In education, the term authentic learning refers to a wide variety of educational and instructional techniques focused on connecting what students are taught in school to real-world issues, problems, and applications. The basic idea is that students are more likely to be interested in what they are learning, more motivated to learn new concepts and skills, and better prepared to succeed in college, careers, and adulthood if what they are learning mirrors real-life contexts, equips them with practical and useful skills, and addresses topics that are relevant and applicable to their lives outside of school. For related discussions, see 21st century skills, relevance, and rigor.
An “authentic” way to teach the scientific method, for example, would be to ask students to develop a hypothesis about how ecosystems work that is based on first-hand observations of a local natural habitat, then have them design and conduct an experiment to prove or disprove the hypothesis. After the experiment is completed, students might then write up, present, and defend their findings to a panel of actual scientists. In contrast, a “less authentic” way to teach the scientific method would be to have students read about the concept in a textbook, memorize the prescribed process, and then take a multiple-choice test to determine how well they remember it.
In the “authentic” learning example above, students “learn by doing,” and they acquire the foundational skills, knowledge, and understanding that working scientists actually need and use in their profession. In this case, students would also learn related skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, formal scientific observation, note taking, research methods, writing, presentation techniques, and public speaking, for example. In the “less authentic” learning situation, students acquire knowledge largely for purposes of getting a good grade on a test. As a result, students may be less likely to remember what they learned because the concept remains abstract, theoretical, or disconnected from first-hand experience. And since students were never required to use what they learned in a real-life situation, teachers won’t be able to determine if students can translate what they have learned into the practical skills, applications, and habits of mind that would be useful in life outside of school—such as in a future job, for example.
Another principle of authentic learning is that it mirrors the complexities and ambiguities of real life. On a multiple-choice science test there are “right” answers and “wrong” answers determined by teachers and test developers. But when it comes to actual scientific theories and findings, for example, there are often many potentially correct answers that may be extremely difficult, or even impossible, to unequivocally prove or disprove. For this reason, authentic learning tends to be designed around open-ended questions without clear right or wrong answers, or around complex problems with many possible solutions that could be investigated using a wide variety of methods. Authentic learning is also more likely to be “interdisciplinary,” given that life, understanding, and knowledge are rarely compartmentalized into subject areas, and as adults students will have to apply multiple skills or domains of knowledge in any given educational, career, civic, or life situation. Generally speaking, authentic learning is intended to encourage students to think more deeply, raise hard questions, consider multiple forms of evidence, recognize nuances, weigh competing ideas, investigate contradictions, or navigate difficult problems and situations.
In perhaps its purest expression, authentic learning culminates in students making some form of genuinely useful contribution to their community or to a field of study. The winners of the annual Google Science Fair, for example, would exemplify this ideal. In 2012, the Grand Prize winner, 17-year-old Brittany Wenger, created a software application—an “artificial neural network”—that successfully diagnosed breast cancer in 99% of tested cases and that may potentially be put into use in hospitals in the future.
While few students will develop better ways to diagnose cancer, schools create authentic learning experiences in a variety of ways. For example, a science class might study water conservation, conduct an analysis of their school’s water usage, investigate potential ways the school might reduce its usage, and then present a water-conservation proposal to the school board that includes a variety of recommendations—e.g., posting signs in bathrooms encouraging students not to leave water running, installing low-flow faucets with automatic on-off sensors, using rain barrels below drain spouts, planting drought-resistant plants in the schoolyard that are watered using the collected rainwater, etc. Once these solutions are put into practice, students might conduct observations to calculate how much water the school conserves on a daily, weekly, or annual basis, and then develop a website, infographics, or videos to share the information with school leaders and the broader community.
Authentic learning is closely related to the concept and theory of “constructivist teaching,” and in some contexts it may be used synonymously. For a more detailed discussion, see the Wikipedia entry for constructivist teaching methods.
As a school-reform concept, authentic learning is related philosophically and pedagogically to strategies such as personalized learning, community-based learning, and project-based learning, among others. In addition, instructional strategies such as demonstrations of learning, capstone project, personal learning plans, and portfolios may be associated with authentic learning.
Authentic learning is also a central concept in educational reforms that call for schools to place a greater emphasis on skills that are used in all subject areas and that students can apply in all educational, career, and civic settings throughout their lives. It’s also a central concept in reforms that question how teachers have traditionally taught and what students should be learning—such as the 21st century skills movement, which broadly calls on schools to create academic programs and learning experiences that equip students with the most essential knowledge, skills, and dispositions they will need to be successful in the collegiate programs and modern workplaces of the 21st century. As higher education and job requirements become more competitive, complex, and technical, proponents argue, students will need the kinds of skills that authentic-learning experiences can provide to successfully navigate the modern world, excel in challenging careers, and process increasingly complex information.
Calls for “more authentic learning” in education are, generally speaking, a response to the perception that many public schools pay insufficient attention to developing the intellectual abilities, practical skills, work habits, and character traits required for success in adult life. In other words, the concept of “authentic learning” intersects with larger social debates about what public schools should be teaching and what the purpose of public education should be. For example: Is the purpose of public education to get students to pass a test or to earn a high school diploma? Or is the purpose to prepare students for success in life after graduation, including postsecondary education and modern jobs or career paths? Advocates of authentic learning may contend that the purpose of public education is to look beyond test scores or graduation rates—success in school—to the knowledge, skills, and character traits students actually need to succeed in adult life—success outside of school. For related discussions, see career-ready and college-ready.
In addition, authentic learning may also intersect with a variety of ongoing debates about how and what schools should teach. Critics may question whether authentic-learning experiences can cover enough academic content in the core subject areas to ensure that students acquire a broad, well-rounded knowledge base. Critics may also argue that authentic learning, and related instructional strategies, may displace more traditional yet effective forms of teaching, fail to equip students with “the basics,” or lead to disorderly classrooms, among other possible arguments. Advocates would contend, however, that these criticisms are unfounded, and that a well-planned curriculum built around authentic-learning experiences can cover all the academic subjects and concepts that students need (unless the learning experiences are poorly designed and executed, of course). In some cases, criticism arises in response to a negative experience with authentic learning or from an insufficient understanding of the concept.
Authentic learning may also place more burdens—both logistical and instructional—on teachers. For example, authentic learning may require significantly more planning and preparation, and teachers may need to acquire new and more sophisticated instructional techniques or substantially revise lesson plans they have used for years. Authentic learning may also introduce more logistical complexities, particularly when learning experiences take place outside of the school or classroom (in schools, even seemingly minor logistical tasks, such as making travel arrangements or securing parental permissions, can take up a lot of time). For a related discussion, see learning pathway.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.