Authentic Learning can be Messy

One of the parts of my job as Technology Integrator (or “Tech Coach” as I like to call it) that I love most is that I have the privilege of working with a team of such high quality professionals at my school. Yes, I am able to introduce some strategies for implementing technology to enhance a lesson or drive home learning objectives, but at the end of the day, I benefit so much from collaborating with our amazing teachers as I learn from their array of teaching styles and abilities.

The classroom I am discussing in today’s post is one that would have made many of our own childhood teachers–and if we are honest, some of usIMG_0174extremely uncomfortable. This was not the type of classroom where students sat in neatly arranged rows or small, balanced groupings of three or four. Students didn’t always raise their hands before speaking. Some stood, while others sat. The room was buzzing with activity. I had provided a few prior introductory lessons in basic coding with Scratch, our media specialist introduced the makey makey circuit boards, and the science teacher, Ms. Kopels, introduced basic circuitry. Now, the students had the opportunity to combine these three concepts to explore electricity and complete a series of self-directed challenges.

Not every teacher can tolerate this type of learning environment. At first glance, it may appear to be disorganized, even chaotic. A more traditional classroom, like the ones from my childhood, has specific rules against such behavior. Expectations are set on the first days of the school year and students held accountable for upholding these rules for every lesson, every day.

Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 1.15.19 PMNow I’m not saying that this “messy” type of classroom atmosphere works for all learning activities, but I know one thing: there was 100% student engagement in this class. One hundred percent! A couple of the students sat on the table with legs dangling over the side. A few others were on their knees, eye-level to their challenge on the desktop. Multiple voices could be heard at the same time throughout the room–some louder than others. The one thing that made this class different from a “traditional” classroom was the fact that although Ms. Kopels had carefully planned the lesson, the students were genuinely self-directed as it was carried out. There were very few times that her voice could be heard over the general chatter in the classroom. How many times can any of us say that we can hold our students’ attention in this way? What made this lesson so successful? I’m going to share 5 observations that I believe contributed to Ms. Kopels’s success in this lesson:

  1. Students had something to do as soon as they walked into the room–something for which they were accountable. Call it a “bell ringer” or warm-up activity, or whatever. These students had been conditioned to look for what to do when they arrive each day. Not only does this prevent lingering or mischief in those brief moments between class, but it sets the tone for the class and is the perfect opportunity to creatively “hook” the students into the lesson. A quick glance at the board and the students were busy at work.
  2. Students knew what to expect. The teacher was just specific enough to communicate the general flow for her students by listing the class activities on the board. This list was broad enough to allow for and take advantage of the students’ questions, ideas, and suggestions–which brings me to my next observation:
  3. Students had freedom to explore, question, and draw their own conclusions. This structure requires an open minded instructor who isn’t afraid to take some risks. There are so many “what-if’s” that can intimidate a teacher. “What if a student poses a question I can’t answer?” “What if students’ questions divert them from a concept I’m trying to drive home?” “Won’t I be losing control of the class, and consequently, lose my students’ respect?” I  recently read a blog post about a principal who introduced himself as the lead learner in his school. It takes a degree of humble confidence (yes, I know –it’s an oxymoron) to be a learner in one’s own class, but I have learned from experience that students will have far more respect for a teacher when (s)he is not too proud to learn something new along with–or yes, even from students!
  4. There were a variety of activities in the class. Students worked with a partner, in a small group, but came together as one group at the end of class to share their questions, challenges, approaches, and conclusions. Interestingly, the students knew that the “rules” were completely different for the wrap-up, whole class discussion in these last 10 minutes of class.
  5. The lesson had specific closure. Students knew there was a clearly communicated “exit ticket” to demonstrate that they had met the lesson objective(s). I will address exit ticket ideas & strategies in a future post.

Most teachers today understand that our students need a variety of learning activities to remain engaged. We know that the best lesson combines different activities and groupings. We realize that when it is crafted to bring out the best in our learners and in our lessons, technology can enhance engagement and learning. We still have a way to go in giving up the comfort of “controlling” every aspect of our lessons. Yes, this type of learning can be messy, but let us consider how this “unstructured” learning can be the most engaging and consequently, the most effective learning for our students.

My next post will address some creative approaches for class starters or “bell ringer” activities. Follow this blog to get an email notification for new posts.  🙂

Kelley Briceno, Tech Coach

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1 Response to Authentic Learning can be Messy

  1. silberhorn says:

    This is exactly the style of learning I hoped to establish in my classroom 50 years ago. Yes, 50 years. Teacher as mentor. Active, engaged learning. Learning by doing rather than listening. I hope more teachers will embrace this model and ignite the potential of their students.


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