I think many of the activities we do in school could fall into a category I call “fake learning experiences.” A real learning experience is one which either creates new schema (background knowledge) in the mind of learners that is retained in long-term memory, or attaches itself meaningfully to existing schema so it further deepens the learners’ functional knowledge and skills.Often in school, the activities in which we require students to engage impact short term learning and memory, but not long term memory. Reading pages from the textbook without actively processing the information and creating some sort of meaningful knowledge product based on that information, completing a worksheet, or listening to the teacher lecture about a topic all fall into this category of “fake learning experiences.” In one ear and out the other, a fake learning experience may suffice to provide an activity for a required teacher lesson plan, but may not meaningfully impact the lives of learners subjected to the in-class activity.I’m convinced we should be taking MANY more field trips in schools with students. The reason is simple: Field trips by their nature tend to be experiential learning opportunities which often make a lasting impact on the minds and lives of students, and are not quickly forgotten. Students rarely take field trips to boring places, generally they travel to zoos, museums, planetariums, or other locations filled with real animals, artifacts, and displays to not only read and hear about, but also EXPERIENCE.

Amy Standen’s April 2007 EduTopia article “Grounded” relates the all-too-common experience of many school districts and teachers regarding field trips: Sorry, we can’t take a field trip or any more field trips, because we don’t have enough money. While schools seem to have an inexhaustible amount of money to expend on testing materials and test preparation materials, many have mysteriously “run out” of funds by the time field trip requests come rolling in. Amy quotes teacher Michele Reese in her article:

“Kids need to see that there are jobs out there. They need to see careers,” says Reese. “If you take a child to a bread factory, and they see how bread is made, they connect it with other things in their lives. Real intelligence comes from making connections. We can raise their test scores, but it’s not going to change their lives, really. All learning is based on prior knowledge, and field trips help kids learn about the world.”

My wife and I both took vacation days today so we could take our children to the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks, Oklahoma, just south of Tulsa. We met up with some close family friends we hadn’t seen in over a year (who are now living in Belgium and were visiting family in Oklahoma) and had a WONDERFUL time. Our experiences today touching sting rays, watching hungry sharks feed on raw chunks of meat, and seeing a wide variety of other animals and plants from the oceans of the world provoked me to think more about field trips and learning in schools.Tulsa Aquarium - 24.jpgMany students in the Tulsa area have already started back to school this fall. Our schools, in Edmond, start this coming Monday. One of the employees of the aquarium asked our kids why they were not in school… surprised to learn, I think, that their school had not started yet. His question made me wonder how many of the students in local public schools will be taking field trips to the aquarium this year? If the students are fortunate to take a field trip to the aquarium, how long will they have to wait in their classroom before they get to go? Will that be their only field trip of the year?Certainly we cannot take students on field trips outside the classroom every day of the year, and because of the logistical requirements involved in taking students off-campus, even if funds were available we might hesitate to take field trips so frequently. The fact remains, however, that our students a yearning for REAL learning experiences TODAY. They need those experiences much more often than once per semester or once per year. They have come to school to learn, and the choices we make about the learning activities in which they engage make a tremendous difference in determining whether those learning experiences they’ll have will be meaningful or quickly forgotten.Some people are content to complain about high-stakes testing in U.S. schools and wait for a high-level, political change to be made to alter the direction of our “educational ship of state.” I believe, however, that our students cannot afford to wait for such a political change. They need to be offered authentic choices TODAY in their learning, which invite them to not simply read about life, their world, and the ideas of others in it, but rather EXPERIENCE those concepts and emerge from their classroom OWNING those ideas (and new ideas they’ve synthesized with their own prior knowledge) to a greater degree than they did at the start of the day.My continued reading of “The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer” by Seymour Papert has prompted me to consider the following litmus test for whether or not a classroom activity is likely to be classified as “real” or fake.” Is the learning activity in which you are requiring or inviting your students to participate so interesting and engaging that you would voluntarily consider joining in with their studies and explorations as a co-learner?There are no guarantees, but if the answer to that question is “yes,” it seems likely your students may be engaged in “real” learning. If the answer is “no,” perhaps you should reconsider (with the assistance of other teachers and your students, of course) alternative ways you could explore and share the curricular concepts and skills under current study.We’ve all likely sat in classrooms for countless hours, watching the clock and waiting for the “fake learning” experience led by another teacher to end. If you’re reading this blog entry, I’d hazard a guess that you do not want to repeat those sorts of forgettable educational experiences for your own students. The good news is that you do not have to. By providing students with choices in the ways they can actively investigate, explore, and share ideas about topics and skills being studied in class, you can invite them to become engaged in “real learning.” Of course, the choice of whether or not to become engaged in an active learning activity is ultimately up to each learner. Simply “talking-at” students during a lecture provides zero choices. If you’re providing learners with choices, you are likely on a pathway toward providing differentiated learning options for students. That is the journey chosen by “true teachers,” rather than educational technicians masquerading as teachers, and the pathway to REAL learning which your students are most likely to volunteer to follow.

