‘AUTHENTIC Learning’ Mindset




A week vacation skiing in Whistler with the family, suitcases full of clothes for 5, including bulky ski gear and a return home only to find that when I went downstairs to put the first load into the dryer…it breaks! F01 error code I learned, means panel control malfunction. So needless to say, I marched upstairs to my computer and what did I do? Yup, I Googled it!! I found a YouTube video of a 20 minute repair with a link to AppliancePartsPros.com and ordered the part. Two hundred and seventy dollars later, I  waited a week for the part to come in and then took my tools and went to work. I didn’t lose any parts or screws and the best part was when I plugged it back in and pressed that sweet button, sending the dryer drum rolling again! SUCCESS is a sweet reward!

This exact situation demonstrates all the components necessary in what is called authentic learning. “Authentic learning is a relatively new term that describes learning through applying knowledge in real-life contexts and situations.” as defined by Audrey Rule of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego. There are four components to authentic learning and if we take a look at my experience we can identify each:

Real-world problemssmelly clothes, a family of 5 and no means to wash them. I was naturally incentivized to save some money by not paying for a plumber and do it myself. The satisfaction came when I accomplished what I intended and it worked. Even if it didn’t work, I would still have had the sense of satisfaction.  

Inquiry and thinking skills…Research! This was not my first home project so I had some background on where to start my research for an answer and how to go about solving my problem. I was also confident in my skills and abilities based on my previous successes. I have to say that it is getting easier and more convenient for do-it-yourself projects because of the internet and access to information both textual and visual. I had some initial trials and errors when trying to find the right ratchet wrench size I needed for the bolt screws, analyzing how best to pull the dryer away from the wall without detaching the exhaust vent hose (didn’t want to attach that again) or the gas line, not to mention once I removed the cover from the machine I needed to figure out how to unhook each wiring component and dismount the old control board.

Discourse in a community of learners…My earlier projects involved hanging out with my friends at Lowes or Home Depot asking for explanations of how-to-do this or that and then I’d go home to read the directions that came with the kit or ‘fix’ it project. I would not have been able to successfully fix the dryer if I went into it with my own thinking. Why do we always put kids into learning situations with their limited life experience bank thinking they will be able to figure anything out on their own without access to information, conversations and a community of other learners. That’s not the real world. We have to remember the needs of a learner in the moment of their learning…provide the opportunity for them to communicate, collaborate, question, grapple with their problem.

Student-directed learning…Open-ended and choice driven are the key to student learning. I may not have had the choice of my dryer breaking but I did have a choice in how I would solve my problem. The situation was open-ended in that it provided opportunities for… “divergent thinking, heuristics-based learning, and exploring fuzzy, ill-defined, and ill-structured problems”. I said earlier that I didn’t lose any screws…well I didn’t lose any but I did have an extra one left over. I had to think on my feet and make a judgment call when one of the screws needed for securing the control panel to the metal interior plate didn’t want to go back in its place. I determined that it was secure enough without it and didn’t want to risk forcing it in or having it fall down the side of the dryer as I struggled to ‘make’ it fit.

We must start providing students with opportunities to experience learning in this way. We must start to build their confidence, background and repertoire of learning.

We must start thinking of students as drivers of their learning. Learning is finding the best ways to access and internalize information in order to create/apply it to something new.

Let them do it! Get out of their way!

Because they CAN!

Please read this article for more information on authentic learning.


Testing Time vs LEARNING Time


As if the frenzy of the beginning of the year isn’t enough, we add in student assessments for the fall to get benchmarks of where our students are and how much learning was lost over the summer. I’m in full support of testing and benchmarking! It is a very integral part of teaching and learning. What I am in more support of is every day learning between testing.  

Here are a few things we are busy doing and focus on prior to and during testing:

  • refresh/reboot student devices and test for tech capacity,
  • open optimal assessment windows,
  • communicate to parents that testing is coming up and kids need good night sleep and breakfast, and perfect attendance is encouraged
  • set testing schedule for classes,
  • identify alternate locations in the school to best assess certain groups,
  • pull all available hands on deck to support students with accommodations and modifications,
  • rework precious learning time around testing block,
  • remind/review with teachers how best to use the data we will receive,
  • deal with technical hiccups that disturb the testing process,
  • practice the use of mice and drag & drop strategies with our youngest learners,
  • field phone calls from parents eager to find out scores and enter their students into any gifted opportunities
  • communicate with parents again and remind/review how to interpret data and that this is only a small snapshot of their child’s ability used to gather benchmarks and set growth objectives
  • complete testing, reward students with recess, sigh of relief, and return to teaching as usual

Immediately after students take the test we rush to see how they did in this one moment in time.

This rush of urgency, pressure to perform, extreme collaboration with colleagues to help and cover each other and students, urgency to motivate and pump kids assurance that they will do and can do a great job, constant maintenance of technology to perform, transparent communication with parents about expectations, should be the norm every day IN-BETWEEN testing days. I contend that if we approached everyday LEARNING with this same intensity and send the same message of its importance; the day of testing would look and feel very different for our students.

