Authentic Learning in Action

VMS Community Blog
Posted February 6, 2018
by Maggie Pavlik, Upper School Director

Have you ever heard a child ask, “When am I ever going to use this?” in reference to something they’re studying in school? Authentic learning is the answer to that question. It is learning that is driven by making connections between the classroom, the lives of students, and the larger world. With this in mind, VMS is embarking on several project based learning initiatives such as expanding Intraterm to all grades, reenvisioning some of our lower school curriculum through the lens of project based learning, the middle school pilot program, the tiny bus project, and next year’s expansion of Senior Project to a capstone, semester-long experience required of all seniors.  

The underlying intention of all of these programs is to engage students in authentic learning where the connection between their education and their world is clear and ultimately empowering. And while we know that students retain more and are better motivated when their studies are relevant to their lives, this kind of learning looks very different than what previous generations called “school” and generates many questions.  

I’m writing this blog to provide a hypothetical example of authentic learning in action and to provide an aspirational vision of what our new Senior Projects may look like. All project based learning starts with a question or a problem, so let’s look at how a student’s interest in snowsports, or art, or engineering, or law could be the departure point for a Senior Project about the water cycle and the implications of this year’s lack of snow. The question might be phrased as: “How will this year’s winter ‘drought’ impact Eagle County and what can we do to manage the effects?”

There are many ways to measure authenticity in learning, but an easy way to look at it is through the 3 Rs— Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships.

True rigor is characterized by depth of inquiry, breadth of exploration, and critical thinking, all of which start with good questions. How do we know there is a drought? Where does the data come from and is there a political agenda in how it is interpreted? Where does our water come from? How is it used, by whom, and where? Who controls the water and how are restrictions enforced? What are the priorities for water use in the event of a severe drought? What are the economic and social impacts of reduced water availability? How can communities work together to achieve balance and what can I do to affect change? These are just a few of the possible questions, but in answering these or the myriad others that the subject might prompt, a student would be required to delve deeply into a variety of sources, subjects, and disciplines, and to think critically about what they find, which is a great example of rigor.

Relevance is inextricably tied to authentic learning. It is also a pathway to broadening one’s perspective and is at the heart of lateral or out of the box thinking. The world is interdisciplinary and we are wired to connect new ideas with existing ideas and experience. Relevant learning acknowledges this approach and allows students to take content to higher levels of usage like application, projection, and synthesis. Approaching an area of interest from a variety of angles may reveal a latent interest or talent, or make a given subject accessible when before it was not. Imagine an artist whose passion is plein air painting. They might approach the subject of water scarcity by illustrating the effects of drought on the landscapes and vistas that serve as their muse. Looking at these landscapes through this lens might spark a curiosity about the science behind these changes or the history and politics of water in the West and how it has been depicted in art.

Finally, two key elements of authentic learning are cultivating relationships with experts who will serve as mentors, and making connections with one’s community, be it local, global, or both. Given the subject of water, this might take the form of an internship with the Eagle River Watershed Council, or shadow days with the different departments at the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. A student interested in history or government might connect with legislators representing the interests of agriculture, or with lawyers who litigate water rights. An individual with an interest in snowsports might work with Vail’s snowmaking team and race department to learn about the complexities of making snow, where the water comes from, and how it can be used most efficiently. Thinking beyond our valley, a student might reach out to government officials and residents of Cape Town, South Africa, which is facing the looming likelihood that they will have to restrict access to the public water supply by turning off the tap. These kinds of relationships—connecting students with experts who will serve as mentors or with people grappling first hand with a challenge—is what makes learning authentic. And by partnering with these individuals as mentors, it also ensures that the student’s work is informed by real world standards, thus raising the level of the student's sense of real preparation.  

We’re looking forward to this and next year’s Senior Projects and the many discoveries and connections that our students will make as they answer questions that are of meaning not only to themselves, but also to the larger world. Perhaps through rigor, relevance, and relationships, our students will discover that the answer to the age old question, “When will I ever use what I am learning?” is, in fact, “Now”, and that they can have an effect on the world around them.

About Vail Mountain School

Founded in 1962, Vail Mountain School is a K-12, coed, independent school in Vail, Colorado. Our philosophy is to provide a demanding, college preparatory, liberal arts education in an atmosphere of mutual respect between faculty and students, where nurturing a healthy self-concept and stimulating academic inquiry are parallel objectives. Intentionally designed cross-age programs promote role modeling, responsibility, self confidence, and a sense of community. Our location in the Rocky Mountains allows us to integrate the outdoors into the academic and cultural fabric of the school through hut trips, all-school Ski Fridays, and other experiential learning opportunities. The result: our graduates possess a quiet confidence that serves them well in college and in life—confidence to assert themselves in their first college level essays; to raise their hand in a class of hundreds; to live on their own for the first time, to meet with and engage their professors; and to lead among their peers.