The Essence of Authentic Learning @ SLA

One of Philadelphia’s many building murals
(CC) Photo by Steve Ransom

I’m at Philadelphia’s EDUCON, a unique sort of learning event where sessions start with a proposed question, to be answered by the audience through conversation. The function of the presenter is to generate that problem-solving conversation.

Day one focuses on the Science Leadership Academy, a unique sort of school that hosts the conference. SLA students conduct tours of the school where we can talk with them and their teachers. It was my fourth tour of the school, two during EDUCON days, and two during normal school days walking through with its principal and founder, Chris Lehmann.  Of course, nothing about SLA is normal.

Today, I had a personal tour, just me and Tyler, a senior with an interest in astronomy. He is working with the astronomy staff at The Franklin Institute on a number of projects. Needless to say, I shared with him my neighbor, Paul Gilster’s blog, Centauri Dreams.

Each time I visit SLA, I walk away with a different aspect of the place resonating between my ear. I remember my second tour with Lehmann, walking around and people would walk up, interrupting the tour, for a conversation with the principal.  I suddenly realized that most of the time I unable to tell whether the person was a student or one of the school’s young teachers. The topics of the conversation never concerned the logistics of schooling, but were about the work of accomplishing some important goal or mission.

Today?  Well it was authentic learning, a term I heard and overheard several times in the halls and classrooms.  What struck me, was that there was always some sense of apology at the use of the word, like the speaker had not choice but to invoke it instead of some better phrase.

Authentic learning is a term with a long history in education, spanning well before NCLB – and it is a term that, frankly, has seen better days.  I suppose it is true in most professions that a term or phrase becomes used by so many people, in so many places, within so many contexts, that the label’s weight shadows it’s original meaning.  Many of us come to distrust the term and are left to use examples to convey our meaning – and examples rarely reach its essence.

I won’t presume to define authentic learning here.  But during my conversations with instructors at the school and with Tyler, and seeing similarities between the educational practices at SLA and the vocational classes I took as a high school student, I saw a commonality that was informative to me.  The linchpin effect of authentic learning is that..

The value of what is being learned is obvious to the learner
And
Does not have to be explained by the teacher.

There is great power
When the learning why
Is part of
The learning how.