Authentic Learning and ICT

Fats Waller. Located on

To the casual listener, stride piano, boogie woogie piano and rock-n-roll piano all sound pretty much the same. Yet Fats Waller, perhaps the most famous stride pianist, detested boogie woogie*. And nobody could deny the hint of menace in Long John Baldry’s voice as he sings his song:

Don’t try to lay no boogie woogie on the king of rock-n-roll!

OK,maybe we shouldn’t take that too seriously, but stay with me for a moment. It seems to me that the connection between Baldry and Waller here is authenticity. Each of them knows what “their” music is supposed to sound like. Give them something similar, but fundamentally different, and they know they are not getting the real deal.

I think we face the same situation in education. Twenty years ago, perhaps even ten years ago, you could get away with giving students “pretend” assignments, like setting up a database for a video collection, or a spreadsheet for a small business. Not any more. Even back then, the signs were there to be read. I once suggested to a geography teacher who asked me to help him set up a website for his department that he get advice from a 13 year-old girl in the school: she already had her own website. And one of the best Business Studies lessons I observed as an inspector was one in which the students were reporting back on how they had helped local businesses by applying their ICT knowledge to a real-world problem.

These days, when many young people have out-of-school access to computing and the web, where they are contributing to writing websites, mashing videos, setting up websites to sell stuff and even creating mobile phone apps in their spare time, it’s verging on insult to set them work that is not authentic. Tell them to pretend that their friend has asked them for advice on setting up a travel agency (I have actually seen that in an examination paper; the only sensible answer is “Do some proper research on the ins and outs of setting up a travel agency.”), and they know they are not getting the real deal.

There are other, unintended, benefits too. Seija Jäminki, of Helsinki College and My Mobile My Life talked with a group of us at the EDUsummIT 2011 about the importance of students’ being able to apply their knowledge and understanding of ICT, such as using social media, in a workplace environment, one of the benefits being that such an expectation precludes mere copying and pasting, and plagiarism.

As a challenge, what can you do to make your ICT lessons more “authentic”? If working with local businesses is not an option, how about addressing internal school processes? (I once set my students the task of coming up with a better organisation for parents’ evenings.)

If your pupils are very young, how about creating tasks which involve parents in some way, such as preparing presentations or videos about the school, or video-conferencing with pupils in another school, in another country?

It may be hard, and possibly not even desirable, to make every single lesson “authentic”, but for me the key issue is to make authenticity an integral part of the ICT curriculum, not an after-thought or an add-on.

* Steve Taylor, who publishes the excellent website, tells me:

You are quite right in saying Fats did not like boogie-woogie piano. I have a copy of one of his contracts for a personal appearance in which it's stated there must be no reference in advertising to boogie-woogie.

Steve even emailed me a copy of the contract, and it clearly states "No mention of Boogie Woogie in advertising or billing."

Steve also gave me permission to link to the photo of Fats Waller. Do visit his site for further information, more pics and music clips.

If you're intrigued about the record by Long John Baldry, here it is. Noisy, raucous, far too "macho", but kinda fun, the music proper starts at around 3 minutes. Rumour has it that the pianist is none other than Elton John!