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Defining Authentic Learning by Steve Revington
Authentic learning is real life learning. It is a style of learning that encourages students to create a tangible, useful product to be shared with their world. Once an educator provides a motivational challenge, they nurture and provide the necessary criteria, planning, timelines, resources and support to accommodate student success. The teacher becomes a guide on the side or an event manager, a facilitator not a dictator. Processes become the predominant force and the content collected is organized appropriately into portfolios.
Authentic learning engages all the senses allowing students to create a meaningful, useful, shared outcome. They are real life tasks, or simulated tasks that provide the learner with opportunities to connect directly with the real world.
Instead of vicariously discussing topics and regurgitating information in a traditional industrial age modality, authentic learning provides a learner with support to achieve a tangible, useful product worth sharing with their community and their world.
Our greatest short coming in education these past few years has been to ignore the brain research that is richly available to us that affirms that implementing multi-sensory activities, pursuing meaningful tasks, exploring a variety of skills with real world applications is optimal learning and that it needs to be practiced regularly.
A student sitting at a desk, taking notes and regurgitating curriculum content uses approximately 3% of their brain's capacity. In general, students learn to sit quietly, respond in turn, follow instructions and complete tasks for the evaluation of a control teacher. This classic industrial age approach has been used since the mid 1870's to produce a work force to facilitate mass production lines that were to become prevalent in the next hundred years. That era ended in the 1980's if not before. If all we do is sit at a square table, with a square piece of paper, in a square room with departmentalized lessons and timetables, then what are our education systems really producing? Brain-based research shows that using all senses maximizes the learning experience. Interacting, manipulating, exploring, collaborating, discussing openly and sharing for meaningful reasons while having ample time to nurture a greater depth of reasoning and creativity is optimal learning. It's learning that sticks. It's learning with roots!
Process and Content: Re-prioritizing the learning journey
In an authentic learning model the emphasis is mainly on the quality of process and innovation. It's about allowing students to pursue individual learning opportunities that are unique to their interests, through real life processes. The emphasis isn't just about regurgitating content for a unit test, it's about developing a set of culminating skills sets, within a realistic timeline, using self-motivated inquiry methods to create a useful product to be shared with a specific audience. It's about engaging in activities that students care about and can be immersed in a meaningful, shared experience.
More importantly, the learning journey that ensues is life changing as students are connected to the multi-sensory processes rather than the short term memory skills that a content driven curriculum demands. The content is important but when using an authentic learning approach content is recognized as it is properly intended to be - a portfolio of records, research, plans, lists, notes, reading, contacts, drafts and support information that will become the artifacts of the authentic journey.
With the advent of the world wide web, content is readily available to everyone. We can reference, cross reference, research any topic at rapid speeds and do it at any time when it's relevant for us. We can access it through mobiles, tablets or computers as we access information as it is needed and when it is needed. Is it still relevant for a teacher to predominately dispense content to students, then evaluate the regurgitation of that content given as the main assessment of a person's learning ability? Authentic learning allows for students to demonstrate their skills through a series of unfolding learning processes with a definitive product that they can actually demonstrate. At no time in history has information (content) been so readily available to the masses, but it's the synergy and processes of engagement that defines our human experience. That's where the real value in education lies today.
An education system that devotes more of its' curricula to topics and content is a linear learning model that is failing our students with the real challenges of the 21st century. Content always changes and is now more accessible than ever, but processes - they have staying power, they stick!. "We can give them fish to eat for a day or we can teach them to fish for a lifetime". On a planet that is rapidly changing it is imperative to provide students with the proper tools and processes to meet their challenges.
For years many education systems have been using the rich, brain-based findings to enhance content learning practices. Instead of recognizing that the holistic, authentic way of educating needs to be implemented, we see educators applying newly discovered brain knowledge to develop more memory retention tricks in an old paradigm. Learners need to move, collaborate, communicate, explore, risk take, retry, consult and apply their learning in creative, meaningful ways. That's what the research is telling us.
Too readily ministries reword curriculum content and shift semantics until they believe they've made significant educational reforms. In reality, it's the same rules, same content, same work space, same approach using a different working manual, but now with a new language to learn. The brain research is there and it's telling us that multi-sensory, integrated activities, clearly connected to meaningful, relevant "real world" tasks is the best way to learn.
If professional development and student learning is predominently centered around chart paper, independent paper activitiies and sitting in discussion groups, then it's time for some major reflection. A multi-sensory approach, that respects the learning styles of everyone is essential. What we do is far more important than what we say. We can no longer keep moving the checker pieces around the same old squares and think we're making new developments in education. When will we learn that it's the checker board that we're playing on that needs to be changed.
