Ontario Certified Teachers use authentic learning to teach students real-life skills.
By Jennifer Lewington
Illustrations: Matthew Liteplo
In a Grade 11 history class at a rural high school in southwestern Ontario, a project on ancient Rome bears little resemblance to a traditional student assignment.
At Holy Cross Catholic Secondary School in Strathroy, Ont., students use a 3D printer to design and assemble plastic replicas of notable Roman buildings, each with a machine-readable bar code that connects a cellphone user to student-produced audio files describing each structure’s significance. With a three-metre-square interactive map fashioned from a shower curtain and placed on the classroom floor, students position the replicas on their exact location in the ancient city.
In a traditional classroom, the Rebuilding Rome project would have an audience of the students and history teacher James Pedrech, OCT. But this project — its contents stored in a pirate-style treasure box as a portable museum — has a wider audience, as it will be offered to other schools in the London District Catholic School Board and, potentially, the world. The Holy Cross project checks all the boxes for “authentic learning,” an approach to pedagogy gaining traction with Ontario teachers. In these classrooms, teachers encourage students to tap their interests and imagination to explore the curriculum, and connect with others outside school.
Concern over increasingly disengaged students and a digital generation raised on, but not always savvy about, the internet, are among factors driving interest in authentic learning as a tool to equip graduates with skills and knowledge for the 21st century.
“The curriculum is better when it attaches to something real, relevant and meaningful,” says retired Ontario teacher and consultant Steven Revington, an authentic learning pioneer. Students with memorable classroom activities and real-world connections, he says, develop “non-perishable skills that can be applied [later] and will grow. That is the true definition of lifelong learning.”
At Holy Cross, where Pedrech is department head of English and Canadian and world studies, his interest in authentic learning developed several years ago, often using technology. Last year, he secured a grant for a classroom 3D printer for the Rebuilding Rome project, the highlight of a Grade 11 history elective for academic and applied students in Grades 11 and 12. As in any class, Pedrech communicates the curriculum expectations, but for this project gives students freedom to choose their roles. One student who typically struggles in reading and writing quickly volunteered for construction-related activities, an experience that built his confidence as a learner.
Grade 12 student Alec holds up his phone for a listener to hear his one-minute oral description of the Pantheon. Knowing others beyond Holy Cross will listen to his contribution, he says, “It makes me think more about what I am doing and work harder to make sure it is good.”
For some teachers, authentic learning practices remind them why they joined the profession. “I was not your traditional academic student,” recalls Rebecca Chambers, OCT, who teaches Grades 9–12 at John McCrae Secondary School in Nepean, Ont., in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. “I became a teacher to provide different learning experiences for students like myself.”
A teacher for 16 years, Chambers says her interest in authentic learning deepened over the last three years as she watched students of all abilities respond to taking ownership for their work. Last fall, for a Grade 11 introduction to anthropology, psychology and sociology, she encouraged students to identify a “passion project” — a topic of interest to them — but tied to course objectives.
Ashley, 16, chose autism because her older brother is on the spectrum. She and two classmates used conventional research tools and social media to share their discoveries about autism and human behaviour with their peers at school.
Then Chambers challenged them to take their project into the community. Ashley’s team contacted Children at Risk, Ottawa, a local autism charity that supports families, offering to organize a five-kilometre fundraising run. Last fall, the three students managed all aspects of the event, raising $2,000 for the charity.
“The school environment and classes can be somewhat disconnected from the real world and the community, and this was a way of making that connection,” says Brenda Reisch, executive director of Children at Risk, appreciative of a high school curriculum that teaches students about the value of charities. In a typical classroom, Ashley says students work to earn good grades and please the teacher. But she says managing the run project taught her something more valuable than a top mark. “These skills I am going to need for the rest of my life,” she says.
Community involvement is an essential ingredient of authentic learning, says one curriculum expert, enabling students to connect to real life. “They are not producing work just to earn marks, but they are producing work for an intended purpose and audience,” says Garfield Gini-Newman, an associate professor of curriculum, teaching and learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/ University of Toronto. “The purpose behind the learning has value beyond the actual report card.”
Engaging the community in student learning is key for Julie Cyr, OCT, a Grade 9–12 teacher at École secondaire Cité-Supérieure with the Conseil scolaire public du Grand Nord de l’Ontario. For almost two decades, Cyr has taught at Cité-Supérieure, an 18-student francophone school in Marathon, Ont., but two years ago she tried a new approach to student engagement. She organized an “Iron Chef” competition as a capstone assignment for her Grade 9/10 food and nutrition class, with student teams producing a three-course meal to demonstrate their curriculum knowledge. “To engage them it’s about making it real for them, and practical,” she says.
Then Cyr went an extra step, recruiting judges from the community as taste-testers. A live-audience presentation “really pushes the students, and I think they are amazed with themselves,” she says.
At its core, authentic learning is an effective teaching practice, says Grand Nord director of education Marc Gauthier, OCT. “You have to take your students where they are at and you have to bring them farther,” he says. “If you want the learning to stick it has to mean something to them.”
A focus on student need opened the door to authentic learning for Donna Forster, OCT, a student program support teacher at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in London, Ont. Three years ago, she spotted a Grade 4 student in the hallway, sent out of his class for behavioural issues. The student complained he was bored so she asked what would interest him. The answer was coding and robotics, neither of which were offered by the school. Forster knew nothing about either topic but vowed to take action, a decision that still pays dividends today. Among her initiatives, she organized a popular coding club at school with help from a tech-savvy teacher and students from Mother Teresa Secondary School, a feeder high school with a Specialist High Skills Major program.
Forster also recruited Blessed Sacrament students, including the once-bored pupil, then in Grade 5, as leaders to teach coding to younger students and interested teachers. “It started with one student and then interest in coding and robotics spread across the school,” she says.
These days the disaffected student, now in Grade 7, describes school as “a place where I can learn more stuff,” proud of his role in the extracurricular coding classes. “I am really leading a generation and giving them knowledge.”
His mother, Maria, says her son previously went to school “just for the sake of seeing his friends .... Now he is going to school for learning.”
Beyond engaging students, Forster sees value in showing the link between their studies now and their future in a digital world. “Based on student need, we started to take a look at coding and robotics, but to really get into the authentic learning portion, we had to go beyond the classroom,” she says.
Through her teacher network, she recruited Luigi Sorbara, a parent with children at another school in the London Catholic board and a basketball statistician for the Boston Celtics. Last year, he taught text-based coding skills to Blessed Sacrament students, enabling them to create visualizations of their shot data on a basketball court background. “They are more attached to the learning when it is about them,” he says.
Beyond the impact of authentic learning on her students, Forster says she has grown as a teacher. “I have had the opportunity to become a true lifelong learner beside students where I am not the most knowledgeable person in the room.”
Here are some resources on various aspects of authentic learning:
The Ontario Teachers’ Federation published a report on using technology and social media to connect with experts outside the classroom (oct-oeeo.ca/AuthenticLearning).
Former Thames Valley District School Board teacher Steven Revington, a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence in 2016 and other honours, is a consultant on authentic learning. His website is authenticlearning. weebly.com/steve-revington.html.
Ottawa-Carleton District School Board teacher Rebecca Chambers, OCT, writes a blog about her teaching experiences with authentic learning (unlearnwithus.com).
London District Catholic School Board teacher James Pedrech, OCT, has a YouTube video on one of his authentic learning projects (oct-oeeo. ca/ScanningHistoryProject).
The Ontario Ministry of Education’s New Teacher Induction Program describes the “4Rs” of authentic learning (oct-oeeo.ca/4Rs).