We read Dewey’s Experience and Education first in our graduate program. I recently had two experiences that reminded me of the necessity to make authentic student experience central in the design of a educational environments.
We introduced fourth grade students to web research with a simple activity. Ask them to find ten discrete facts on the web using Google Search. We modeled good search techniques in class and provided two paper resources. One listed the ten facts to find, and the other described a cyclical method for refining search terms in order to improve results. We talked about authority of websites and how to scan a web page for content. This introductory lesson went really well. Students learned the protocol, proceeded through the activity, and found the facts.
More recently, students applied this knowledge in a plant research project. Each assigned one plant they had seen in the Oregon woods, the students searched for the taxonomic name for the plant, its ideal growing environment, nutritional value, average height, and other facts. Students took much longer to find this information. Many got stuck partway through and needed help.”I can’t find the scientific name!” “Where can I find ‘food value’?”
Why the difference? The second activity was more authentic and experiential. Students were engaging with real information about plants they had found and held and searching for them on the “real” web. These searches had not been tested in advance to compile a worksheet. Rather, students had to understand what a taxonomic name actually is, rather than look for the term “scientific name.” They had to be flexible and understand that “nutritional value” or comments on why an animal might eat these plants made up the “food value” they were seeking. Charting their own course through an authentic environment produced far more useful learning than completing a structured, finite activity.
The Haiti earthquake and resulting humanitarian disaster are very present in our minds these weeks. We are exposed to frequent reports from news sources and support our students’ efforts to raise money and awareness for Haiti. However, all of this does not compare when one’s colleague relates her stories of past trips to Haiti, nervous attempts to contact friends post-quake, and informs the school community that her doctor husband has just left for Haiti with a medical team.
It is with those computers that were donated by CG and the Rotary, [my son’s] help, albeit small, in setting them up that has allowed some of the connections and relationships with others around the world. The people of Matenwa are still able to communicate and receive email/news, which is amazing. It is so important to them to know others care and are trying to help.
In the long-term, these experiences are without a doubt more “educational,” but they are messy, difficult to manage, and complicated to assess. We should show the confidence to accommodate the short-term disorder and uncertainty that accompany kids’ struggles with authentic content in order to foment powerful learning.