Authentic learning refers to educational activities that are “grounded in the lifeworld of the learner … and aims at being relevant and meaningful to learners, its practical application and benefits apparent.” (Kalantzis & Cope, n.d.) Authentic learning consists of exercises or student-derived products that simulate real life. The concept of authentic learning is not new. Philosophers have spoken about it as early as the 1700s and some educators throughout history have implemented it n various forms. Maria Montessori is one of the more well-known ones. (1870-1952).
Jan Herrington has written much on authentic learning. She discusses authentic learning tasks versus decontextualized learning tasks in terms of academic and nonacademic settings. She defines authentic learning as "realistic tasks in an academic setting".
Herringnton, J. (2011, September 26). Authenticity in academic settings. [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/
10 Characteristics of Authentic learning
According to Herrington (2006), authentic learning has ten characteristics:
1. Authentic tasks have real-world relevance: Activities match as nearly as possible the real-world tasks of professionals in practice rather than decontextualized or classroom-based tasks (e.g., Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Jonassen, 1991; Lebow, 1993; Oliver & Omari, 1999; Cronin, 1993; Young, 1993; Winn, 1993; Resnick, 1987; Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1990a)
2. Authentic tasks are ill-defined, requiring students to define the tasks and sub-tasks needed to complete the activity: Problems inherent in the activities are ill-defined and open to multiple interpretations rather than easily solved by the application of existing algorithms. Learners must identify their own unique tasks and sub-tasks in order to complete the major task (e.g., Lebow & Wager, 1994; Bransford, Vye, Kinzer, & Risko, 1990; Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1990a)
3. Authentic tasks comprise complex tasks to be investigated by students over a sustained period of time: Activities are completed in days, weeks and months rather than minutes or hours, requiring significant investment of time and
intellectual resources (e.g., Bransford, Vye, Kinzer, & Risko, 1990; Lebow & Wager, 1994; Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1990b; Jonassen, 1991)
4. Authentic tasks provide the opportunity for students to examine the task from different perspectives, using a variety of resources: The task affords learners the opportunity to examine the problem from a variety of theoretical and practical perspectives, rather than a single perspective that learners must imitate to be successful. The use of a variety of resources rather than a limited number of preselected references requires students to detect relevant from irrelevant information (e.g., Young, 1993; Spiro, Vispoel, Schmitz, Samarapungavan, & Boeger, 1987; Bransford, Vye, Kinzer, & Risko, 1990; Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1990b)
5. Authentic tasks provide the opportunity to collaborate: Collaboration is integral to the task, both within the course and the real world, rather than achievable by an individual learner (e.g., Lebow & Wager, 1994; Young, 1993; Gordon, 1998)
6. Authentic tasks provide the opportunity to reflect: Activities need to enable learners to make choices and reflect on their learning both individually and socially (e.g., Young, 1993; Myers, 1993; Gordon, 1998)
7. Authentic tasks can be integrated and applied across different subject areas and lead beyond domain-specific outcomes: Activities encourage interdisciplinary perspectives and enable diverse roles and expertise rather than a single well-defined field or domain (e.g., Jonassen, 1991; Bransford, Sherwood, Hasselbring, Kinzer, & Williams, 1990)
8. Authentic tasks are seamlessly integrated with assessment: Assessment of activities is seamlessly integrated with the major task in a manner that reflects real world assessment, rather than separate artificial assessment removed from the nature of the task (e.g., Reeves & Okey, 1996; Young, 1995; Herrington & Herrington, 1998)
9. Authentic tasks create polished products valuable in their own right rather than as preparation for something else: Activities culminate in the creation of a whole product rather than an exercise or substep in preparation for something else (e.g., Barab, Squire, & Dueber, 2000; Gordon, 1998; Duchastel, 1997)
10. Authentic tasks allow competing solutions and diversity of outcome: Activities allow a range and diversity of outcomes open to multiple solutions of an original nature, rather than a single correct response obtained by the application of rules and procedures (e.g., Duchastel, 1997; Bottge & Hasselbring, 1993; Young & McNeese, 1993; Bransford, Vye, Kinzer, & Risko, 1990; Bransford, Sherwood, Hasselbring, Kinzer, & Williams, 1990).
