11 October 2010

Terms of Engagement

Later this month, my assessment group will be reconvening to do some more writing. I haven't seen them since June and really have missed them. They spend time with other teachers every day. I rarely do---and their energy is restorative to me. In exchange, I try to give them rich professional learning experiences.

One of the things that I have been wrestling with---and will ask them to wade through---is some definition around two adjectives: relevant and authentic.

Education is replete with calls for learning opportunities which are "relevant" to the student. Until recently, I hadn't thought about this term much. I was part of a discussion recently where someone pointed out that adults have to deal with problems all the time which aren't relevant to them. Ever had a co-worker/spouse/child drop an issue in your lap? Suddenly, someone else's problem becomes yours. "Authentic" has its own issues. I have always assumed that authentic was interchangeable with "real world." Maybe it still is.

Both of these terms require some sort of context---relevant for whom? authentic as compared to ? Dan Meyer has been exploring pseudocontext over on his blog: "authentic" examples of math that are bastardized to create a problem for students to solve.

As much as I want to avoid this as we move forward with the EdTech Assessments, I have also been struggling to find examples of STEM concepts that aren't chock full of pseudocontext. I am beginning to wonder if this is a de facto piece, especially for younger students.

For example, are there authentic and relevant problems for first graders to solve that involve knowledge and skills from science, math, and technology? I can think of topics that integrate these. I can easily picture providing students with some materials science experience and then having them design a new home for the Three Little Pigs. I can make connections with science and math concepts (properties of materials, measurement, etc.). Knowledge of the attributes of different materials can be very useful. But I have to admit that a first grader is not going to be out building houses anytime soon. Does this make the experience irrelevant---just because it is not as applicable when 7 years old? Have we created something that isn't authentic because primary students aren't responsible for real world engineering/architecture---or is it because we might try to tie this to a literary piece that they understand? Or, is it okay to build background knowledge of materials and design in age-appropriate ways that can become relevant and authentic later in life?

Even with older students who have some additional life experience in them, I'm not sure that we ever get to "relevant." I think it's easier for them to make the bridge to "authentic," but it's still somewhat artificial. I'm not sure what that will mean as my assessment continues to build tools for the classroom. I'm hoping that we can find some peace with these terms of student engagement.


Jason Buell said...

The whole Real World thing is junk for tons of reasons. Relevant really should mean "relevant right this second." As in, what do you need to solve this interesting problem that's right in front of you? To bring the convo back to Dan, there's a natural current to every problem. If the current says "this connects to something outside of class" go for it. If not, you're just messing with an already beautiful problem.

Jenny said...

I've kept this post open in a tab for a few days. As a first grade teacher I don't think too much about relevance. You made me wonder why. I think first graders will get excited and pulled in by anything you present as exciting. I wonder if that is a factor in later years as well. Do Dan Meyer's students get so excited because the problems are fabulous (I do think they are) or because he is genuinely interested and excited by the problems? How much does our attitude about the problems make a difference?

The Science Goddess said...

Jason---I like the idea that "relevance" being linked to a time constraint. I think that helps a lot.

Jen---Teacher enthusiasm helps with upper grades, but not as much as in primary.

I keep thinking about relevance/authentic in primary classrooms. Somehow, these seem like they would be more along the lines of social skills, not solving math problems (even fabulous ones). And maybe that's okay.