Why Authentic Learning Doesn't Feel Better

There is an astounding amount of research out there to suggest that the best way to learn is through experiences. There are websites created by educators dedicated to helping others increase the authentic learning in their classrooms. There are research and theses papers galore that address the topic. One in particular paper (Lombardi, 2007) that I like makes the claim (correctly, I think) that authentic learning experiences are powerful for three main reasons:
  1. These experiences cause students to find connections between topics. This is also called schema-building.
  2.  Long-term memory and skill building happens through practice*
  3. Students can look at the larger picture and take context and situation into account much more effectively.
 *If you haven't yet read The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle (@DanielCoyle) then you should go get it from your library, even if you're not a teacher. We all have a sense that practice makes perfect - or at least much better. Coyle looks at some of the brain science behind why this hunch is correct and how we can more effectively create environments where talent can be fostered.

The point of all of this is that authentic learning experiences are important and worth your time as an educator. The point of the rest of this is to reflect on why, if authentic learning is so damn awesome, does it feel so terrible while it's happening!


Confession - I was never a huge fan of The Karate Kid. I know, I grew up in the 90's so I should be all over that, but it never happened. I begrudgingly watched (and liked) the one where he waxes on and off. At least I think I liked it. I actually don't remember a whole lot from that movie other than the scene where he waxes on and off. Truth be told, my most lasting memory of The Karate Kid is watching the movie and thinking about how terrible that whole process must have been for the kid. Maybe I didn't like it that much after all!

Do you remember what comes after the wax-on wax-off scene? A montage! There's an absolutely terrible movie came out in 2004 called Team America. The entire movie is puppetry. Maybe you remember it. When all seems lost, we enter to montage phase where the hero pretty much learns to be awesome.

And that's just it! We are taught through movies, sports, pop culture, politics and every other life venture that the stuff that leads up to the moment is just a montage. It cannot possibly be as vital to the story as the game winning shot, the damning argument in the debate or the crescendo at the sold-out concert.

There's a reason the events that comprise a montage are put into a montage in the first place. If they were given their proportionate due, you would turn off the movie and ask for a refund because it would be boring, repetitive, often frustrating and full of not-so-glamorous moments where the hero of the story looks like an bumbling idiot.

My dad came and worked with my government students the other day. A little while into the work day, he made a this is like pulling teeth motion at me with his hand. I smiled, knowing that somewhere deep inside he felt my pain. Getting teenagers to work hard enough to create something authentic has its moments of wonder, many of which have made it into this blog. But I think I have not appreciated the importance of the montage moments in the process, and that could be why I feel like the wonderful moments are spread too far apart.

Really, that's the important piece to remember - that it is all a process. The process will have highs and lows. The process will feel like an utter failure at times. The process will, as my dad put it so astutely, sometimes feel like pulling teeth. When it does feel that way, keep pushing through to the moment where it all becomes worth the pain and takes notes for the next time around that may help make it all less painful. It's also important to remind your students of the whole process. They need to hear you say that they are doing really well (assuming they are) and that you see their effort (assuming you do). Like with all communication with students, honestly being positive helps tremendously when you need to be honestly critical of student work and effort.

No matter what, embrace the montage! Without it, the hero never becomes the hero! 

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