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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Building A Better Student Series: Authentic Learning



Every year, at the start of the traditional summer break from school, I write a piece on what many people dub the summer brain drain. The idea is that a two-to-three month absence from the classroom creates some sort of knowledge backflow, and students lose any academic momentum that they might’ve built up during the previous school year.

I’m sure there’s a modicum of truth to the theory, but I’m also in favor of kids getting a break to just be kids. I loved school when I was young, but I loved my summers, too.


Instead of year-round school, I personally endorse the idea of finding new ways to spark a child’s imagination during their annual break. In particular, I love the use of authentic learning experiences.

The term may be new to you, but I’m sure the concept isn’t. Two examples:

During a family road trip, a friend of mine had his daughter keep track of every cent they spent on fueling up, along with the total mileage. Rather than report on the final miles-per-gallon, the fifth-grader began to figure out the cost-per-mile. Then she took it a step further (on her own, I might add) by requesting the exact cost of their meals and their hotel stays. When they got home she sat down and calculated a cost-per-hour chart for the vacation.

A future CPA, no doubt. But it allowed her to use a real-life experience and apply the mathematics that she’d studied in class. Instead of a textbook, she used the interstate highway system and a calculator.

At a fundraiser for my foundation hundreds of people gathered at the Pepsi Center in Denver while the man in charge of converting the arena from a hardwood floor (for NBA games) to an ice rink (for the NHL) explained how the process took place. It was a science lesson disguised as a behind-the-scenes tour of a professional sports venue.

Both of these - the road trip graph and the sports arena conversion - are examples of authentic learning experiences. They take the fundamentals that kids hear about while sitting in class and demonstrate them in real-world settings.

I’m a strong believer in capturing a child’s imagination and wooing them into learning. The summer break is teeming with opportunities to engage a young person’s interest and to incorporate educational moments. It can be as simple as a walk through the park and closely observing the wildlife in their natural environment.

Or perhaps it’s going to a baseball game and teaching your child how a batting average or pitching ERA is calculated. Or shutting off the television one night and spending an hour under the stars, complete with a discussion on how those pinpricks of light are actually enormous nuclear furnaces, spewing out energy at mind-numbing distances from Earth.

The “authentic” aspect of an authentic learning experience is what intrigues a naturally-inquisitive young mind. Textbooks are fine, but can’t compare to hands-on engagement.

Summer doesn't’t have to mean a brain-drain at all; in fact, it might produce some of the most memorable learning moments that a child ever encounters. Help them soak it up.
  


Dom Testa is an author, speaker, morning radio show host, and has kept a ficus tree alive for twenty-three years. Hes also the founder and president of The Big Brain Club, a non-profit student-development foundation. His new book, Smart Is Cool, will be published in August, 2014. More info at www.DomTesta.com.

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