Preparing students for the real world is central to current education pedagogy. To do this, educators create problem- and project-based learning assignments, encourage students to work collaboratively, develop engaging lessons, and produce a myriad of learning opportunities and assessments.  Whether we are talking about project-based learning, inquiry learning, or another current methods buzz word, what we are really discussing is authentic learning for students. To prepare student for the real world, educators must provide authentic learning experiences. While usually the least supported or publicized method, creating school community partnerships can increase the quality and—most relevantly—the authenticity of a child’s learning. Effective school partnerships are based on a true understanding of the cultural, socio-economic, health, social, and recreational needs of the school’s families and the local community.

How can educators maximize the local community resources available to them to provide engaging and authentic learning experiences for their students?

When asked to define authentic learning, Audrey Rule of the State University of New York (SUNY) explains, “Although the term authentic learning is broad and has not been applied to a specific instructional model, these four components are found repeatedly, suggesting that they are an integral part of authentic learning experiences.”

In “The Four Characteristics of Authentic Learning,” Rule lists the four main themes of authentic learning as:

  1. An activity that involves real-world problems and that mimics the work of professionals; the activity involves presentation of findings to audiences beyond the classroom
  2. Use of open-ended inquiry, thinking skills, and metacognition
  3. Students engage in discourse and social learning in a community of learners
  4. Students direct their own learning in project work

Essentially, students learn authentically when they are self-directed, asking questions, and solving real-world problems. Authentic learning prepares students for their life beyond school. EF Explore America’s video does an exemplary job of explaining how our world has changed and why it is critical that students participate in authentic learning experiences.  Smithsonian Education provides a lesson plan for using community resources to enrich your curriculum.

Lisa Stamps, Director of Academic Affairs at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, states in The Power of Authentic Learning, “Through authentic learning tasks, I have seen students of all ages become critical and creative thinkers, risk takers, and problem finders. They tackle large problems—problems that, like real-world issues, are messy and have more than one solution. Such genuine scenarios require that students use analytical decision-making processes and justify their choices.”  To learn more about authentic learning, check out Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Everything Authentic Learning page.

Creating school and community partnerships will assist teachers in creating genuine scenarios and provide students with true real world and authentic learning experiences. So how do we create these partnerships?

Edutopia offers this video to suggest how to build a problem-based learning assignment with a community partner. Edutopia also offers an entire page dedicated to Resources for Building Community Partnerships that includes information on the benefits of partnerships as well as tips on how to develop the partnerships and how to create project- and problem-based learning assignments for students.

We traditionally think of a school-community partnership as a field trip, but that leaves out a variety of other ways that schools and communities can partner for mutual benefit. Students can volunteer at local hospitals and assisted living homes, participate in apprenticeship and externship programs, clean up local parks, solve area problems with the local government, fundraise, and more. The community can send volunteers to the school to work in the libraries and classrooms, police officers and fire fighters can volunteer in the schools, local business experts can be guest speakers or teachers in the classrooms, and with the Internet, your community can be as large or as small as you wish! Your imagination and the Internet are the only limits.

The U.S. Department of Education puts it best in Better Use of Community Resources: “Leveraging community resources and local partnerships supports high-quality academic and enrichment opportunities by broadening the experiences that may be typically offered to students and by expanding access to local expertise. Better aligning and utilizing these resources can also help school systems identify and access low-cost services or facilities to support learning opportunities on and off school sites. Pulling in local resources such as health and human services agencies, departments of public safety and parks and recreation, community colleges, businesses, community-based organizations, and other entities can effectively maximize opportunities for students and school systems.”

How do you currently partner with your community? How do you plan to partner with your community in the coming school year? Please write your comment below. Let’s share ideas and  create a community of educators!