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As I was rereading Wiggins and McTighe‘s Understanding by Design recently, it occurred to me that there is a disconnect between authentic learning and the way we are required to teach today. Teaching is increasingly focused into neat little packages that are easily assessed and can be boiled down into a single test score for accountability and record keeping. Curriculum and unit plans are structured and pretty documents, having a well-defined beginning, middle and end. Lessons are little self-contained deals, 45-minutes or less, with a clear structure and closure and don’t necessarily connect to anything else.

It’s teaching in a Twitter and YouTube world where significance boils down to a 140-character summary or a 30-second video clip.

But learning in the real world, or at least in my real world, is messy, lumpy, and long-term. I was thinking about how I personally learn almost everything I’ve learned in the last few years: web design, writing interactive fiction, curriculum compacting, even IEP writing. In most cases, I learned most of what I know simply by jumping in with both feet, getting dirty, and mucking around with things. In a lot of cases, I learned some of the “basics” after I learned more advanced techniques. I learned things as I needed them. When I wanted to make a web page do what I wanted it to do, I just went in and figured it out. There was very little systematic about the process. When I ran into a roadblock, I’d go looking for help, either from those more structured resources or from my network of friends and colleagues.

Not that I didn’t have some structure to my learning. In most cases I did take the time to read tutorials, or introductory level books about what I was learning, and I tried some structured activities designed to walk me through what I needed to know. But often I didn’t know what I needed to know until I was in the midst of my own real project.

I think this is what Wiggins and McTighe are interested in getting at with more authentic ways of assessing students. But how to fit it into the structured world of school? My own teaching the last few years has tended towards the messy, unstructured variety. Often, I’ll teach a unit by having an idea of a project I want my students to complete, and some specific goals I want them to get out of it, and we just sort of dive in and work out most of the details as we go along. There’s some value in this, I think, and as much as I’ve criticized myself for not being organized enough or planning enough, when I look back I can see a lot of good learning that has taken place in my students over the years. The feedback I get from the students and their parents has also reinforced this.

But to an outsider (or an administrator) looking on, it’s hard to explain. I don’t always have finely-detailed unit plans, and less often do I have well-structured daily lesson plans. I don’t always have the clearest idea where something is going to take us, and often the students push a project in directions I couldn’t have imagined it going when I conceived it in the first place. More often than not, too, these learning experiences don’t always wrap themselves up into a tidy package with a bow that I can send home at the end of the marking period. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve set up our annual end of the year open house display with multiple signs indicating “works-in-progress”.

As a teacher of the gifted, I have much more freedom to try these messy projects with my students. But there has to be a way to tighten things up, too. As much as authentic learning is messy, I do want my students to be able to walk away from the year with a sense of accomplishment and completion, and I want to be able to help maintain an appropriate focus.

So where’s the balance? How do we keep things “authentic” (and therefore potentially messy) and still have the neat, accountable package that the school system demands? What are the conflicting forces that pull you in two different directions as you teach and how do you reconcile them?

(This article originally appeared in a slightly different form at Grandé With Room)

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