Authentic learning: full STEAM ahead

Our Lady Queen of Peace students arrive at school eager to learn. Photo: Kitty Beale

Our Lady Queen of Peace students arrive at school eager to learn. Photo: Kitty Beale

Every day, in every Sydney Catholic school there are examples of Authentic Learning. About Catholic Schools finds out just what it means to be an authentic learner and how the approach places concepts firmly in the ‘real world’ for students and teachers alike.

In 2014, the conversations began. School leaders and teachers started to question more deeply what they believed about how students learn, and to develop a clear and shared picture of what authentic learning might look like.

From this, a statement was born that has gone on to reinforce the positive teaching and learning that was already occurring in Sydney Catholic schools. According to that statement, authentic learning is “relevant, purposeful and engaging. It is rigorous and empowering.”

Students and teachers will agree. At St Mary’s Cathedral College, a project to research the identities of Australian soldiers who died on the Western Front has turned the more than 60,000 who died in World War I into more than a statistic in students’ minds.

Later this year, Bethlehem College Ashfield girls will tackle the thorny issue of body image through a joint Drama and PDHPE film project. And at St Ambrose Catholic Primary Concord West, students are so rapt in the task of using the Garage Band app to help write and record songs about the principles of light for Science they need to be reminded to go to lunch.

St Clare’s College Waverley designed their own Technology and Applied Studies classroom to budget and saw it built during school refurbishments last September. Six secondary schools in the Sydney Archdiocese will send devices that students as young as 12 have coded to collect data to the International Space Station in November.

They  are all the sort of projects that promote both critical thinking and empathy, creativity and problem-solving ability.

“Authentic learning is not something new, or even very different for Sydney Catholic Schools,” said Director of Teaching and Learning at Sydney Catholic Schools Dr Michael Bezzina.

“It is not a retreat from high expectations. It is a way of capturing and naming the very best of what is already going on in our schools and classrooms.

“When students engage with new ideas; when they are challenged to perform at a high standard and in different contexts; when they are given opportunities to transfer their learning to new situations … both individually and collaboratively, they are learning authentically. This kind of learning not only enhances performance in public examinations, it builds strong foundations for lives of promise and meaning in a rapidly changing world for all of our students.”

 In every school every day there will be examples of authentic learning. What we are aiming for is more of it.

–  Dr Michael Bezzina

Teachers answer: What makes authentic learning valuable to students?

At Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Primary, Year 4 teachers Karen Weekes and Nicole Meehan had students apply Mathematics to a real world situation – The Royal Easter Show. They determined locations using coordinates, found the best ticket deal and calculated the duration of the event in days, hours, minutes and seconds. They also worked out what show bags they could purchase for $100 with or without change, and converted the volume of milk produced at the 2015 working dairy into millilitres and two-litre bottles.

“Most importantly the experience enabled them to access the curriculum at their level, which led to all students experiencing growth in their learning,” Ms Meehan said. “The conversations, questions, enthusiasm and smiles on the faces of our learners drive us to create these authentic learning experiences in a variety of key learning areas.”

NAPLAN data released in March is one example that the approach is having an impact on student achievement. There were 12  Sydney Catholic schools on the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority’s list of 77 NSW schools that showed significant learning growth above the national average in literacy and numeracy.  The data compares previous year’s results and schools with similar students based on their Index of Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) value.

“While Sydney Catholic Schools represent only about 5 per cent of all NSW schools, they account for 16 per cent of the NSW schools recognised for exceptional learning growth between 2013 and 2015 based on the Year 5 and 9 NAPLAN tests,” Dr Bezzina said. “This is one indicator of the power of authentic learning.”

The authentic learning statement captures other ideas that encourage students to grow. Authentic learning makes the purpose of tasks explicit for students and encourages them to believe in their own abilities and set high standards for themselves.

Teachers share in these expectations and have taken different professional development opportunities to ensure they base their teaching approach on quality research and relevant data as they encourage students to think critically and provide them with challenges.

TeachMeets are held once a term and give primary and secondary school teachers a chance to share ideas and resources.  About 60 teachers attend each TeachMeet. The first Authentic Learning Symposium will be held  on July 4, with about 150 teachers giving a day of their school holidays to the professional development opportunity. They also have access to an online toolkit including videos made by their peers to share ideas for tasks across all areas of the curriculum.

“Authentic learning  is central to our work as Catholic educators because it promotes the continual growth and wellbeing of the whole person – spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, socially and physically,” said Education Officer Joanna Stella.

The aim of the symposium is for teachers to share ideas and approaches to teaching and learning in order to deepen and expand our capacity to deliver authentic learning across our system of schools.”

Authentic learning – Key points:

Students learn authentically when they:

  • engage in work that is rigorous and challenging;
  • make connections between the material being learned, and their own lives and experiences;
  • exercise choice as they pursue their own passions and interests;
  • believe they are capable and have high expectations of themselves;
  • apply knowledge and skills creatively in a range of situations.

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