Can we imagine, that one day students would walk into their classroom, look at the day’s schedule, see the words “Formative Assessment’ (nationally normed or good old fashion check for understanding), grab their device, sit down anywhere of comfort in the room, put their headphones on whether to listen to music or just create more quiet, and start the test. No fuss, no stress, fully confident, and excited for the challenge to beat their previous score knowing that they are active engaged learners everyday! What if we could get kids to approach a test like they approach playing video games against each other and encourage each other?

It’s time to shift the focus. Off of testing day, to ALL the other days of learning. What needs to change in our teaching, classroom culture, evaluations to make this happen for our kids so we can finally get the REAL information we need to change instruction? I’d love to hear your ideas! I have a few of my own.

The average # of school days in Illinois is 176 X 5 hrs a day = 880 hours of learning.

Let’s just say (I’m inflating) that PARCC (ELA & Math) will take the average student 12 hours and NWEA (ELA & Math)  3 X a year will take another 18hrs total = 850 precious engaging LEARNING hours in a school year are left to US! How will we use them?

(Even if my math is totally off, I hope you get my point)

This is what we should be focusing on and having an urgency to utilize to the best of our ability to ensure our students DO learn and grow.

Are we there yet?


When the kids were little, we use to drive the 21 hours from Chicago to Florida for our family vacation. Not an hour into the drive would one of the kids start with the oh-so-familiar phrase, “Are we there yet?” that would then be repeated for the remainder of the trip. My responses would begin with something mild and motherly like, “no honey, not yet, it’s going to take a long time” to a more impatient, “no, please stop asking, you’ll know when you see the beach”. Now the kids are grown and in our recent trip to visit my husband in Abu Dhabi, it struck me that not one of them ever asked the question! Not that I missed it, but it made me stop and reflect on why that might be and I made a connection to how people view a journey.

Personally, I feel there is great value in the process of a journey rather then the actual destination. When the kids were small and had little understanding of the process of taking a trip, they were not interested in how we get there but just that we get there. The importance was in the end product; beach, pool, and playing in the sand. I would have to say that working in education, many educators hold this same focus on the end result, rather then the journey we take together. The journey process holds the greatest capacity for learning; take for example a family vacation with little kids. Remember all that you learned about packing, mapping out the best route, the ideal time of day to leave so the kids would sleep most of the way, places to stop along the way to break up the trip, states to watch your speed (NEVER speed through Georgia!), car games to teach and play with the kids! Countless opportunities to learn, understand, and appreciate the journey.

If I viewed the adoption of the Common Core with the same regard, I could say as well that the journey to adopt and implement is full of learning! Teachers involved in every step of the process of unpacking and understanding a standards-based education, powering the standards with colleagues, rich conversations to prioritize the learning outcomes, articulating standards between grades to ensure fluid learning for students, mapping the power standards into quarters, using standards to design pre and post assessments to measure student learning, and reporting out to parents using a standards based report card. How rich are all of these opportunities for a system of educators to experience together. How often do we still hear the cry, “Are we there yet?” I’d like to presuppose why this phrase is used; the learning journey is hard! From sitting in a car as a child, for 21 hours not really knowing where it is you are going; to educators spending a substantial amount of time changing their mindset and practice to meet the new standards. It’s not easy…it’s hard…and worth it!

Why have my grown children now stopped asking the question? I would say it is because of all they learned about the process of a journey. They have an appreciation for and trust in the process enough to know that there is great value in how you get there, as in arriving! Just in this one trip alone we have met dynamic people from all walks of life that we will remember forever, who have confirmed in all of us how truly amazing peoples stories can be and how rich a journey is when we take time to notice and learn. Some examples; a 27 year old man who sat next to my son who was flying for the first time in a plane back home to New York for Christmas; the cab driver, Faisal, drove us from LaGuardia to JFK, one of 22 brothers and sisters native to North Sudan, who entertained my simple Arabic phrases and shared his view of the dyer situation currently gripping his nation (I could write a whole blog just on our conversation alone); the three Serbian (my national background) flight attendants on Emirates and the young man Amir, also Croatian, who all made the 12 hour flight more bearable by sharing in speaking (and me practicing) Serbian. Was the trip hard….YES…exhausting, frustrating, uncomfortable… but we are profoundly changed because of it!

I would encourage my colleagues to not be so concerned and quick to come to the end of their journey of just saying they have adopted the Common Core but rather to allow the uncomfortable, exhausting, and sometimes frustrating work to profoundly change how we teach! My hope for all of us would be to grow up, like my children, having an appreciation for and trust in the process of the journey…the reality is, if you’re too focused on just getting there, you miss many opportunities to venture off the path and deepen your learning as you go.

Bon Voyage!