Creating the Conditions for Authentic Learning

Much has been written about the connection between authentic learning and self-actualization. A great way to ensure you are an effective teacher is to think about your classroom through the lens of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Here are some ideas for meeting your students’ needs at each level in order to ensure they are able to access self-actualization and, ultimately, long-lasting learning.

  • Physiological Needs: For those of us who teach in under-served schools, these needs can be pressing. Ideally teachers are working with Social Workers and/or school councilors to help students and their families access resources. Unfortunately, teachers often need to teach students who are operating at the basic survival level with some critical needs going unmet. Keeping food in the classroom, getting to know parents through home visits or phone calls, building relationships with students so you know when they have needs, and working with community partners (like clinics or food banks) can be ways to ensure these needs are met.
  • Safety: A critical component to safety is strong classroom management founded on a few principles (such as respect, responsibility and responsiveness). Hold students accountable to your rules and do not be afraid to give consequences with your expectations for behavior are breeched. It should be very clear what can and cannot happen in your classroom. When students know what to expect, they can relax and begin to access the more developed parts of their brain (which, lord knows, they find difficult enough).
  • Social Needs: The two key aspects here are student-teacher relationships and student-student relationships within the class. As the teacher our job is to make sure both types of relationships are strong. Get to know your students via one-on-one conferences, student surveys, home visits, and quick conversations in the hallway (I like to stand at my door and shake hands with every student as they enter). Likewise, students should know their teachers – show pictures of your family, play music you like, casually and quickly mention aspects from your life without going down a rabbit trail (“So Hamlet is clearly embarrassed here – just like I was when, in 10th grade, the guy I had a crush on read my diary. Yes, that happened. No, we are not going to talk about it. Let’s keep reading at line 342 . . .”). Also, help students to get to know each other by regularly providing opportunities for them to meet new people in the classroom (switch up seats, partners, etc.) and talk briefly about non-academic topics. I like to give students 1 minute to discuss the worst movie ever or their favorite song or TV show before they dive into the academic task when working with partners. In one of the most difficult classes I ever taught, I spent 5 minutes after the Do Now activity playing some kind of ice-breaker game every single day. The goal is to make the class feel like a special club with inside jokes and traditions and funny stories that cement it together.
  • Esteem: Celebrate not only academic achievement (the A grades) but also academic improvement. Have students track their progress either by objective mastery or skills acquisition (ex. improved performance on a writing rubric) and celebrate when there is growth. This could look like putting stickers on a chart, one-on-one conferences where you go over student’s tracking tool, or a weekly ceremony where you play “We are the champions” turn on a strobe light and have students who have improved soul train down the center of the class to celebrate. Another way to do this is to celebrate collective achievement. Track the average grades of your class and post them publicly. Celebrate when there is real improvement and growth from one assessment to the next.
  • Self-Actualization: This is the tier where learning happens. However, if you read the descriptors on the pyramid – creativity, problem-solving, authenticity, spontaneity – it doesn’t exactly describe the high stakes tests our students must take or the traditional everyone-in-rows-now-listen-to-me-talk model of teaching. It is so important to provide learner centered lessons as well as authentic assessments for our students even if we also have to get them ready for an exam.
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