Dispensing content, then administering a test at the end of a unit is really a test to evaluate short term memory retention. If you break it down into its simplest form, it's a test to measure how well you recalled the content you were provided. It's short term memory skills at best, and that's it! Good teachers will encourage a wide variety of memory cueing tricks to help their students retain information from musical hooks, catchy anachronisms and other mnemonic techniques.
One of my favourites is the Method of Loci which has been used since ancient times to remember speeches and important things by association. If you have ten names or items to remember, then visualize yourself walking through a garden or down a pathway and choose ten items you'd see on this journey that are directly related to what we need to remember. As you recall your garden walk and visualize the associated items they will cue your memory. It's interesting that a vicarious journey can improve your memory so just visualize what a full sensory experience will do.
Over 70% of school assessments are based on paper tests, which in its purest form is memory retention. How many schools do you know actually bring in memory retention experts to help develop this skill? Think about all of those tests and exams we all studied and crammed for, yet the minute that most left us left the exam room the dendrites started to shrink. Humans are wired to connect in meanigful ways. I believe that it is far more enriching when education provides a meaningful context with relevant processes, rather than providing a curricula tipped in favour of content.
Don't get me wrong, content strategically provided is essential. Authentic learning is not an either-or choice but rather, a setting where progressive instructional delivery and quality content can thrive. In my experience, the student portfolios of research and work sheets (content) can be more numerous than regular notebooks. The difference is, when students are making immediate connections to a productive, relevant experience their thirst for all things connected increases. For them, there's meaning to why they're learning the things they are and that's potent. That's essential. By providing multi-sensory, connected activities initially, the desire to pursue support information is activated. I have also consistently observed the students that exhibit organizational skill difficulties are more open to suggestions on how to organize their materials more effectively over time. Even filing skills become more evident to students when they can self-discover its' advantages of efficiency in a relevant, working process.
Content without purpose is just trivia.
When humans are engaged in experiences wholly, they are engaged in some form of process. For example, exploring itself is a process. There's a series of questions to satisfy the curiosities of what's to be explored, the reasoning on what may be the best way of going about exploring, then the social elements of whether it's optimal to explore independently or in groups based on length and time. Finally, a whole other set of senses are engaged in from touch, smell, sight, sound and taste as the person begins to expand their exploration experience. There will also be internal exploring as the students reflect upon, "What's in this for me and how am I sizing up compared to others?"
Processes ignite learning. If it's relevant, age appropriate, well defined, time sensitive, challenging while resources, immediate feedback and consultation are readily available then there's fertile ground to nurture optimal learning opportunities.
I believe that global curricula must reflect a successful balance between learning processes and topical content? Remember, processes take time to learn but once they're consolidated they're intact for a long time. Processes require skill sets that are developmentally prioritized and require skilled instructors to transfer these skills. If you want students to engage in deeper thinking opportunities, then time becomes one of the most valued commodities. Are education systems willing to forgo the number of content expectations in their curricula in favour of embracing processes that require more time committment?
Good teachers are quick to point out that their curricula covers so many topics and expectations that there isn't enough time to cover everything appropriately. The more topics, the more content and the more time it takes to cover everything in the curriculum, and mathematically it just doesn't work. The rules dictate how the game is played, so to cover every expectation educational systems rely on the "here's the information" and "here's the test" mode of education. It's an efficient way to deliver content quickly so that all expectations are lawfully covered. It's an over used exercise in short term memory skills and cognitive cueing tricks, but its not a fulfilling, meaningful way to learn. Unless students are immersed in relevant, multi-sensory activities with specific, audience directed outcomes and culminating skills sets, then what students are learning is not sticking.
The quality of research, subject knowledge, skill development, expert consultation, dedication and resourcefulness that goes into the making of a product is directly related to the quality outcome of that product.
Comparing the authentic learning model to other models of education.
Is It Authentic Learning or Not?
Remember, in true authentic learning an outcome designed to interact successfully with a community is the goal. When this happens a whole new layer of emotional, academic and skill set developments take place. There's a big difference between preparing a skit for some classmates verses a dramatic production for the public. There's a much larger personal investment required when a student becomes an ancient Egyptian tradesperson working at a market stall to an interacting audience than holding up a Bristol board display and explaining anciernt Egyptian information on it. Best of all, the student retains information from this type of multi-sensory, authentic learning experience longer because it's real, it's connected.
Authentic learning is not project-based learning nor is it constructivism. These models of education were designed within the classroom context. Although at times they stepped successfully into the world of authentic, and are extremely useful tools in moving closer to an authentic learning approach they are not authentic learning models. Authentic learning is intended to successfully interact with a community; by going out to interact with a community or the community coming into the student community to interact.
