Authentic Learning to Engage Learners

If students don’t see the work they’re being asked to do mirrored in the world outside of school, they’re not as willing to play the school game. Talk about a way to decrease motivation.

Stevi Quate and John McDermott, Clock Watchers

When students encounter literacy tasks in school that consist of workbook pages or of reading short passages with questions to answer afterwards, they are left to question how these tasks will prepare them for the real world. When writing time is taken by writing letters to Goldilocks or essays of the teacher’s choosing, students are often unmotivated. Most students complete these assignments without passion and devoid of voice.

The work students are asked to engage in needs to mirror the real world as much as possible. Mem Fox tells a story about teaching pre-service teachers in her book Radical Reflections (1993). For several years she had given an assignment in which her students were to write a letter to the parents of a class of imaginary children explaining the recent innovations and peculiarities in the teaching of reading and writing. I would like to emphasize that this an assignment with an imaginary audience and a purpose that she chose-the only real purpose the students had to complete this assignment was to pass the course. There was nothing authentic about it.

The last year she gave this assignment, three of her students were upset about a letter published in a local newspaper that slammed the process approach to writing. This letter came out while they were writing their imaginary assignment. These students were so upset by this that they spent hours of their own time drafting, revising, and editing the perfect response to this man. At the same time, these students also turned in their pretend letters; Ms. Fox was astounded at the difference in the two letters. Powerful writing skills displayed on their “real” letter did not transfer over to the imaginary one for the simple reason that ‘let’s pretend’ isn’t real, doesn’t matter, lacks any investment, and won’t get a worthwhile response. Fox goes on to say, If, as this story might imply, language develops only when it is used ‘for real,’ then might I suggest that we’re currently wasting a lot of time by giving unreal writing tasks in our classrooms: filling-in-the-blank exercises…[and] ‘[a]nswer-ten-questions-on-chapter-6’ exercises. Although this book was written in 1993, I worry that with the advent of the close reading of the new Common Core, some are misinterpreting these guidelines and returning to classrooms filled with unauthentic tasks rather than digging into “real” literacy.

Instead we need to ask students to read real trade books and discuss them with peers, as seen in “real” adult book clubs. We need to ask students to write for real audiences and real purposes, purposes and audiences of their own choosing. If you want to engage students in the writing process, show them that writing can serve real purposes in the real world. See what happens in your classroom when a U.S. senator shows up to discuss a fifth-grader’s ideas about laws personally with him, or when a seventh-grader scores $300 in free books for his classroom from a persuasive letter to Scholastic, or when an eighth-grader convinces the principal to let go of several rules, or when a sixth-grader convinces an entire middle school staff to allow hats to be worn in class, or when a resource room student irritates Compass Math so much they give the principal a personal call to ask why her students do not care for this program. This last event was not well received by my principal. The students, however, wrote with renewed vigor the day I was questioned in front of them for insisting that what they write go to an intended audience.

When literacy tasks mirror those that are found in the world outside of the classroom, students feel empowered and engaged in the work. Let’s learn from experts like Mem Fox and use language “for real.”