Authentic Experiences in Education Lead to Deeper Learning
Michael Bowler, Assistant Head of School
“In what ways has it been difficult during the pandemic to be the Assistant Head of School?” I heard a 6th grade student ask me through his tile on the Zoom screen. I didn’t expect to be exploring this topic side by side with a group of students this year. The challenges seemed endless but surmountable with team work I explained to them. “Are there things about your life, your job that have improved as a result of the pandemic?” they continued later in the interview. I was struck by the genuine and curious tone the students conveyed in asking their questions and recording my answers. Chrissi’s 6th grade cohort was engaging in the research phase of their Pandemic Invention Project by conducting interviews with people in their community to find out how their lives had been affected by the pandemic. It was one of the first steps in their interdisciplinary project based learning experience, and it struck me as a core principle of an educational experience here at Fayerweather: authentic experiences.
John Dewey, a principal figure in the progressive education movement, stated that, “Education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process.” Dewey believed that in order for education to be effective, students have to be invested in what they are learning, and that the learning had to be relevant to their lives. One of the most effective and powerful approaches to accomplishing this goal is to create real world authentic learning experiences for students, something that struck me as so clearly present in the Grade 5-6 Pandemic Invention Project. Their learning went from on the page to in-person, in a very powerful way. Authentic sources like the ones students interviewed to kick off their research helped students engage with real people offering diverse and complex perspectives in a way that traditional classroom learning simply doesn’t provide. Greg Bamford, the Associate Head of School at Charles Wright Academy, noted in Independent School Magazine this exact power, “What could have been a purely academic exercise or an intellectual exploration of the principles of design, became real. They developed empathy for someone different and a deeper motivation for their work. Relevance drives learning.” Relevance drives learning, deepens it, and gives it application that transfers outside of the classroom walls.
Currently, Grade 5 and 6 students have identified pandemic related problems from their research and interviews that they are most curious to solve, have used clarification grids to come up with multiple solutions, and have used techniques such as SCAMPER to look for multiple ways to see one solution. I am excited to see where this interdisciplinary project rooted in authentic experiences takes them!
Thinking about the Pandemic Invention Project had me wondering: Is there more we could be doing in education to provide powerful authentic learning experiences to our students? Seeing a project like this in action made me feel right at home at Fayerweather, and I am excited to collaborate with teachers around exciting new projects like this in the future.