Tuesday 20th of December 2016

Authentic Learning: Getting “Real” into Education

Much has been written and shared about what characteristics are required for education in the 21st century. Creativity, critical thinking, literacy, problem solving, innovation, collaboration, math proficiency, data gathering, technology, global citizenry and communication are a few that are regularly mentioned. There is, however, a natural setting in which all of these characteristics can be fully activated and realized, it’s known as Authentic Learning.

In my career I’ve taught everything from primary to high school in one subject or other. It didn’t matter the student’s social-economic background, race, gender, religion, academic level or behaviour - an appropriately implemented authentic learning initiative consistently provided a positive growth setting for my students. I learned very early in my teaching career that whenever students were engaged in relevant and meaningful tasks they became more motivated and engaged. The more the events resembled ‘real world’ expectations, roles and settings, the more activated their minds became.

“Learning methods that are embedded in authentic situations are not merely useful; they are essential.” Brown, Collins & Duguid,1989. So what is authentic learning?Authentic learning is real life learning. It is a style of learning that encourages students to create a tangible, useful product/outcome that interacts directly with their world. Once a relevant challenge is proposed, the educator nurtures and provides the necessary criteria, planning, timelines, resources, consultation and support to accommodate student success. Processes become the predominant force and the content generated is organized into portfolios. The teacher’s role becomes that of a guide on the side, a consultant, a co-creator or facilitator.

The one predominant feature that distinguishes authentic learning is it’s designed to interact meaningfully with the community, either going out to the community or the community coming in. This is a crucial difference. Authentic learning is not the latest strategic vessel to explore education’s ocean - I believe that authentic learning is the ocean. It’s an applied, genuine way that students and educators can test the waters.

A good way to illustrate this is to look at two approaches teachers can take in creating dramatic presentations. One teacher may create a dramatic skit with their class while another creates a dramatic public production. The teacher having their students create a skit can provide sound, curriculum based, integrated learning by having the students write, rehearse and act out a script. It can be rich in text, collaboration, writing style, oral presentations and do so within an effective team approach. In fact, it’s a fabulous introduction in applying curriculum content in a meaningful way.

On the other hand, a class(es) involved in producing a dramatic, public production are entering into the realm of authentic. Besides covering the expectations covered by the classroom based approach, this teacher is providing a far heightened expectation. There’s going to be a need for a broader understanding of production skills and expert consultation to achieve success. Most importantly, these skills will be relevantly applied and shared with a community. Lighting, props, costuming, ticket sales, marketing, advertising, financing, scheduling, consulting, carpentry, sound engineering and a whole list of other real-life considerations will need to be utilized. The community now becomes a significant consideration for both the intended audience and a valuable pool of resources.

Authentic learning is not project based learning nor is it constructivism. These strategies were created within a classroom context. Although at times they stepped successfully into the world of authentic, and are excellent models in moving closer to an authentic learning model, they are not inherently authentic. It’s all in the application of the knowledge gained that provides students with the rich experiences to build new discoveries upon. Remember the old adage, “Knowledge begets knowledge?” In my experience, when knowledge is meaningfully applied, it’s the most potent of knowledge pursuits.

Over the years I’ve witnessed the optimal learning opportunities that an authentic event provides. Claymation movies, themed dinner theaters, ancient living museums, archaeological digs, music videos, bridge building challenges and The Egg Drop Project were a few that thoroughly engaged my students. There’s nothing more satisfying than watching percolating student engagement and the thrill of self discovery that authentic learning events provide.

I consistently recognized twelve distinctive elements that were present in each successful implementation of an authentic event. (I’ve attached a pdf of the characteristics)
The main purpose of education is to prepare our students for success in their world. To do this, authentic experiences and genuine community interaction are important. Whether it’s designing and marketing a reusable shopping bag or creating a website to promote animal kindness, providing regular authentic learning opportunities to our students is essential. In my experience, getting “real” in education motivates, energizes and can optimize a students’ learning and does so in rich, relevant and meaningful


by Steve Revington 


These blogs are the opinions of the individual teachers and not the Varkey Foundation.

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