Authentic Learning & Authentic Learning Environments

A few weeks back a professional colleague asked what I thought an authentic learning environment looked like, this is my rather long winded answer 😊

Authentic learning “… is a pedagogical approach that allows for the construction of meaning grounded in real-life situations and the learners own personal experience” (Authentic Learning Environments). An environment allows for authentic learning when children have caring,  authentic relationships with educators and space to experiment and explore.

An authentic learning environment begins with authentic relationships between children and educators. Authentic relationships with children are hugely important because “[n]o significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”  (Dr. James P. Comer, professor of Child Psychiatry) When a classroom culture cultivates positive relationships and a sense of belonging and inclusion children have the security to learn in authentic ways.

In authentic learning environments children are allowed to make discoveries through concrete, hands on experiences rather than attempting to force them to understand a concept by filling out a worksheet or participating in a teacher planned lesson. As Bev Boss, early learning expert said, “If it hasn’t been in the hand and body it can’t be in the brain!”

Giving children the space and time to play and to construct their own understanding of the world is crucial if we want their learning to be meaningful to them. Educators in authentic learning environments are co-learners and play partners, scaffolding the children’s learning with open ended questions and gentle guidance.

The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.  – Alexandra K. Trenfor

Children are designed to learn, motivated to discover and understand the world around them. From the moment babies enter the world they are eager explorers visually mapping the faces of those closest to them, communicating with cries and smiles, and learning through interacting with their environment. As educators we must support that natural drive to discover by creating welcoming environments that inspire children to learn.

Reflecting children’s interests and individual needs creates a rich and meaningful classroom environment. Because teachers in authentic environments cultivate close relationships with children and their families they genuinely understand what topics will ignite their students’ curiosity and are able to weave them into the fabric of play.

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. – William Butler Yeats.

When teachers are sensitive to each child’s individual needs, interests and temperaments and the environment is conducive to exploration and play, authentic learning is a natural process that occurs organically. Authentic learning is distinctly meaningful to each individual child and it is the things that have meaning to us that linger in our minds and our hearts for a lifetime.

Learning Stories: My Favorite Method of Documentation

Learning stories are a type of pedagogical documentation that is particularly dear to my heart because it allows me to express how amazing it is to watch the children in my program learn and grow. What makes learning stories so wonderful is that they encompass not just the learning going on in the moment but also the teacher’s image of the child as a curious, capable and competent individual in the attentive and caring way they are written.

To make children’s complex thinking visible in learning stories teacher’s must be careful observers of play, taking anecdotal notes and pictures is necessary for this process. Educators must be familiar with the mechanisms of play as a method for discovery and share that information in the narratives they create for children and families.

So how do you write a learning story? The wonderful thing about learning stories is they can be short or long, to the point or written with dramatic flair. At its heart a learning story is a letter written with love to the children that are the protagonists of the tale and their families.

A learning story typically has three main components.

  • A description of the child’s or group of children’s learning which includes the educator’s interpretation and can also include links to professional learning documents, articles and/or theorists.
  • Plans to scaffold the ongoing learning of the child or group of children.
  • A space for parents to provide feedback.

An example learning story:

Screen capture from Red River Learning Stories

In the above example the ELECT document (Early Learning for Every Child Today: A framework for Ontario early childhood settings) is referenced to support the educator’s interpretation of the learning moment but teachers may also quote or refer to developmental theorists, professionals in the field, or even scholarly articles.

Developing plans to scaffold and extend the children’s learning demonstrates that the educator has taken time to reflect on their learning and what methods would be best used to support them. In this case the educator will include group games or activities that can be inclusive of all the children, despite their varying ages and abilities, to nurture their play in a mixed age group of children.

The example learning story shared here is a blog entry which allows families to leave feedback in the comments section. If it were a printed copy the teacher could provide a space at the end of the learning story or blank pages for the parents to leave notes on. Inviting families to share their reactions and interpretations of the documentation fosters positive relationships between home and school as well as a sense of belonging in the classroom culture.

Though the three elements mentioned above are usually included in a learning story the most important thing about them is that they are written in a way that makes learning visible to families and demonstrates the educator’s care for the children that they work with. As you write your own learning stories you will find your own style and rhythm to weave the tales of your students’ adventures, even small moments can be brilliant discoveries when you look closely.