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Subject to your disapproval - A call for authentic learning

I am standing in front of my class, briefly explaining the carbon exchange between flowers and soil. Then comes the question.

“Sir this is science?”

Taken aback, I give a trite response about how social science is really a science but the student’s not buying it. Nor is he wrong, I am 100% unapologetically venturing into the realm of plant biology. I know very little about science and yet here I am talking about carbon.

Our COVID19 experience prompted many reflections but this one sat with me the longest. Since when did we begin teaching and learning in silos and in what other ways are we being constrained? Working from home, people rediscovered what life might look like without such constraints. We rose after 7am and spent very little money on the petrol economy. We were reminded about what mattered, words like achievement were swapped out for engagement and hauora. We were given the permission and freedom to be more creative. We were given more flexibility and more time.

What resulted?

More interesting, more intuitive, and more collaborative lessons. We saw a reinvigoration of our creative practice. We began to turn on our imagination. Whilst this may not seem novel, many teachers are burnt out on teaching the same content year after year, hamstrung by unit plans and text choices. So, what needs to change? If lockdown taught us anything it’s that we need to liberate our pedagogy. Three suggestions on how to do so are listed below.


When did we begin learning in silos? It is an anomaly unique to education, that we learn in subjects. Students go to five, maybe six, disparate subjects throughout the week, struggling to find links. Switching between trigonometry and ‘The Tempest’. This is a biproduct of a bygone era of in which knowledge was power and subjects were a dividing mechanism. The problem is that, with the invention of the internet, this power economy is dead. However, what remains are the societal divisions created by a system designed to ‘sort people’. What opportunities are missed by those ‘less academic’ students that have a pathway chosen for them from the moment they enter the junior school.

These industrial age divisions do nothing to serve our students. Division into subjects reflects the division of people. We can break this down further into topic choices, where those considered ‘more capable’ are provided opportunities not offered to other. Here is the rub: If we continue to see the classification of subjects, let alone topics, we are not just reflecting an unjust system, we are perpetuating it.


We need to unify learning and shift from content-based curriculums. The truth is that we have switched to a knowledge and skills-based economy, where the ability to research is far more valuable than the ability to rote learn. Yet our schools continue to operate in a way that is not fit for purpose. We need to shift our conception of content vs knowledge. Bolstad and colleagues’ (2012) paper on future-focused learning calls us to begin viewing knowledge as a verb. We need to see knowledge as “energy-like”, as opposed to “matter-like”, with students being able to use knowledge, as opposed to having knowledge.

One way in which we can do this is through inquiry and authentic project-based learning. I’m not an expert in plant biology but I am able help my students explore a myriad of issues related to food sustainability.

The point is that the breakdown of traditional subjects is crucial to creating authentic learning experiences. We need to reposition learning at the centre. We need to begin creating project-based programmes that allow students to shift between disciplines and see learning as connected. As Freire puts it: “For apart from inquiry, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”


These bold calls for authentic project-based learning can only be realised when we let go of the trappings of traditional education. This begins with the timetable. The problem is that we are comfortable with what we know, the way we’ve always done things and what we think works. Is this what’s best for our students? Evidence suggests otherwise. I’m not proposing we throw the baby out with the bath water but maybe we begin to look at new ways of doing timetables.

It’s not like we don’t have models to follow. Around the world schools are reimagining timetables, as are schools here in New Zealand. Let’s learn from these institutions; what is working and what is not. We don’t have to adopt their timetable but maybe we can begin to rethink ours. This involves not only rethinking how we teach but what we teach. As schools we need to be willing to spend the money engaging our teachers passions, purchasing new books to teach and science materials. We need to back imagination and creativity.

The problem with all of this, is fear. Fear that we might screw it up, that we might have to confront issues in our practice and that we might have to work a little harder to see change. The comfortability of the education profession is damning. It is the reason we teach the same texts year in and year out, using the same methods and unit plans. It’s safe, it’s boring and it doesn’t work.

I’m calling for freedom: from knowledge, from division and from restrictions. If lockdown taught us anything it’s that we need to liberate our pedagogy. When we do, we will see more creative, reinvigorated, and equitable practice. We will see teachers teaching.

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