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 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 learn 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 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 experience.
More importantly, the learning journey that ensues is life changing as students are connected to the multisensory processes rather than the short term memory skills that content based learning 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, contacts, drafts and support information that are 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. At no time in history has information been so readily available to the masses. 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 in these present times? Many school boards prevent their students from even having electronic devices in schools to assist their learning. 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, so why is content still the main focus of curricula?
An education system that devotes more 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 easily accessible but processes 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 to meet their challenges. Shouldn't there be an acceptable level of learning processes outlined in our curricula as well as the expectations of 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.
Good teachers are quick to point out that their curricula covers so many topics and expectations that there isn't enough instruction 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. Well, the rules dictate how the game will be 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 a over used exercise in short term memory skills and cognitive cuing 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.
For years many educators have been using the rich, brain-based findings to enhance content learning practices. Instead of recognizing that the holistic way of educating needs to be addressed, we see educators applying new brain findings to more memory retention tricks. 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 really telling us. 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.
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 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 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 because it's real, it's connected.
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 dumbed down to just 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 administration who's successes were affirmed in a content system.
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? 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!
It's All in the "Doing"
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, 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 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
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.
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.