A grade five teacher once shared a wonderful collection of student written and recorded persuasive "Saving Energy" stories with me. They even designed CD covers in art lessons for their project. The work, learning and planning by teacher and student was tremendous. Upon being asked however, "What did you do with all that great work" she replied she'd listened to the CD in class and put the CD covers up on the bulletin board. This is a great example of integrated learning but it's not authentic learning.
By planning beyond the classroom, a whole new level of understanding and relevant learning takes place. What if the CDs were intended for sale at the nearest mall? Now, an in depth degree of consultation needs to be pursued. Mall managers, local radio stations, graphic designers, bar codes for selling, copyrights local recording studios and marketing experts will need to be considered. That's the major leap an educator needs to take to enter the realm of authentic learning. What if the recordings were uploaded onto a website and promoted to leaders of energy conservation intended to be used to educate the surrounding community on "Energy Saving"? What about an "Energy Saving in Our Homes" campaign within your community? These are only suggestions but with a little brainstorming and with the right people, it wouldn't be long until a list of exciting possibilities could be created. Why are they exciting possibilities? Because they're real, relevant and worthy!
One of the reasons I started to use the term "authentic learning" was that I recognized that the term "outcomes-based" education, William Spady's model which shared a number of characteristics, was being recognized mainly for it's outcome statements. His strategy of reforming an education system, built on students performing a hierarchy of skills was being diluted down to the content and focusing on the doing statements. Again, it became more about the content than pursuing the meaningful journey of authentic education. It isn't hard to understand why this happened because that's how it would be perceived by policy makers who's successes were affirmed in a content driven system.
Authentic learning is not another edu-trend or buzz word. It is real life - real world and when appropriately implemented it can provide optimal learning opportunities for all students.
This new, authentic learning approach, however, requires another breed of educator. An academic as well as a life skilled, co-creator. A real, "life" long learner with skill sets and experiences that can facilitate a creative, diverse, well structured, team-based, open-ended, criteria based and globally directed education program. Ask yourself if you're on the way down the enlightened authentic learning road? Are you working towards sharing a tangible product outside of the class or bringing the world into your schools either electronically or for real?
Talia is a medieval tailor at an authentic learning event.
I had just completed an authentic event, a Medieval Market Living Museum one April evening. It was the culmination of one and half months of preparation as the students demonstrated their personas (roles) as medieval trades people in medieval Coventry, UK. The students worked diligently away at their trades during this open house, all academic levels to their potential. Their goal was to create an authentic medieval trade persona, an authentic costume that reflected their trade role, an authentic working trade tool or product and a market stall to share their wares. The room was decorated with beautiful tapestries, murals, personalized heraldry banners and a large book display of the student's collective work/activity sheets carefully spiral bound.
In authentic learning paper collections are referred to as portfolios. These portfolios were carefully done and included an extensive variety of curriculum content and authentic learning preparation sheets. Spelling, creative writing, math, art, drama, technology, problem solving and reading comprehension work sheets were all included. Nearly five hundred visitors came through our themed room and only about ten people even looked through the spiraled bound unit booklets. They were clearly displayed, beautifully presented and featured eye pleasing, colorful covers.
Visitors were far more interested in interacting with the trades people, hearing their stories, watching them work, than reading the notes that helped them attain their goal. Really, it is this kind of instance that affirms the reality that content and paper curriculum isn't as important as we believe them to be. It's important, and it certainly has its place, but the applied knowledge is far more important. The doing consolidates all the learning that went into the event.
Somewhere along the continuum of learning development the jot notes became more important than the tangible, meaningful applications of the education purpose itself. In the end, it's the applied demonstration that counts. "It's all in the doing".
Student Behaviours When Immersed in Authentic Learning
So Where Do We Start?
Is it realistic to think that authentic learning of this nature can be done, ongoing, throughout the school year? Of course it can and there are school's that engage in authentic approaches already. Maybe one day authentic learning may be the motis operandum of the majority of schools, but realistically not yet. With the current school classroom structures, resources, timetabling, standardized test demands, physical classroom limitations, administration directives and the plethora of curriculum expectations as they are, it's difficult to do.
If, however, an educator can attempt one or two authentic learning events in a school year then that's a fantastic start. At year's end you and your students won't regret it and it won't be long until you're looking forward to starting your next. There are different degrees of authentic learning events from simulations shared with your community to complete, real world integrations. Start small, then develop your authentic learning undertakings over the years to come. Let other educators, parents and community members observe your authentic learning events. Remember, a well implemented authentic unit/event is the best kind of promotion for this rich style of learning.