Authentic Experiences in School

If I think carefully about who my “influencers” are with respect to my teaching and my philosophy of education, probably the most influential are Postman and Weingartner and their book Teaching as a Subversive Activity. My own experience as a student, particularly before college, was frequently one of suffering. Some of my friends liked going to school, but for me it was painful drudgery. I enjoyed learning, but I did not enjoy school. While the suffering subsided in college, there were still a number of times when it arose again.

What was the root cause of the suffering for me in school? The inauthenticity of the experience. Those times when the teacher was able to “make it real” for the learners were the times that I was at my best as a student. I never bought into playing “The Great Trivia Game” that Postman and Weingartner describe:

It’s a kind of rigged quiz show. And it seems to work only if the participants value the “prize.” The “prize,” of course, is a “grade.” An appropriate grade permits the participant to continue playing the Trivia game. All the while, very little, if any, substantive intellectual activity is going on.

Examples of times the learning for me was not authentic:

  • Taking a public speaking class in which most of the time was spent listening to the teacher talk about public speaking
  • Taking a computer networking class in which the teacher read to us straight from the textbook
  • Taking a teaching methods course in which the teacher lectured to us 99% of the time.

Instead, I preferred to be involved in something that seemed important, interesting and real—something I could really sink my teeth into. Something where the students were actually doing something. Some examples from my own education experience when learning was authentic:

  • In 6th grade, social studies students (taught by Mark Treaster) were arranged into three groups, Europeans, Mestizos, and Indians/Slaves. The slaves worked their rear ends off doing academic drudge work – worksheets mostly. The mestizos worked less, and were supervisors of the slaves. The europeans assigned the work to the slaves and mestizos, but did no work themselves. I was a slave. By the end, I was angry, because the europeans kept moving the goal posts by which we could secure our freedom. When the tables turned, and the slaves became europeans and vice-versa, we really socked it to our former masters.
  • In Navy electronics service school, we were taught with lectures and with hands on labs. We had practical tests, usually each week to show what we had learned, using the exact equipment we would work on in the fleet.
  • In college, I had a history professor who engaged us in critical thinking. We had only one date to memorize – 1066 – the year of the last successful invasion of England. He made us think about all sides of an issue using evidence. We participated in many class discussions and we never knew where he personally stood on particular issues because he was fair in exploring all points of view.

While I am far from perfect in my own classroom, I do take pains to actively engage my students. It is something I am continually working on. It also varies on class size and topic how much I lecture and how much we are involved in activities.