10 Examples of Authentic Learning
So what are examples of the tasks above? Let's take a look at a fictional student studying accounting (which was one of the courses I taught while teaching in a business career program).
1. Example activity for real-world relevance. A student using Quickbooks as part of an accounting course, instead of
learning the software in a separate course.
2. Example activity for Ill-defined task. The same student is given the responsibility to audit a mock company's accounting records without being told the proper procedure.
3. Example activity that is complex and can only be studied over time. The accounting student only over time would figure out all that is required to audit a company's books: what forms are needed, what is considered generally accepted accounting practices; reconciliation of records, etc.
4. Example activity of a task that allows research from multiple perspectives. One aspect of accounting that can be viewed from more than one perspective is whether a company should recognize revenue on a cash or accrual basis.
5. Example activity of collaboration. In a role-play situation a student can act as a CFO for a small company while another acts as the CPA. Many companies audit themselves before an independent CPA arrives. Students grouped into pairs would give each member an opportunity to research and determine what is needed then meet and come to terms.
6. Example activity of reflection. Students in the accounting class would reflect on what they have learned; discuss the positive and negative impacts of business financial decisions.
7. Example activity of interdisciplinary studies. Students in the accounting class could work with students in a business management class. The students in the business management course could play the role of department heads who are responsible for the individual department budgets which contribute to a whole. The "CFO" from the accounting class would create a company-wide budget from the department ones. The students of the buisness management course could also work with students who are studying tax law in order to understand how their decisions could impact themselves or their companies tax-wise. The "CPA" would work with the tax-law students to develop her/his own knowledge-base, which is key knowledge that a CPA should have. Students in the business management course could compare the advice received directly from the tax students to what was received from the accounting student.
8. Example activity of integration with assessment. Essential to the collaborations and interdisciplinary work mentioned above is consensus building and understanding of roles. For these to occur students would have to communicate often; discuss their point of view; relay what they need; and perform peer reviews.
9. Example finished product. For the accounting class, the final product would be a complete CPA report.
10. Examples of competing solutions and diversity of outcomes. A company's needs, and who its target audience
determines help determine which of 3 types of reports will be completed by an accountant. In this project, the students could create one of each kind of report.
One cannot bring up the subject of authentic learning without authentic assessment.
That authentic assessment must be integrated with authentic learning has been stated by many. In a republished post of Grant Wiggin's, 27 characteristics are listed for authentic assessment; divided into four categories (Wiggins, 2018).
Content in Table 1 is from Wiggins, G. (2018, December 12). 27 characteristics of authentic assessment.
Returning to the fictional example of the accounting class, the authentic learning activities that are also assessments are the reflection, and peer reviews. Below are two tables that list which of the 27 characteristics these assessments reflect.
Reflection is an indirect assessment of student learning. Aspects of reflection that match Wiggins’ 27 characteristics have been identified and listed in Table 2 using Wiggins’ categories. The categories and complete list of 27 characteristics can be found at Wiggins, G. (2018, December 12).
Peer review is a direct assessment of student learning. Aspects of peer reviews that match Wiggins’ 27 characteristics have been identified and listed in Table 3 using Wiggins’ categories. The categories and complete list of 27 characteristics can be found at Wiggins, G. (2018, December 12).
Authentic learning refers to tasks that simulate, mimic, or actually are the activities that a student would do in a real world setting. They occur in the classroom, out in the field; as an exercise, assessment; as a practicum, on-the-job training; an apprenticeship. Authentic learning tasks are the application of situated learning theory and social constructivism in the education.
A Couple of Theories
Situated Learning Theory
Situated learning theory posits that learning only happens within communities. Learning is social. It includes behaviors and beliefs. According to Besar (2018):
When learners are newcomers they move "from the periphery of this community to its center, they become more active and engaged within the culture and hence assume the role of expert or old-timer. Furthermore, situated learning is usually unintentional rather than deliberate. These ideas are what Lave & Wenger (1991) call the process of “legitimate peripheral participation"” (Kearsley, G. & Culatta, R, (n.d.)).
