups to help. They would need to research potential groups, create a letter (or email in this day and age), and collaborate with other classes—possibly the entire school. And, they would also need time to reflect on their efforts. What role can you see the library playing in this project?
Of course! This is the perfect place to engage with the project learning. Students can discover how to search for community groups using Google, how to search databases for factual information, or how to use Skype to connect with experts. There are opportunities to teach source evaluation when checking for the credibility of volunteer projects and to introduce new technology tools to create public service announcements or flyers to promote the project.
Collaboration is an essential component—and benefit—of successful authentic learning experiences. Participation necessitates practicing how to get along and work with others, first with peers and later with any outside partners in the project. As for the collaboration between librarian and teacher, each brings skills and needs to the table. These complement one another, giving learners the best possible support and scaffolding to succeed.
The library is an excellent location for collaboration groups to spread out and work together. If your library space is organized for self-directed learning, collaborative learning, and use of technology, you would most certainly be invited to be part of the authentic learning project. Do you have the space for the teacher to send groups of students to work together? Do you have ready access to materials they will need? In addition to print and digital resources, these materials might range from paper and pencils, construction paper and markers, to available computers, cameras, even a green screen and appropriate software. Maybe you even have a tech team of students who can support these learners through their project. You may even be the "point person" to bring in experts or speakers into the area of your library that supports whole-class learning.
One of the most important pieces of an authentic learning project is reflection. Learners need time and guidance to have meaningful reflection. Learners should be given the time to think about the project at each step, considering what was accomplished and what could be improved upon. The final reflection will be more extensive if learners have been collecting their thoughts along the way. This reflection could form part of an authentic assessment, in addition to evaluating the outcome of the project itself. For example, if the final product is tangible, like a device created to give the homeless a better way to carry and keep their belongings safe, the assessment would judge its effectiveness. This could happen by giving it out at a local shelter and making arrangements to survey the recipients at a later date. If the project was a collaboration with another agency, talk with them to gauge effectiveness of the outcome. In this way, the evaluation of the project encompasses students' looking both at what they felt they learned and how well their project met its target.
Finding that authentic project which provides student choice and voice is the most difficult step. Sure, one can find many opportunities where learners can help—collecting for food pantries or raising money for a cause—but we need to provide opportunities for the learners themselves to find a problem that they think they can solve. So how can we do this? Talk to them; find out their interests, issues they care about, and passions. Listen to their responses, then provide materials they can use to build on their original thoughts. Have the local newspaper available to read, post websites that demonstrate needs, create opportunities for conversation with the larger community. Our students are smart and they have good ideas, we just need to be there to support them in actualizing them!
If you think authentic learning sounds like a great idea, but know that it's difficult to get already busy teachers to collaborate, here are a few ideas you might share with classroom teachers.
Have a pond or creek nearby? Work with a science teacher to have learners investigate the water quality, then determine a project to clean it up! This could include experimentation, real-world experience (and playing in water!), research, and Skype conversations with experts. Learners may also elicit community support, which could mean giving presentations to local groups, writing letters to the editor, and more!
Sometimes it's a little more difficult to get math teachers to value collaboration with the school librarian. What about facilitating a conversation between your high school math teachers and those at the middle school to find out where learners are struggling. Students can then research the challenge area and work in collaborative groups to design a unique way to teach the problem that would engage the middle school students and help them comprehend the concepts. They could go to classrooms or do after school study groups. After testing, they can find out if scores improved and survey learners to find out what device helped the most. See a detailed learning plan for this unit in "Authentic Learning in the Library and Beyond."
As you can see, authentic learning projects provide collaboration possibilities across the curriculum and give students a chance to see their learning make a difference in the world.