The Figure in the Carpet: Recognizing Authentic Learning

The hive is alive!  My students are busy annotating, commenting, creating, collaborating on our digital anthology of American literature.  I know something significant is happening in the class because I see the students demonstrating all the kinds of things that I associate with real learning: excitement, self-organization, intensity, questions, failure, and an energy that overflows the three hours and two classrooms that we share each week.  But, I ask myself, even if I seem to see the signs of authentic learning, how can I know that the students are engaged in authentic learning?

In other words, what is authentic learning and how do we (teachers) grasp it?

First, what is non-authentic learning?  Here, I rely on John McClymer and Lucia Knoles and their very powerful essay, “Ersatz Learning, Inauthentic Testing.”   McClymer and Knoles argue, passionately, that too often teachers ask students to study without learning.  In other words, teachers construct curricula related not to authentic knowledge but to tests and other institutional rituals.  Math teachers require students to solve boatloads of sample problems, but not to learn math.  Students study to pass tests, not to master disciplines.  In the ersatz paradigm, we train students in “artifical coping techniques,” techniques which hopefully result in higher test scores but which we (as professionals and learners) would never deploy.

In other words, ask yourself this question the next time you design a course, construct a curriculum,  create an essay prompt, or prepare a lecture: are the problems, issues, ideas, and arguments that I’m asking students to learn about the same problems, issues, ideas, and arguments that I find exciting, engaging, and fulfilling in my discipline or field.  If you answer “no,” welcome to the world of ersatz learning – – where education demands a lot studying but very little real learning.

One path out of the ersatz educational world has been plotted by folks like Randy Bass.  Imbibing deeply at the well of insight provided by scholars like Sam Wineburg, Randy outlined an approach to authentic learning dubbed “the novice in the archive.”  (This idea and a host of other rich approaches to learning and technology can be found in “Engines of Inquiry: Teaching, Technology, and Learner-Centered Approaches to Culture and History” – – sadly, this first really important expression of digital humanities seems to have disappeared from the web.)  Bass argues that, thanks to the distributed nature of the web and the proliferation of on-line archives, students now have access to the very same kind primary material that scholars use to make knowledge.

Authentic learning, then, requires that we see students as “novices in the archive” – – “cognitive apprentices” to expert learners like ourselves.  What we teach students is not how to pass tests, but how real scholars engage with, understand, and make meaning out of materials, problems, and questions that drive our own inquiry.  Teachers, courses, and curricula don’t “deliver” information into vacant student brains; instead, teachers construct opportunities for students to learn how to learn – – like historians, or literary scholars, or mathematicians, or scientists, etc.

Remember the buzz you felt when you started making those connections between Frost’s semantically unstable stanzas and the tenets of James’ and Dewey’s emerging pragmatism?  That’s the buzz you want to create for your students.  And, that’s the buzz of authentic learning.

The “novice in the archive” has been tremendously important for my teaching.  After all, what are my students doing as they construct their digital anthology?  They’re learning how teachers and scholars provide the kind of apparatus that deepens and enriches a reader’s engagement with American literature.

Still, something technocratic  – – perhaps even narcissistic – – lingers over the “novice in the archive.”    Do all expert-learners really learn in the same way?  Do I really approach Frost’s “Mending Wall” the same way as my other comrades in literary studies?  Do my courses have something more to offer my students than a model of “expert learning”?  Will a generation of Doctor Casaubons “win” a better future than a generation of credentialed Cylons?  After all, the archive, as Jorge Luis Borges relentlessly documented, can be a very happy labyrinth.

In my experience, if you want rock ‘n’ roll in teaching and learning, you have to go back to the source – – the Johnny Rotten, as it were – – of authentic learning in America – – Ralph Waldo Emerson.  You’ll recall Emerson’s original punk manifesto against ersatz education: “The American Scholar.”  (If not, we’ll have to send the Adjustment Bureau to your home or office to revoke that AP English credit you earned oh-so-many decades ago!).  In addition to laying waste the cultural authority of the canon (c. 1837), Emerson fomented the idea that the goal of school should be incendiary: “[Colleges and other institutions of learning] can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.”    The office of the scholar or teacher, Emerson frothed: “is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.”

In other words, authentic learning is about awakening consciousness.  About creating passion.  About lighting selfhood on fire.  About self-revision.  Not in any cheap or dianetic way, but by inviting students to become “novices in the archive,” but only if the “archive” serves as a means to rethink self and world.

Is there “authentic learning” going on in my classroom this semester?  So far, a few cracks and holes have appeared in the archive.  I’m still fomenting a complete prison break . . . .


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