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 1850'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 we 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.
In an authentic learning model the emphasis is mainly on the quality of process and innovation. The emphasis isn't about understanding teacher speak and regurgitating content just 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.
Content driven education is a linear learning model that will fail to provide our students with the steep challenges of the 21st century if that's all we focus on. Content always changes but processes have staying power. "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 we need to provide students with the tools to meet these challenges. Wouldn't it be more advantageous to reevaluate how we're teaching? We can no longer keep moving the checker pieces around the 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.
Comparing the authentic learning model to other models of education. Steve Revington
Is It Authentic Learning or Not?
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. 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 when you prepare a skit for some classmates verses a production for the public. There's a much larger personal investment when a student becomes a medieval persona working at a market stall to a large interacting audience than holding up a Bristol board display and explaining the medieval information on it. Best of all, the student retains information from this type of multi-sensory, authentic learning experience longer. 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? The first thing a teacher may question is how do I get the expertise to make that happen? 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 for 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 and relevant!
It's All in the "Doing"
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 these 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, colourful 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 even more important. The doing consolidates all the learning that went into the event. Somewhere along the continuum of learning development the jot notes became larger than the tangible, meaningful applications of life itself. In the end, it's the applied demonstration that counts. "It's all in the doing".
Too readily ministries reword curriculum content and shift semantics around 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.
Is it realistic to think that authentic learning of this nature can be done, ongoing, throughout the school year? Maybe one day it may, but realistically, of course not. 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 almost impossible 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.