Why are employers so hesitant to hire students that have no work experience? After all, how can one gain hands-on and practical experience in a field of work, if they are bogged down with all the school and university assessments they are expected to do?
The job-experience paradox is just the tip of the iceberg. The real reason why employers are always on the lookout for individuals with prior work experience is because these individuals have not only a theoretical understanding of their chosen field of work, but a practical and social understanding of it as well.
It is widely accepted that a typical classroom environment where students are expected to learn does little in mimicking the real-life scenarios students are likely to face upon graduation.
As a consequence of this, individuals truly begin their practical, social and cultural education within a field of work only once they have actually found work.
Is there a solution to this problem? According to Steve Revington, a leading Canadian educator with more than 30 years' experience, there is, and it’s called ‘Authentic Learning’.
Revington is a recent recipient of the prestigious ‘Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence”, the highest honour for any teacher in Canada.
The award is just one among many that he has collected during his illustrious teaching career.
Now retired, Revington is focussing all his attention towards designing and implementing new variations of the ‘Authentic Learning’ experience.
So what is ‘Authentic Learning?’
According to Revington, Authentic Learning is anything that results in a tangible outcome for students.
“I’ve been doing this for 30-something years, and easily the difference is once you go beyond the walls of the classroom, if you design something that can be shared usefully - a clearly defined tangible product - then everything follows suit,” Revington says.
Authentic learning also often involves the community, Revington says, offering an example of his students working with the local council to redesign a nearby park which had become drab.
Getting students to collaborate and work towards a tangible outcome is just one of the many characteristics of Revington’s ‘Authentic Learning’ methodology though.
The process, as he explains, involves a range of other characteristics that come together in creating a rich cognitive experience that enables students to not only improve their problem-solving skills, but their memory retention abilities as well.
However, as he explains, the process also involves creating expectations that go beyond what conventional learning models assume.
“We were once doing an Ancient Living Roman Museum Market in class ... so we turned our classroom into a market collectively.
“But individually, we needed to add a personalised learning element, making sure they have free choice to be able to adapt and be a successful part of the market.
“We could have said we would have a toga party and present it. That’s more for fun and entertainment and I’m all for that if it’s a celebration of learning.
"But when you’re doing authentic learning, you are going to do more with people really working and sharing those skills,” Revington explains.
“So this little boy brought in this gold sprayed cardboard with this little ribbon running down it, in the shape of Ancient Roman lyre.
"I asked him, ‘how are you going to play that? Are you going to be able to be successful with that? It’s more decoration. Would the Ancient Romans have done that?’
"And he says, ‘No Mr.Revington, I just wanted to do it’.
"In the end I said this was one the greatest possible things that could have happened. Here’s the little boy who had the pure delight and enthusiasm to make this, and I didn’t want to squash that.
"He brought me what any child would do, what any Grade 4 child would do. But with authentic [learning], it’s always ‘How are you going to play that?’"
Embracing the boy’s enthusiasm, Revington challenged him to go back home, and produce a real, working instrument.
“Well this little boy going through the authentic approach, eventually brought in this amazing lyre,” he says.
“The difference was he had three consultants. He went to a woodworker, and selected the wood the Romans would have used. He consulted with a piano tuner to learn how to put the strings together. And he consulted with a local guitar craftsman. The lyre was unbelievable and it was playable.”
While the cardboard replica might have been fun to make, the rich learning experience and skill development which came from the boy making a real version of the instrument was second to none.
Revington also believes that authentic learning goes beyond traditional learning methodologies in building collaborative and teamwork skills.
Students are encouraged to share and review each others’ knowledge and experiences with a view towards improving their capacities to incorporate different perspectives into their thinking, and improve their communication skills.
In doing so, they are in better positions to apply their technical and theoretical knowledge within practical and social real-world frameworks.
“I took a gifted class and we won the Math Championship in Canada, North America,” he says.
“But those kids couldn’t even communicate with each other. I had a meeting with their parents and told them they’ve done great things, but if you can’t take those ideas and effectively communicate and market them to others then it’s a waste of time, just like benchmark standardised tests are.”
“I translate authentic learning into grades and rubrics but the reality is that the grades are getting in the way.
“If you’re doing this for the grades, you’re not doing it for the purpose of making your outcome the best it could be. If I’m going to have brain surgery, I want the best surgeon who is flexible, team-based, and technically skilled. I don’t want the guy who got the highest mark.”
Revington has made significant in-roads in popularising his Authentic Learning model, and variations of it have already been implemented in leading universities like the Massachusets Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University.
Using a unique browser interface, students around the world are able to remotely use specialised equipment at the MIT campus to conduct meteorological experiments. At Carnegie Mellon, cognitive scientists team up with members of the faculty to create syllabi that require students to conduct investigations into real-world problems.
Yet Revington still believes there is some way to go before such models are fully integrated into schools.
“A great teacher always has his or her ear to the ground and is always listening. But as students get older, teachers tend to over-rationalise.
“They replace that great connectedness that existed in younger grades with the rationalisation of sitting on a stool with a square piece of paper, in a square classroom with square departmentalised time-zones.
“What are you going to produce? Generally there are some great schools and fabulous teachers who break down that wall. They are pioneers who are helping us move from the industrial age.
“But it’s going to be a long haul,” Revington warns.
Australia is such a fertile place and the pioneering spirit still exists. But if we’re suppressing that, and not modelling what I would say is the best type of teaching practice, how are you going to get better?”