Sunday, August 18, 2013

Snakes (or Tarantulas) and School

cc flickr photo azjd

Admit it.  Some of you clicked on this link expecting a "train wreak" of a post.  Others, searching for a a bad movie analogy.  You are probably thinking, "Where in the world is he going with this?"  I'll try to explain...

Our family makes regular trips to the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.  It is a wonderful place to see the true beauty of the Sonoran Desert, and during the summer, they open on selected evenings, for "flashlight tours."  Those of you familiar with sweltering summer days in Arizona know that, at sunset, the desert truly comes to life.  We have always enjoyed these tours, but on a recent trip, I heard something that I found disappointing.  One of the volunteers working the event, was talking about snakes in the garden, and informed us that on the rare occasions a rattlesnake is found in the park, it is captured and relocated.  The "little kid" in me enjoyed the anticipation, that element of risk, that comes with the possibility of encountering a Diamondback in the desert.  Even though it had never happened, in my mind, there was a possibility.

In contrast, this weekend, my brother and I went on a night hike at Lost Dutchman State Park, just outside of Phoenix.  We were actually hoping to see a rattlesnake (don't tell my Mom).  Equipped with headlamps, we headed off into a desert environment, where I know that snakes are not relocated.  As monsoon storms began to roll into the valley, we kept one eye on the trail, and one on the lightning bolts in the distance.  Just the knowledge that we were in a wilderness area, at night, made the experience more exhilarating -- more authentic.  As we walked I was very mindful of where I was stepping, and I scanned the desert floor, watching for creatures of the night.  Much to my chagrin, we did not see any snakes, but we did encounter a number of large Desert Blond Tarantulas -- enough to peak my interest and ensure that I would continue to participate in night hikes.  

So, now the connection.  When we talk about authentic learning experiences in school, are they really authentic?  Do our students plod through the day, without seeing relevance to what they are doing, and without the anticipation of meaningful (and exciting) lessons?  Does the learning feel contrived?  How much of our students' experience in school is like what John Spencer describes in a his recent post, Bad Math Tests?  Poor attempts at relevance.  As Gary Stager has asked, "Why do we ask kids to make presentations, on topics they don't care about, to an audience that doesn't exist?"

Or, in contrast, do our students have the opportunity to learn in relevant ways, apply what they have learned, and share with an authentic audience?  Is their experience it it truly relevant?

Do our schools offer an educational journey in a contrived, proverbial garden, or in a wilderness where their learning is authentic?  

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