Designing Authentic Learning

Photo: Derek Wenmoth

The real process of education should be the process of learning to think through the application of real problems.

John Dewey

I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors, and at one point in my career I was an outdoor ed teacher. I relished the opportunity to take young people into the outdoors where they were often pushed beyond their comfort zone and had to learn to overcome challenges, relying on others to achieve what needed to be done together. The decisions you make and the actions you take in this environment matter. There are consequences (i.e. you’re either warm or cold during the night, you’re either well fed or hungry, you get to your destination or you get lost etc.). The learning here is authentic.

Many schools and classroom environments on the other hand are often not like this. At least, in their fundamental design they don’t enable this sort of learning easily. Timetables, subjects, curriculum to deliver/cover, assessments… all of these things can often work together to ‘squeeze out’ approaches that may be considered authentic, substituting instead with forms of instruction designed to ensure coverage (and consumption) of pre-determined content and concepts.

I admit this commentary casts an unfair cloud over the many excellent teachers who are daily implementing the approaches covered further down in this post, indeed, in the past week I’ve had the privilege of being in schools (physically and virtually) where I’ve seen some excellent examples of deep, meaningful, authentic learning. My point is simply that without the intentional efforts being made by such teachers, they’re more likely to operate within the constraints of the environment they work in and conform to the patterns of behaviour they determine and the expectations of a system used to operating within these. The learning experience is less likely to be characterised as authentic for the students.

Of course, not all learning can take place in the context of, for instance, an outdoor education setting. While we still have students gathering in physical places called schools, with classrooms, timetables, bells etc. the question is, how can we design for authentic learning in these contexts – is it actually possible? Here are some thoughts, based on personal experience and what I’ve observed in the classrooms of teachers I regard highly for what they do to create authentic learning experiences for their learners. I’ve framed them as questions in order to prompt further reflection in your own context:

1. What is authentic?

The first question we have to ask ourselves is “what do we mean by authentic learning?” Whether as an individual teacher or a department or syndicate working to implement this approach, having a clear understanding or definition is important as there is a myriad of definitions out there.

There are academic ones such as from Donovan, Bransford, & Pellegrino who say; “In education, authentic learning is an instructional approach that allows students to explore, discuss, and meaningfully construct concepts and relationships in contexts that involve real-world problems and projects that are relevant to the learner.”

Or there’s the definition on Wikipedia that says; “authentic learning is centred on authentic, relevant, real-world tasks that are of interest to the learners, where students are actively engaged in exploration and inquiry.

I personally find the way it is explained in a publication from ACEL useful: “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.

As you can see, there are a number of common themes here – relevant, real-world, problems, contexts, inquiry, exploration… and so on.

Wherever you land on this, it is important that you spend time exploring these concepts and agree on something that provides you with a definition that you’re comfortable with and each word or concept in it is clearly understood in terms of the implications for your learning design.

The following questions may then be useful to guide your planning…

2. Who is interested?

There are a couple of perspectives to consider here. Firstly, does this connect with the learners themselves? Is it something that captures their interest – or has been identified as a result of their own curiosity or concern? Very often I’ve seen some great lessons being taught that are based on real world problems or issues, but have been determined by the teacher and not involved the learners in any of that decision making. Ensuring the theme/topic/idea emerges from the interests or needs of learners is essential here.

The second perspective is to understand who is the audience for this and what is the desired impact for them? Finding a solution to a local problem (e.g. reducing litter in public places, addressing safety at a local pedestrian crossing etc.) means that the potential audience will be the local community and others interested in how the problem may be solved, and so may add additional motivation for the learners. The same holds at a national or global level. Introducing learners to collaborative projects involving hundreds or even thousands of other learners across the world can be very empowering when they feel their voice and the solutions they offer are being taken seriously.

3. Is it relevant?

Anchoring a learning experience in a real life context is critical if it is to be authentic. Whether the learning takes place in the actual real life context (as in an outdoor ed experience) or is experienced through tasks and activities that represent real-life contexts or experiences (role-play, simulation etc.) the relationship with what happens in the real world must be evident.

There are two perspectives to be considered here. First, how does the experience relate to experiences in the real world? This is where anything from building a shed, investigating global warming or creating a school garden might examples. Using such experiences to introduce learners to real-world contexts, involving real-world problems and challenges that require real-world solutions exposes learners to all sorts of understandings in ways that are not possible when simply being told or working with abstract ideas.

Second is how it relates to lived experience of the learner (i.e. their real world). This involves understanding more about their home context and background, their interests and previous life experiences etc. Relating the experience to the real life experience of the learner leads to higher levels of engagement based on their genuine interest and connection with what is being learned. It also provides an opportunity to scaffold their learning from what is known and experienced.

4. Does it matter?

Selecting a context that is based on a real world need or context is one thing, but it will carry significantly more weight and motivation if it is something that matters – for the learner themselves, for society and for the planet. A good question to ask here is “is there a complex problem to solve with multiple possible outcomes?”

Problem-based learning can be a useful pedagogical approach here, however, not all problem-based learning involves engaging with complex problems with multiple possible outcomes. Very often it is simply an approach designed to enable students to work through a process of solving a problem that has already been solved. So while this sort of approach can be useful in helping students learn some basic skills required for the more complex problem solving, truly authentic learning will involve engaging with those sorts of problems for which there is no known solution.

Ideally, authentic learning should start with a close and critical examination of a real-world problem for which there is no easily defined solution. The global challenges represented by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals provide excellent examples of this level of challenge. It doesn’t take too much imagination to think of ways to make these relevant in the local context, and if not, there’s a wealth of resources available from others who have already done so.

5. Is it engaging?

Watch a young child engrossed in a complicated role play at a pre-school, a teen engrossed in achieving the goals within an online game in order to get to the next level or an adult in a workshop, crafting a piece of furniture from wood. These people will be focusing their attention on what needs to be done and sticking with that.

The design of the learning activity must take account of the conditions under which this sort of learning can occur. Will it involve in-depth investigation, involving collaborative effort? Will there be sufficient time available to pursue the inquiry and follow through to achieving a result?

This is where the constraint of school timetables, exam deadlines, pressure to ‘cover’ the curriculum etc. can act as barriers to providing the sorts of learning opportunities that are truly engaging.

6. Will it make a difference?

For me this is the clincher! What is the difference you want to make, and how will you now if you have? The difference may be at a personal level (a new skill, new understanding, new career choice etc.) through to something more substantial (e.g. influencing a local council decision, establishing a sustainable gardening project at school) or even at a global scale (e.g. adding voice to support specific actions to end poverty or climate change for example).

Planning for 2022

As we come to the end of another school year, particularly one that has been punctuated by so much disruption and change, it may be timely to pause and reflect a little on the nature of the learning experiences we designed and presented to our students. The shift to at-home learning has revealed a lot about the things we believe are important as educators and what learners see as important for them – and they’re not always aligned.

Looking a head to 2022 then, how might we capture the important messages about authentic learning and incorporate these into the way we design learning for at school or at home?

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