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 a project 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 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 late 1880'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. Content always changes but processes are forever. "We can give them fish to eat or we can teach them to fish". 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 board that we're playing on that needs to be changed.
Too readily ministries reword curriculum content and shift semantics around until they believe they've made great 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 next time you're observing a classroom watch its essence. Are the students deliberately engaged because they are immersed in meaningful activities that provide major connections to their world? Is there a sense of freedom and creation in their individual pursuits? Is their genuine curiousity peeked or prolonged bouts of concentration. Is there a spark of excitement in their questioning? Do you have to remind your students that it's time to go for recess, lunch or home? These are all signs that students are significantly engaged in activities of relevant learning.
Is It Authentic Learning or Not?
A simple test I use to see if authentic learning is happening is to observe whether the event planning has any designs to reach out to the "real" world. Does the authentic learning event have direct, meaningful connections or applications outside of the classroom. Are there any real world connections either going out of the classroom or going into the classroom? If all that is being done is discussing and making inferences to real world examples only, then it's not authentic learning. Don't get caught up in the trap. Discussing, making inferences, creating mock-ups or simulations are all very important elements in working towards "real life" learning but they are still vicarious.
Think of a school musical production. Here's a classic authentic event. Everything that goes into organizing and producing a musical is genuine. It's a tangible product. It's role palying. There's an intended demographic, audience. There's plenty of planning, especially design-back. There are numerous roles involved where students can fit in and find built-in success as well as stage roles. It's integrated learning. There's a blended schedule involved. There's consultation with staff, parent volunteers and community to provide expertise and resources. It's multi-sensory. The positive learning atmosphere, community pride and the real life experiences for staff and students is undeniable. How well would it go over if the scripts were learned, the plays rehearsed and the sets were made but there was no attempt to perform for the public? Sounds odd doesn't it? This happens all the time during regular class time.
I've had the opportunity to produce stage shows and to be in them. They are unquestionably some of the most memorable, skill and character building experiences I've been involved in school. I remember the hard work, planning and execution these events embodied and how satisfying it was to complete them with quality performances. I've also experienced those same feelings and observed the same satisfaction when my students were involved in other authentic learning events, whether that is The Egg Drop Project, Medieval Market Living Museums, Roman Dinner Theatres or premiering an 8mm student produced Claymation Production. It's the process of authentic learning events that brings education to life.
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 can unfold. 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!
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.
It's All in the "Doing"
Talia as an authentic, medieval tailor
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".