Authentic learning helps kids succeed

As someone who found the academic side of school appealing, I am mindful of the need to understand my students who find it difficult to engage in school.

One of the opportunities I have found most rewarding this year has been hearing the insights of students who generally haven’t enjoyed their education. Students I have spoken with have offered a range of insightful perspectives on the education system and what does and doesn’t work for them.

One of the key challenges often laid down by students is for their teachers to make learning ‘relevant’ and ‘authentic’. If they can’t connect with and see the relevance of what they are learning they find it difficult to get motivated. While some students enjoy debating or learning about abstract concepts, others need a direct and tangible reason for them to get on board with a lesson.

Providing students with opportunities to learn in a context that resembles real world situations helps to engage kids who find the more abstract parts of school frustrating. This was clearly on display for me over the past week in my own school.

At Melrose High our SOSE Faculty (humanities) coordinate an Australian Business Week (ABW) Enterprise Education Program. The ABW program is run over a week for Year 10 students at the end of our third term. Students are placed into teams of 12 and participate in a range of activities acting as a company. They elect a CEO and each student is assigned a particular responsibility.

During ABW, each team takes ownership of a a simulated manufacturing company over a period of two years. Students make important decisions at each financial quarter that determine the fate of their company and it’s share price. The team also work together to design and pitch a product and video advertisement, develop and present a company report and participate in a trade display night with parents. This is almost as close to an authentic business situation as a school can provide.

It was incredible to see students supported by over a dozen local volunteers from businesses, universities and community groups. In particular it was great to have former-students come back to help the program. The advice provided by founders of start-ups, marketing coordinators for major retailers, bank managers and not-for-profit leaders helped provide all students with inspiration. This was combined with one-on-one mentoring for groups throughout the week.

I often witnessed our most disengaged students asking our guests for career advice, questioning what their jobs were really like and looking for hints and tips for their ideas.

As I watched students grapple with deadlines, decisions and designs I saw incredible learning happening in each team. Without working together, teams would fall apart and at times emotions were high. Despite this, students all pulled together to meet each target throughout the week.

While the ABW program is impressive, it’s core learning ideas are transferrable to other subjects and school settings.

1) Students thrive in learning tasks that resemble the real world.
2) Collaboration between classmates that wouldn’t normally work with helps to build teamwork skills.
3) Learning spaces with different types of competition enable students with various passions to thrive in their own way.
4) Students enjoy developing soft skills that they can see are relevant for their future.
5) Mentors from outside school help to promote stronger learning.
6) Engaging parents and displaying student work helps to create positive learning experiences.

At the final awards presentation on the Friday afternoon, I was amazed at the level of engagement and buzz in our school library. Both our most academically engaged and disengaged students were on stage receiving awards for the best video design, company pitch or report. The acknowledgement of their success was clearly meaningful and valued by the students.

When talking with these students I was amazed by how excited they were about school that week. Many remarked that this was the most stimulating learning experience they had ever participated in.

While this was a one-off week of learning, I hope that I can continue to embed similar ‘authentic’ opportunities into my own lessons. It is crucial that teachers support all students to have a reason to be in their classroom. Without that, learning may never happen.

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