Authentic vs. Inauthentic Education

Describe the difference between authentic integration of other subject areas into the history state and national standards. How does it differ from inauthentic integration?

The irony of this question is that it is one that doesn’t seem to be asked (or at least taken seriously) too often in many classrooms – or for that matter in the chambers where curriculum, standards, and assessment policy is created.

One of my very favorite quotes on education is from William Butler Yeats, “Education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of the fire.” I think this is as good as any way to distinguish authentic and inauthentic. If we are merely “filling the pail,” we are educating inauthentically. On the other hand, with lessons which “light the fire,” we are teaching authentically.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s say there are two levels to this. First, there is the way the lessons are taught. This is the basic stuff of being a “constructivist” educator, making meaning and showing the students how to make their own meaning. Authenticity is about making the lessons “real” and personally relevant, connecting them to other things in meaningful fashion.

Second, there is the subject matter. One of the struggles we have in many areas of education today is the relevance of what is being taught. From the previously discussed two forms of handwriting (aka the “cursive question”) to learning how to do math manually that can be done on any cell phone (and many watches) to teaching college prep material to non-college bound students, we have to wonder what authenticity there is for the students in these seemingly pointless (or at least wasteful) tasks? The challenge for our school structure here is to come to grips with what actually needs to be taught and why, thus re-truing to relevant, authentic material. The challenge for us as teachers, in the mean time, at the tactical end of this problem is to find authenticity in seemingly irrelevant material. This comes in two parts. First, we must find the intent of the curriculum designers and honor whatever piece this instruction is meant to be in the structure of overall knowledge. Second, we must find ways to relate this material to the students in spite of the burden of initial skepticism.


Verifying Understanding

I have been thinking about verifying understanding frequently.  I have mentioned this before but, as a scuba instructor, I am very familiar with the techniques of mastery learning.  In this essentialist, assessment-based world we live in, mastery learning becomes very relevant.  Simply put, in mastery learning, you do not get to move on until you have mastered the material in front of you.  The clear implication of this is that each student will be tested until that mastery is fully demonstrated. In my class, my students will expect to be challenged daily.  They will understand that being challenged is like lifting weights, failure is precursor to success. 

Of course, one of the first things I will expect my students to master is the art of taking tests.  They will study test taking and they will practice it.  Multiple choice and composing essays on the fly are skills like any other. My tests will be as challenging and devious as any the standards boards can devise, more so because mine are teaching tools.  Challenges will not just be tests, they will come in many creative forms.  In addition to tests and quizzes, I will ask students to “teach back” what they have just learned.  Maybe that means giving a quick verbal description.  Maybe it means preparing a five-minute mock lesson.  Alternatively, maybe it means breaking up in groups to work together to achieve mastery, with individual success dependent on collective success. 

Sometimes the best path is the crooked one.  Maybe the test will be writing a poem about algebra.  Or maybe it will be “draw a map of the island in Lord of the Flies.”  Maybe the students will make a probability matrix for the American Revolution.  The best way to learn something is to take it apart completely and re-assemble it.  The other best way is practice, practice, practice. 

One final note: key concepts and facts will appear on quizzes long after the unit is done.  Anything worth learning is worth still knowing at the end of the school year.

Success in the Classroom

For me, my success in the classroom will be in two parts.

First, I would like to leave every student with a love of education and a solid grasp of how learning and life interconnect. I would like to teach some of the timeless literature to illustrate the human condition; its choices and challenges. I’d like to teach the arts to give texture and color and sound and rhythm and rhyme to their understanding of being human. I would like to give them a sense of history and how we have come to this place. I would particularly like to leave them literate and fluent in math and science. We are living in a hard science world and to know the gentle parts of life and that hard science is a powerful combination.

At the same time, I am determined to leave my students competent in the standards and capable of demonstrating this in assessments. To do this, my intent is to out ‘essentialist’ the essentialists. If competence is defined as answering questions correctly on an exam then, by golly, that’s exactly, precisely what I will teach them to do. Teach the standard, assess, teach what’s not retained, repeat. No doubt, this will take more time than I have, especially folded on top of top of the progressive/perennial education described above. I think education is important enough to be generous with my time before and after school and to expect students in need of extra help to be generous with their own time as well. With luck, sacrifice and cooperation, we’ll fit it all in and leave the students more than ready for the next step of their life.

Mastery Leaning versus Resource Constraints

Not to harp on a point, but there is another aspect of this conversation that I’d like to open for discussion. It is all well and good to talk of mastery learning, as I do, or Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of Proximal Development’, as you do. I passionately believe that the philosophy and practice implied by both concepts is powerful, foundational and essential for elementary school education.

The issue I’d like to raise here is resources. I spent two days a week in kindergarten last year. The developmental differences were all too clear. Even with three adults in a room with twenty students, the requirements of meeting the individual needs of all these students was overwhelming. Best efforts were made to bring all of the students along, but the tempo of the curriculum also required moving on after a time.

I wonder how one balances the need to tailor education to each student and their developmental readiness with the scarcity of teaching resources (i.e. time and teacher attention)? This may not be the place for this discussion, but I am concerned by the gap between the my heartfelt philosophical committment to bringing each child along and the imposed demands of standards and reaching a certain aggregate (i.e. class-wide) level of learning over the course of the year.

There are a few logical responses. One would be requiring extra learning time with lagging students, either during free time or after school. Another strategy would be tiering workgroups by ability so as to concentrate attention on groups with similar learning needs and developmental readiness. I am curious what thoughts or experiences anybody might have as regards this challenge.

Mastery Learning and Assessment

I believe that each child has the right and capability to learn the course material. My instincts are to incorporate principles of mastery learning into the classroom. Mastery learning says each student doesn’t move forward until they’ve demonstrated mastery of the current material. Since much of the curriculum is additive (dependent on prior learning), this has the added advantage of making sure the student is adequately prepared for each section of curriculum as it arrives.

Mastery learning requires frequent assessment. But in mastery learning, the relationship between teacher and pupil is subtly different. Because the goal is mastery, the student (and teacher) must commit to truly learning a body of knowledge, not simply being present while it is taught. To the extent that this is true, assessment changes from an onerous task to a useful measure of progress towards a goal. Teacher and student are eager to understand how complete comprehension and retention have been.

In addition to protecting the student’s right to learn, frequent assessment is efficient. All too often, teachers move forward in the mistake belief that as subject has been taught. This confusion between presenting the subject and it being absorbed leads to much surprise and frustration. But not so with frequent assessment. Likewise, assessment is a kind of teaching, a kind of drilling. Like flash cards, frequent assessment develops the habit of learn, test, repeat. This drives the knowledge home at the same time as it assures that comprehensive comprehension is achieved.