Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Importance of Authentic Learning Experiences

We should legalize the sale of human organs.

This is the topic for the debate team's first competition, coming up on December 2.

There are 25 students on the team this season, 17 of whom are either freshmen or sophomores, and in a mere four days of practices, the students have already amassed a GoogleDoc full of resources, which they have started to read through and take notes on.

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to talk the students through some basic rules for research, including how to use Google Scholar and EBSCOHost effectively.  Yesterday, we briefly covered rhetorical appeals (something students usually do not learn about until they take my 11th grade class).  Next week, we'll practice public speaking skills, and strategies for making effective rebuttals.

The students have worked diligently during our practice times, and have asked great questions:

"This article is in favor of legalization, but they keep talking about another study that was against legalization.  If I find that article, can I use it as a source?"

"Does legalizing the sale of human organs only apply to organs that will be transplanted?"

"What are some alternatives we could propose if we are arguing the negative side?"

"What effect might legalization have on the altruistic donation of organs?"

"How might legalization affect rich and poor differently?"

"If I tell a story about a friend who had a heart transplant, would that be a good appeal to pathos?"

I have been thoroughly impressed with the students' patience as they read through articles from medical journals and law reviews alike, their diligence as they share findings with one another, and their curiosity as they ask questions and seek to dig deeper into the issue.

It's very different than a class environment where students' preconceived ideas about English or History, as well as their own abilities may stand in the way of a desire to learn.  Everyone in debate wants to be there, wants to learn, wants to grow.  It's a quiet atmosphere this week as the students have been researching, but it is an exciting one.  Making this all the more exciting is that this is only our third year to have a debate team, in recent history (CAJ had a debate team when I first arrived here in 2009, but it died out for a variety of reasons), and the biggest debate team we have ever had.

In some ways, it's not so different from the Robotics Club, an extra-curricular activity new to CAJ this year.  The students who participated on the robotics team did so out of a love for math and physics, as well as a deep curiosity about the way things work.  My colleague who coached and advised them cited the same kind of excitement in the room, even when everyone was quietly working out equations or simply thinking.  It's the excitement of applying one's understandings and skills in the service of an authentic goal, the opportunity to demonstrate learning not simply for the sake of the teacher but for the sake of solving a real-life problem.

While not every student has the time in their busy lives to join something like debate (or robotics, or speech), it's important that such opportunities are available, and that a culture is built up within a school that values such activities.  Moreover, the authenticity embedded in experiences such as these should inspire teachers to think through ways to make their own classroom activities and assessments more authentic.

All in all, I couldn't have asked for a better start to the debate season, and I'm glad to be involved!

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