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4 Responses to Real versus fake learning experiences

  1. You can take a “field trip” everyday. I take 5 minute field trips in my science class. Talking about condensation? Lets go look at the clouds. Pour some water on the ground (in our 112 degree heat) and see how long it takes to evaporate. We use Google Earth to visit a setting from our reading class, or to see ridges, valleys and basins to connect again with the water cycle. A ton of aquariums and museums have live web cameras (Monterey Bay Aquarium has some really good ones). Yes, these aren’t the same “hands on” learning as a real field trip, and shouldn’t be used instead of actual field trips, but they can be good learning experiences. They are definitely more engaging than reading from the text books.

  2. Sarah says:

    I echo all of your thoughts about creating real learning experiences for children in the classroom! I make every effor to create authentic learning for all of my students as I juggle the curriculum. I would love to hear about more authors, people or organizations that provide more examples about how to make this happen in our classrooms.

    Our brand new superintendent, just hired this summer, has a PHD in differentiating instruction. I’m sure these ideas of differentiating and creating real reasons in the classrooms gel together. I would love to know of any other reading I could do about real learning experiences.

  3. Matt says:

    First, let me say that I agree with you that our schools are marred with far too much fake learning. I love your litmus test of whether or not something is real learning. When I read it, my mouth practically dropped thinking of all the things that I teach that I would not want to be a part of … I am embarrassed to say that some of the things I teach are not even engaging to teach, let alone engaging to learn. It is, of course, a constant journey, looking for ways to improve my teaching and move towards more “real” learning experiences.

    My friction with this is, is there a realistic balance between “real” and “fake” learning? Can we turn everything into something so engaging that we would want to participate in, or are there some things that, at least for some students, are not going to be engaging but are important enough to learn.

    I am thinking a lot about math lately, and many math activities might fit what you call “fake” learning. I know that my fourth graders need to learn their multiplication facts. Even with all this technology around us, multiplication facts are something that, I believe, people still need to know. Now, some student may be engaged by the way that I teach and we practice our facts, but for some, it just isn’t engaging. Does the benefit of learning sometimes outweigh the need to engage students? Do we just need to work harder to find a way to engage the students, or does the cost of doing so outweigh the marginal benefit?

    Perhaps this is where games or competition might come into play. A video game might easily turn something rote like fact learning into something more fun and engaging.

    Until then, I continue on the quest for real learning!

  4. Great points in your post and in the comments.

    Matt, as a parent as well as an educator I so appreciate your honesty about how you fare on Wes’s litmus test. It’s a daily struggle. (Another way to view it is, if my own kids were in this class, would they be engaged by how I am teaching?)
    Regarding your questions about specifically teaching math, I recommend reading Alfie Kohn’s book, The Schools Our Children Deserve. He devotes one of the chapters to math instruction and you will find it enlightening and geared to answering your questions. Great book!

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