How many times have you heard a student complain, “We are never going to use this in the real world!” We know the value of a traditional, well-rounded education, but some students are hard to convince. And ultimately, those students have a point. As educators, our mission is to help prepare young minds not only for college, but also for life – in the real world.
Enter authentic learning. Wikipedia defines it as “an instructional approach that allows students to explore, discuss, and meaningfully construct concepts and relationships in contexts that involve real-world problems and projects that are relevant to the learner.” In this approach, students take on a constructivist role, rather than a passive role in the learning process. Teachers guide students to actively construct their own knowledge through inquiry, problem solving, critical thinking, and reflections, in real-world contexts.
Any educator who has applied elements of experiential and vocational learning in their lesson plans, has, in effect, incorporated authentic learning.
Benefits of Authentic Learning
It’s now well-established that experiential learning improves student retention, in addition to teaching them important 21st century skills such as teamwork and project management. Experiential learning takes facts and concepts and makes them “real” by applying them to hands-on tasks.
Other benefits of experiential/authentic learning include:
- Improved attitude toward learning
- Accelerated learning
- Greater opportunity for creativity
- Greater opportunity for reflection and self-assessment
- Transforms mistakes into valuable learning tools
- Guides students toward college majors and careers
- Better prepares students to contribute to society
The Importance of Vocational Learning
For a long time, “vocational school” was a step down: a place for students who failed at traditional institutions. However, attitudes about vocational learning are rapidly changing. Through hands-on vocational training, students of all ability levels can be better equipped for the real world, and for more, quickly moving into a gratifying career path after graduation.
The Forbes article, Why We Desperately Need to Bring Back Vocational Training in Schools, quotes figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) showing that only about 68% of high school students attend college. That leaves at least 30% that urgently need to acquire job skills. In addition, almost 40% of students begin college, but never graduate.
As Forbes says, the U.S. economy has changed. There are many challenging, lucrative jobs that don’t require expensive 4-year degrees.
Bringing Authentic Vocational Learning into Your Classroom
You have a subject to teach – maybe Math or English or Geography. At the end of the semester, your students are expected to know certain things. But who says you can’t teach them those things, and help prepare them for a career at the same time?
Your students may find their lessons more relevant if they can picture using their new knowledge in a “real job.” Look for ways to build your lessons around real-world job scenarios. Here are some examples that may help:
Studies by both CareerCast and JobsRated.com place "Mathematician" at the top of their lists, outranking jobs in medicine, engineering, and law. Math jobs can also be fascinating: the student who takes on an intimidating algebra problem might one day work at NASA, helping Man explore the stars.
Math teachers won’t have a hard time applying their class problems to actual jobs, such as Statistician. For example, you can make your Stats lesson more interesting by putting your students into the role of the on-air statistician during an NFL game or political campaign.
Cryptography is another field that may intrigue your math students. Challenge them to code or decode a secret message, using their math skills. For more information, see this study on The Mathematics of Cryptology.
Students may have a hard time caring about something that happened centuries ago. But history lessons can be applied to some captivating fields of work:
- Archeologist – Is your class studying an ancient civilization? Ask them to approach the subject as an archeologist, piecing together the culture and history of the people, based on findings in a dig.
- Museum curator or docent – After a history lesson, challenge your students to design a series of museum displays that would best depict the period they’re studying.
- Grant writer – Many important projects are possible only through funding from government grants. Your students may develop a greater appreciation for the topic they’re studying if they have to write a mock grant proposal, explaining why they need funds to advance their research. See The Art of Grant Writing for tips.
Jobs for good communicators are practically unlimited. Have your students practice their English skills by posing as a specialist in one of the following roles:
- Speech or proposal writer
- Social media guru
- Advertising copywriter
The medical field provides the most obvious career choices for biology students. As a biology teacher, you can easily shape your lesson plans around real-world medical jobs. Don’t forget about interesting specialty fields, such as physical therapy, radiology, or neurology.
In addition, you can engage your students with other non-medical career projects, such as:
- Nutritionist – Assign your students to predict potential health problems based on specific dietary habits
- Conservationist – Many students are passionate about the environment. Have them approach the biology of ecosystems and regions from the point of view of a conservation specialist.
- Marine biologist – What can your students learn about humans from studying sea mammals? What would a whale trainer at Sea World need to know?
Test tubes, periodic tables, and molecular models can all be applied to career specialties such as:
- Agricultural chemist
- Forensics expert
- Hazardous waste manager
Challenge yourself to develop some fun vocational projects for your Chem students, using resources such as How Is Chemistry Used in Forensics? or What Is Toxicology?
Here are a few geography careers that could be incorporated in engaging lesson plans:
- Location expert for businesses – Business is going global. But how does an American company open a mining endeavor in the Gobi Desert, or a construction company in Reykjavik? Challenge your students to put a plan together for their hypothetical company’s expansion into unfamiliar territory.
- Cartographer – Ask your students to create detailed maps of the areas they’re studying
- Travel advisor – This is a fun one. How would your students design a tour of Africa for Americans? Or what advice would they give a film crew going on location to Croatia?
For additional ideas on bringing authentic learning to your classroom, check out these earlier blogs from Envision:
Envision was founded with the mission to help students find their passion and live their dreams, through vocational and experiential learning. Check out our Career and Leadership programs, and nominate a student to test drive their future through hands-on experience.