Shift in Education – Authentic Learning
It’s January 2022 and we are in our third year of dealing with an ugly pandemic that continues to surge across the globe. It is a time that calls for much reflection on our educational practices. With the fluctuation in school closure due to the pandemic, many schools have been forced to switch to online learning which has its own challenges. Undoubtedly, the landscape of education is changing.
Gone are the days when teachers were the sage on the stage and students the recipients of their knowledge. Even though the purpose of education has not changed, the context has changed, requiring students to develop skills that will help them make sense of the information they acquire so they can apply it in productive and ingenious ways. Technology, which makes information readily available, has contributed to this shift in learning by reversing the role of the teacher as director of learning to that of a facilitator, and students managers of their own learning. As you know, content without context has no relevance, hence the need for real-world situations or phenomena that students can relate to so they can make connections to their learning. As a result, the move to more project-based learning where students investigate real-world topics is necessary as it provides authentic learning that is more meaningful and engaging. It is this type of learning that presents opportunities for students to develop 21st Century Skills that will better prepare them for careers that do not even exist: critical thinking, creative thinking, communication, time management, research gathering, collaboration and citizenship skills, information literacy and problem-solving.
Developing skills that will help students not just survive but thrive in a vastly competitive and changing world requires an approach to teaching that is innovative and creative. With the magnetic pull of electronic devices and tools, teachers have to become skillful in crafting lessons that not only incorporate the use of technology, but also inspire students to think critically about how they can solve problems or create pathways to finding solutions. With new sets of demands created by our changing world, project-based learning fulfills some of the needs, and at the heart of this approach is inquiry. Inquiry-based pedagogy presents a shift in learning that puts power in the hands of the students. A student-centered approach that allows students to pose provoking questions, design methods, and interpret data as they investigate situations or phenomena and key concepts identified by teachers. At first, relinquishing control to students might seem daunting to teachers, but understanding the need to change one’s mindset and embracing the discomfort and freedom that empowers students to take ownership of their learning has been a revelation. Teachers are realizing that the approach not only holds students accountable but also gives them more time to differentiate and support students with different needs. Moreover, understanding that the focus should be more on process rather than content is another shift in thinking that is difficult to grapple with. It is important that we allow students to work through the process of messy inquiry through authentic learning and develop skills as they go along to uncover the content of the curriculum.
The need for this shift has become more evident amidst the ruthless and relentless Covid 19 pandemic, which has placed pressure on teachers to adapt the required curriculum. For students with either learning differences or who are unable to access the internet or electronic devices, this proved to be a great challenge. Fear of not being able to cover content has become an issue and very quickly, schools have realized the need to adjust the curriculum. What has emerged quite clearly is the need to focus more on developing skills for both students and teachers to make learning not just engaging, but productive and meaningful. For schools already engaged in project-based learning that incorporates inquiry-based pedagogy, this process has been seamless. Going forward, the fact is we live in a project-based world, so it makes sense to expose students to project-based learning. This type of learning which allows students to investigate authentic and engaging situations helps to prepare them for the real world as they use life skills; skills that help them to become self-sufficient, creative and critical thinkers who can face and treat with challenges.
At ISPS, we offer the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP) and Middle Years Programme (MYP) which are both inquiry-driven and concept-driven. These programmes are well suited for project-based learning and the development of ATL skills (Approaches to Learning) that help students to construct meaning and understanding. With a curriculum divided into units of inquiry, each unit begins with a conceptual understanding or central idea that is unpacked through inquiry questions or lines of inquiry. Questions that are factual, conceptual, and debatable, are crafted by both teachers and students to provoke their thinking in order to identify how students will uncover the content and build their understanding of real-world situations and how they can solve them. For example in a Grade 7 Individuals & Societies unit on Religion and Beliefs, the conceptual understanding is: Understanding the belief systems that shape the identity and perspective of a society can lead to tolerance. To build students’ understanding of the importance of respect and tolerance of the beliefs of others, they first break down the big idea through inquiry questions such as: ‘What is religion?’ or ‘How do belief systems affect religious structure?’ It is through this process of asking, thinking, investigating, collaborating that students can build their knowledge of a topic, and then brainstorm possible solutions to an age-old problem - religious conflict.
As early as Kindergarten, students engage in investigations to build skills that include collaborating with others; investigating to acquire knowledge; asking questions to arrive at answers; self-management and a host of relevant skills that will serve a lifetime in the real world. As a culminating activity in Grade 5, students work on an exhibition unit where they select the topic, plan, investigate, and showcase their findings with professionalism, authority, and confidence that makes them proud of their accomplishments. Similarly, in Grade 10, students investigate interests or passions in a Personal Project and showcase their products or outcomes with pride that truly demonstrates the value of project-based learning. Whatever project students work on, involves using essential skills that they will need in everyday life and future careers. Learning to face challenges and finding ways to solve them is part of life, and the more we provide opportunities for students to do this, the better prepared they will be for the real world. Process is just as important as content as the knowledge comes from the experience.
Indeed education empowers individuals to contribute to society, but beyond the cultivation of knowledge and skills and equally important is service to others. Building empathy and emphasizing the importance of community service and civic responsibility is also an integral part of holistic learning to build a better world. Community service is a part of authentic learning and embedded into the fabric of learning we offer at ISPS. In 2021 for example, we saw students working together, using their knowledge of science, to make hand sanitizers to share with the community or raising funds through various activities to provide basic items such as toiletries, footwear, clothing etc. for prisoners. The value of student engagement with serving others not only raises social awareness but also provides them with experience and skills that can help them make a difference whether it is in the workplace or their community.
As Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
As educators, we aim to cultivate habits of mind that will mould our students into becoming not just knowledgeable and skillful individuals, but globally-minded human beings who can use what they have learnt to create a more peaceful and equitable world for all.