Reflections on Authentic Learning

au·​then·​tic | \ ə-ˈthen-tik  , ȯ- \ adjective – true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character

Did you ever have a situation where a parent, teacher, older sibling or other authority figure tried to explain something to you or teach you something, but the message didn’t stick until you had been through that experience? I can think of many examples from my personal life both as a child (teen) and as a parent. I have heard myself say, “This is a lesson I had to learn myself.”

True authentic learning occurs through experience. Very often parents have to stay on the outside and observe their children authentically learning a life lesson. How can teachers create authentic learning experiences in the classroom so that students can thrive in the real world?

Our job as teachers is not to “prepare” kids for something; our job is to help kids learn to prepare themselves for anything.

AJ Juliani

Authentic learning can be the result of creating a significant learning environment that incorporates student voice, choice and ownership. Project-based learning is a good starting place for teachers, but that is not the end result. According to the COVA book by Harapnuik & Thibodeaux, “authentic projects work because they not only give the learner choice and ownership over the world that they live in, but they also give the learner the ability to find and use their voice and show the world what they have created.” There are other key factors that define authentic learning opportunities:

  • Real-world application that serves a purpose, solves a problem or addresses an actual need.
  • Involves analysis, synthesis, design, and creation and is something that can be done or implemented.
  • Is chosen and owned by the individual but still offers an impact to a broader audience.
  • Is intended for an audience other than the individual or the instructors.
  • Has social or collaborative component and extends beyond the classroom.
  • Has an aspect of permanence or form of extended duration.
  • Requires instructors come along side learners and help them guide their projects as facilitators, coaches or mentors. (Harapnuik, Thibodeaux, 2018).

On her User-Generated Education blog, author Jackie Gerstein states that “providing authentic and vigorous learning experiences to all learners should be the highest prior for all administrators, curriculum developers, and teachers” and that “learners view their experiences as having relevancy to their own lives, that they address their interests and needs.” The image below shows some of the additional benefits of authentic learning opportunities.


The concepts behind the importance of authentic learning opportunities are rooted in constructivism and in part the theories of John Dewey, who believed that learning should be experiential. “Constructivism transforms the student from a passive recipient of information to an active participant in the learning process.” (Matsouka, 2004). The ideas behind authentic learning opportunities takes that a step further and include that the learning students acquire should make a change in them or a change for others around them. This video describes the ideas of John Dewey and his influence on the education system.

Authentic learning is learning designed to connect what students are taught in school to real-world issues, problems, and applications; learning experiences should mirror the complexities and ambiguities of real life


Ted Dintersmith, the producer of the documentary Most Likely to Succeed, describes how the idea for his movie originated, and some of the experiences he had the support the validity and need for providing authentic learning opportunities. He asserts that students need to be afforded relevant opportunities to be creative innovators in order to succeed. His inspiring movie highlights some wonderful examples of authentic learning at work.

References:

Gerstein, J. (2019, March 11). Authentic Learning Experiences. User Generated Education. https://usergeneratededucation.wordpress.com/2019/01/20/authentic-learning-experiences/.

Harapnuik, D., Thibodeaux , T., & Cummings, C. (2018). Cova: Choice, Ownership and Voice through Authentic Learning (Vol. .9). Creative Commons.

Matsuoka, B. (2004). Constructivism as a paradigm for teaching and learning. Retrieved February 16, 2021, from https://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/

Pearce, S. (2016, April). Authentic learning: what, why and how? ACEL. http://www.acel.org.au/acel/ACEL_docs/Publications/e-Teaching/2016/e-Teaching_2016_10.pdf.

Sprouts. (2021). John Dewey’s 4 Principles of Progressive Education. https://youtu.be/y3fm6wNzK70.

TEDx Talks. (2015). Ted Dintersmith Why Schools Should Teach for the Real World . YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rvhb9aoyeZs.

Thibodeaux, T. Learner’s Mindset….. Learners Mindset. http://tilisathibodeaux.com/wordpress/?page_id=538.

From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in school comes from his inability to utilize the experience he gets outside while on the other hand he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning in school. That is the isolation of the school–it’s isolation from life.

Dewey, 1915

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