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“But when will I ever use algebra?” We’ve all heard questions like this from students wondering why they have to learn something, or how they will use the knowledge in the future. However, if the coverage in education media is anything to go by, it seems that educators are, as ever, more than prepared to answer the question of how learning will serve students in a world beyond school. This week on School Stream, we are bringing you an overview of what’s making the news when it comes to ‘real-life learning’.

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All about applied learning

Learning by doing, real-life learning and experiential learning are some of the ways people talk about applied learning. Trying to nail down a definitive term or understanding of applied learning is trickier than it sounds! The NSW Education Department acknowledges that while theories and approaches to applied learning can differ, a good working definition is as follows:

“A common feature is that applied learning sees students use knowledge and skills to solve real world problems. It involves engaging in meaningful and authentic experiences both in the classroom and later in life.”

In the ideal applied learning scenario, students apply what they learn in the classroom to hands-on or real-world settings, projects or research, and what they learn in those real-world settings to their academic study. As an incidental bonus, when students engage in applied learning projects, they are also flexing their critical thinking muscles, considered a crucial 21st Century skill. 

There are loads of benefits for students too, with Inside Higher Ed Magazine saying: 

“Applied learning is a practical approach that is supported by research to increase student motivation, foster student-centred instruction, and provide real-world application. It is also an opportunity for high-impact learning, where students explore content and directly apply new knowledge.”

Why is ‘real-life’ learning in the news right now?

Web searches for ‘applied learning’ have been on a steady upward trajectory for the past two years, with searches for the term hitting an all-time high in May this year and with no signs of a decline in interest on the horizon. What accounts for this flurry of interest in real-life learning right now? It might have something to do with the growing consensus that cultivating 21st Century skills – also referred to as ‘the general capabilities’ in Australia – will be necessary for the learners of today to thrive in the fast-paced, innovation-centric modern world we live in. Schools have always excelled in preparing students for the world beyond the school gates, and so it’s no surprise to find educators leading the pack to deliver learning experiences to meet the changing needs of students, (and curriculum requirements), with a generous side of applied learning. 

The future is bright

Not all schools will have the resources to install a mini-supermarket onsite, but as the following examples show, the greatest resources we have are the enthusiasm and optimism of educators and students. 

Applied Learning in Action

There’s also the undeniable fact that real-life learning experiences are absolute catnip for journalists. And is it any wonder? Stories that celebrate students getting out and about to engage with their community while enthusiastically learning ‘in the wild’ are always heartwarming. 

1. Childcare Kids are Gardening to Learn Language, Culture and Science

Gardening might be one of the more accessible projects when it comes to applied learning. As this childcare centre in the mid-north of South Australia shows, students are never too young to dive into a gardening project. The childcare centre has built a native food garden that is supporting learning across language, culture, connection to country and science. Speaking to the potential of the garden to provide a hands-on space for learning for the young childcare kids, Costa Georgiadis had this to say: 

“So, you start to tell the cultural yarns that are science. They’re actually real-time science that has been practiced for thousands of years and we can do it through gardening in this really subtle way.”

“This is beyond a bridge. This is the highway forward.”

2. Case Studies as an Applied Learning Experience

While children giving haircuts (yes, really!) or saving an endangered fish show the glamourous side of applied learning, the humble case study is just as important. Case studies are accessible, require zero budget to implement, can be utilised across all age groups and promote problem-solving – another of the general capabilities. Case study topics can be structured to be relevant to students’ lives which makes learning more compelling. Problems to solve can be local: How can we reduce food waste in the canteen? How can we encourage more kids to wear their uniforms to school? What can we do about litter in the school?  Or global: How can we protect habitat? Design awareness campaign about protecting the Great Barrier Reef.

3. Student STEAM project solves a community problem

Two Year 6 students at St Hilda’s in Western Australia won second place in the Young ICT Explorers Project (YICTEP)* with a device they invented to help those with a hearing impairment learn the drums. It’s impressive stuff. “The device works by measuring the decibel levels the drummer is registering and displaying a message on a screen with instructions such as ‘too loud’ or ‘too soft’ while they’re playing. It also allows for teachers to use lights to give instructions to the drummer”. 

‘[As a school] we are really looking at that innovation, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit as really part of where we’re going, because we know that students need more than academic results going into the future’ (Karen Donnelly, Head of Extension in the Junior School at St Hilda’s) 

*YICTEP is a non-profit competition for students in Years 3-12. It’s a bit like a science fair, but with a focus on using technology and innovation to solve real-world problems. For more on YICTEP and how The Smith Family can support disadvantaged youth to have equal access to participate, visit their website. 

4. Using Mathematical Modeling for Real-World Scenarios

Mathematical modeling is not unlike a case study, in that it poses a question with multiple correct answers. The ACER-coordinated International Mathematical Modeling Challenge (IM2C) has asked students to use their considerable mathematical prowess to solve real-world problems such as finding the most efficient way to get passengers on and off a plane (2021), find the GOAT of Women’s Tennis (2018) and identify which product would be the most popular during a sale (2020). As you have probably guessed by now, the mathematical modeling challenge showcases more than a few of the general capabilities too.

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