The Clash of the Titans – Two Types of Authentic Tasks

Clash of the titansIt has dawned on me recently that two of My Ed Heroes, Gary Stager and Bernie Dodge, have somewhat opposing viewpoints (at least it seems that way to me) of what learners should involve themselves  in when they learn in a particular content area.  I think the difference is interesting, important, and instructive.  Ultimately, their views aren’t 100% at odds, but I think these titans clash with regard to the type of learning task that they primarily advocate for educators to place before the learner.

First it is important to note that both Bernie Dodge and Gary Stager are frustrated by many of the mind numbing tasks that are presented to learners in the typical classroom.  Both rail against simply learning about a subject out of context in  sterile information transferring environment.  Both are advocates of constructivism and tapping into, rather than quashing, the natural wonder, intensity, and creativity of learners.  Both have devoted their exploits to helping educators move away from learning facts and skills in isolation and toward inquiry and exploration.  So where’s the beef?

AUTHENTIC PRACTICE – The Learner Task As Envisioned by Gary Stager

AKA – In science class, do authentic science.

Probably Gary Stager’s greatest influence is Seymour Papert, who’s primary influence was in turn, Piaget.  Papert has a paper titled “Teaching Children to Be Mathematicians vs. Teaching About Mathematics”  that suggest ways for students to be “in a better position to do mathematics rather than merely to learn about it.”  Largely because of this influence and because he is awesome in his own right, Gary Stager is a huge advocate of having students apply their creativity and problem-solving skills to make and do things.  You will often hear him advocating for students to be computer scientistsbe artistsbe social scientistsbe mathematicians, etc. in the classroom.  That is, he generally advocates for the authentic practice of a field.  For example, he has encouraged student that he has worked with to compose music, to program video games, to engineer devices, etc.  So in a nutshell, Gary Stager primarily advocates the authentic practice of a field.

AUTHENTIC USE – The Learner Task As Envisioned by Bernie Dodge

AKA – In science class, use scientific ideas authentically.

In my post, My Ed Heroes #3 – Bernie Dodge, I claim that Bernie Dodge might be better viewed as “The Task Guy” than “The Webquest Guy” because the central aim of his work, in my opinion, is focused on helping educators develop authentic, real-world tasks for students.

“But, wait a minute!” you might be thinking.  “That’s just what you said about Gary Stager.  I thought their views were in opposition.”

That’s what I find so interesting about this comparison.  Both are interested in asking students to complete real-world tasks.  However, the type of real-world task is very different.  Where Gary Stager’s task is about the “doing” of the thing that is central to that field (i.e. being a practicing musician or scientist), Bernie Dodge’s task is about the authentic use of the information of that field.

Take the webquest, it is founded on the fact that there is already a wealth of information on the web about most topics in any field of study, like science, for example.  A science webquest then is designed in order to promote the authentic and higher order use of scientific information that is widely available, rather than the doing of science.  Students might be asked to make a decision about public health policy or to design a campaign to educate the public about the evidence for global warming or take a position on whether the United States should go metric or remain English.  When I’ve seen Bernie work with students in the design of a webquest for a particular topic, some of the first questions he asks is what is the “real-world” use of this information, and why is it important?

People in a variety of professions may not be scientists, but understanding and making sense of scientific ideas might be central to their profession.  Examples of this are politicians who make policy decisions based on their understanding (and also on their misunderstanding) of science, journalists who report on science (or at least attempt to), authors who write imaginative books where science plays a role, movie makers who imagine futuristic worlds based on their understanding (and also on their misunderstanding) of what is possible.  So in a nutshell, Bernie Dodge advocates for the authentic use of information from a particular field.

Why both types of tasks are important

In my occasionally humble opinion, I think both types of tasks are important.  Any curriculum that focuses on one type to the exclusion of the other would be a disservice to students. Unfortunately, the vast majority of curricula exclude both types of tasks and in turn focuses merely on learning about a subject matter.

Why should all kids take part in a curriculum where they are asked to “do science,” “be historians,” “be artists,” etc.?

For one thing, understanding the core values of a field and being empowered to view yourself as having a future in a field is difficult to do if you haven’t ever acted as a practitioner of the field.  Sticking with the science example, doing science helps learners to understand central issues and attitudes of science:

  • it helps them recognize the importance of careful measurement and documentation
  • it helps students understand that science is not a finished project but something that they can contribute to and advance
  • it promotes inquiry, curiosity, and asking questions
  • it promotes the reliance on evidence and proof for claims
  • it promotes rational, careful, and nuanced thought and reasoning
  • it promotes agency and  is empowering to be a maker, a doer

But it does these things best if students are honestly doing science.

I remember being in a very dynamic and interesting biology class where I learned quite a bit, but we rarely “did science” by investigating our own questions and points of wonder.  In fact, the sense that I got from that class was that science was figured out and finished, there wasn’t much of a need to do science any more, but it was fun to learn about.  This is in exact opposition to empowering students and helping them to see themselves as the future of a particular field of study.

Why should all kids take part in a curriculum where they are asked to authentically use the information and ideas of each field (i.e. use science, use history. etc.)?

It is an awesome idea to have students being scientists, mathematicians, and social scientists, but the reality is that many students will not grow up to be scientists.  Others will not grow up to be mathematicians or artists or social scientists.  But throughout their lifetime all students will need to be able to use information from any field in a responsible, rational, careful, and critical way.

One unfortunate reality is that we live in a society where we look to the wrong experts, we’re mistrustful of science, truthiness reigns supreme.  We need a society where citizens can research information related to a  particular field to make an informed decision or inform their beliefs and creations.  They don’t have to always be doing science in order to be better connoisours of scientific or historical information. Everyday citizens need to be able to use information well, and that is just they type of skill that the second type of task, authentic use of information, purports to develop.

This second type of task has students imagine themselves to “be public policy makers,” “be architects,” “be school nurses,”  “be world leaders,” “be parents,” etc.

An authentic policy task that asks students to use scientific knowledge authentically would likely develop the following:

  • information literacy and all that entails
  • sensitivity to perspective
  • understanding of cause and effect relationships
  • problem-solving skills
  • creativity
  • an understanding of what counts as evidence
  • deliberations skills – how to discuss and disagree effectively and respectfully

Gary Stager and Bernie Dodge probably have advocated for both authentic use and authentic practice in their work, but from my perspective they are primarily a standard bearer for one or the other.  There is no question that both types of activities within a content area are important for empowering learners within a subject matter.  Students should be able to both be scientists and use scientific information well.  It’s a shame, and a sham, for that matter, that the vast majority of tasks in classrooms are neither of these.  Instead students simply learn about subjects.  What a shame (and sham!) when there are two wonderful alternative approaches.

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