Monday, June 25, 2012

Fretting About Somewhat Authentic Projects?

Advocates of project-based learning and other educators sometimes anxiously debate what constitutes authentic learning. When students are engaged in a scenario or simulation, should we consider this authentic learning? The mistaken assumption underlying this fretting is that if a project is not fully authentic, then it is not worth doing.  
Relax! In his recent blog post, John Larmer appropriately advises us to recognize that “somewhat authentic” learning, even if it is not as engaging as “fully authentic” learning, is still more likely to motivate students than learning that is not authentic.
Larmer describes a continuum. Writing an essay or report for one’s teacher is not authentic, although it can be valuable. Projects are “somewhat authentic” if students “are doing work that simulates what happens in the world outside of school.”  For example, it is “somewhat authentic” when students serve as an engineer or presidential advisor in a scenario or simulation.
Work is “fully authentic,” writes Larmer, if “the work has a direct impact on or use in the real world.” He cites as examples of “fully authentic” work: creating podcasts for visitors to local historic sites; and developing designs for a new play area in a nearby park.
I am not convinced that simulations constitute authentic work. Nonetheless, they can be very engaging so we can incorporate them in our classes even as we work to provide fully authentic learning experiences. As Larmer concludes, “fully authentic projects are often the most powerful and effective ones, because they are so engaging for students and allow them to feel like they can have an impact on their world . . .But if you can’t get there yet, don’t feel like you’re failing the authenticity test in your projects.”
Defining authentic work relates directly to discussions in our district regarding what constitutes “transformative learning.” Transformative learning occurs when students do work that makes a difference locally, nationally, and/or globally. Examples of transformative learning include the following performance tasks:
·         Elementary students implement a recycling plan on campus while learning about natural resources;
·         Middle School PE students add more joy to the lives of local senior citizens through square dancing performances; and
·         High School Driver’s Ed students use Claymation to create tutorials which they post for a global audience.

Clearly, transformative learning performance tasks meet Larmar’s definition of fully authentic projects because they have a direct impact on the world. As classroom teachers and other educators in York County, Virginia develop performance tasks, we sometimes struggle with whether a particular project constitutes transformative learning. For example, when students use the methods and tools of scientists to conduct research, are they engaged in transformative learning even if the results of their research do not make a difference in the world? Does it constitute transformative learning when students act as foreign policy advisors and create a mock plan for Obama and Congress for responded to an imagined attack by foreign forces? 
Even though I would not categorize these projects as transformative, they still are valuable. Even if you don’t agree with Larmer that scenarios and simulations are somewhat authentic, Larmar convincingly states that scenarios and simulations are often more engaging than traditional assignments. So, even if you value transformative learning, don't fret if your engaging performance tasks omit the opportunity for students to make an immediate difference in the world.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Hunger Games Commencement

Commencement Remarks:
Welcome graduating students; family, friends, and teachers of graduating students; and School Board members. During this ceremony, we celebrate the commencement—the start of the next stage of the lives of our graduating students. We have confidence, graduating students, that individually and collectively you will flourish, regardless of the difficulties you face.
            Looking at our challenges relating to the economy, the environment, and international relations, one could mistakenly conclude that the world that the Class of 2012 inhabits resembles the combat arena in the popular book and movie The Hunger Games. In The Hunger Games one teenage boy and one teenage girl from each of a nation’s twelve districts are chosen by lottery to compete in a televised battle to the death until just one person remains. Although the arena in The Hunger Games is a horrific place, Katniss Everdeen, the sixteen year-old protagonist, inspires us with her capacity for love and selflessness, her work ethic, and her cunning intelligence.
            At the start of The Hunger Games, we learn of Katniss’ capacity for love and selflessness when her little sister Primrose is chosen by lottery for the death match and Katniss volunteers to go in her place. Graduating students, remember how compelling this capacity for love and selflessness is.
            Even before the lottery, we learn of Katniss’ strong work ethic. Given the limited resources and economic opportunity in her district, Katniss hunts for animals and plants every day in order to feed her family. Through countless hours of hard work, Katniss develops superior archery and outdoors skills that serve her well. Graduating students, take inspiration from this strong work ethic.
            The first story of The Hunger Games trilogy closes with a display of Katniss’ cunning intelligence. Midway through the story, the evil organizers of the game announce a rules change: rather than the game ending with one survivor, the game can end with two survivors from the same district. Every combatant in the games subsequently dies except for Katniss and Peeta, who is also from her district, making them the apparent victors. However, the organizers of the games, wanting more drama, announce a reversal of the rules change: the games will end when only one survivor exists. Katniss then outsmarts the manipulative organizers of the games. Knowing that the organizers would prefer two survivors rather than none, she hands poison berries to Peeta and prepares to take them herself, prompting the organizers to pronounce them both winners. Graduating students, know that cunning intelligence can outsmart people with evil intentions.
            I also encourage you to gain strength by connecting with others to pursue worthy causes. On the day of the lottery in The Hunger Games, the teenagers who were eligible for the misfortune of being chosen to compete gathered solemnly in the town square. After the youth witness Katniss volunteering to compete in the place of her younger sister, Effie Trinket, the mistress of ceremonies, tells them in the movie version, “Let’s have a big hand for our very first volunteer.” The teenagers recognized that the evil organizers of the games expected them to treat the games as a big festivity but they refused to applaud.  Instead, first one, then another, then almost every member of the crowd touched three fingers to their lips and held them in the air in an act of unity and support for Katniss. This act indicated appreciation and admiration and served to say good-bye.
            Lastly, I want to relate an expression that was insincere in The Hunger Games but that I share as a heartfelt wish, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Congratulations, Class of 2012.