Social constructivism is a sociological theory of knowledge according to which human development is socially situated and knowledge is constructed through interaction with others.
Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, stated that this acquisition of knowledge occurs with the help of a more knowledgeable other who provides the link to the learner between what is already known and what cannot be learned without assistance (McLeod, 2018).
Situated learning theory states that learning is often incidental. When teachers or technology serve as creators and facilitators of zones of proximal development through scaffolding and other strategies that help students connect the dots or pursue independent learning that creation is deliberate.
An overview of authentic-learning-task benefits leads one to notice that some of these tasks are value-laden. (See tasks 2, 3, 4, 5 & 7). Some, despite being categorized as authentic, do not take into account some of the realities of the real world.
The ten characteristics in column 1 evaluated for benefits and criticisms come from Herrington's (2006) Authentic e-learning in higher education: Design principles for authentic learning environments and tasks. It was presented at the World conference on e-Learning in corporate, government, healthcare, and higher education (ELEARN) 2006, 13-17 October 2006, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.
Application of Authentic Learning in the Classroom
Application in the classroom can take many forms depending on the subject taught. For instance, a financial literacy class would have activities where students create their own budgets, complete appropriate tax forms. Students in an art class create work for display at a museum. Students taking a customer service class could use role play to demonstrate how to deal with various situations. In a customer service class that I taught I had students take the role of mystery shoppers. They reviewed each store according to criteria used by professional mystery shoppers. Additionally, students visited stores that were similar to each other and compared their experiences and observations. They wrote detailed reports on each store. In the real world of mystery shopping the reports are specific to one store. For this class I added questions to the mystery shopper form that allowed students to make comparisons. Those comparisons were the foundation for the post-field trip discussion.
This video shows students experiencing authentic learning inside and outside of the classroom.
Edutopia. (2016, November 1). Real-world problems: Bringing authentic context to learning. [Video]. Youtube.
As Herrington (2011) states, authentic learning does not have to happen only in a real world setting. Having students solve a real-life problem while in the classroom is authentic enough.
Authentic Learning has many benefits but like all learning theories and practices has its limitations. Teachers must be judicious in their application of this and all learning theories. I have found it most beneficial when the subject by nature is a practical one. I believe in hands-on learning where it is appropriate, but I also like to have discussions and learning activities around best practices, ethics, big picture, they why of things and for me authentic learning is one of many strategies to use in the classroom.
Besar, P. H., & Norainna, D. S. (2018). Situated learning theory: The key to effective classroom teaching?
Edutopia. (2016, November 1). Real-world problems: Bringing authentic context to learning. [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3IL0J3XMbA
Herrington, J. (2006). Authentic e-learning in higher education: Design principles for authentic learning environments and tasks. Paper presented at World conference on e-Learning in corporate, government, healthcare, and higher education (ELEARN) 2006, 13-17 October 2006. pp. 3164-3173. Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. https://researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/id/eprint/5247/
Herringnton, J. (2011, September 26). Authenticity in academic settings. [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=195&v=8BOy5IhoRF4
Kalantzis, M., & Cope, W. (n.d.) New Learning [Website]. http://newlearningonline.com/learning-by-design/glossary/authentic-learning
Kearsley, G., & Culatta, R. (n.d.) [Website on instructional design]. https://www.instructionaldesign.org/theories/situatedlearning/
Kiraly, D. (2000). A social constructivist approach to translator education: Empowerment from theory to practice. Routledge.
McLeod, S. (2018). Lev Vygotsky. https://www.simplypsychology.org/vygotsky.html
Wenger, Brittney. (n.d.) Project Summary [Website]. https://sites.google.com/a/googlesciencefair.com/sciencefair-
Wiggins, G. (2018, December 12). 27 characteristics of authentic assessment. https://www.teachthought.com/pedagogy/27-characteristics-of-authentic-assessment/
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