7 steps to authentic learning

Creating authentic learning experiences requires planning and purposeful implementation

authentic-learningWhy authentic learning? There are so many reasons to choose from, some of the most important being: providing deep purpose for learning, empowering students, providing differentiation and choice options in learning, connecting students to others locally and globally, and allowing opportunities to develop empathy, creativity, and innovation skills.

While there are many wonderful resources on the web regarding Problem Based Learning Units (PBL’s) and authentic learning, it seems best to boil it down to a common definition teachers can remember. One that has worked is real purpose, real product, and a real audience.

Real purpose: solving a real world problem or creating something new and novel for the world

Real audience: sharing possible solutions to real world problems with someone who needs the information, or sharing the novel creation to an audience who would enjoy it

Real product: the vehicle for delivering the new information or idea to the authentic audience

(Next page: Steps for planning and implementation)

The next questions, inevitably, are Where do I find the time? What about Common Core? How will this type of learning and teaching be evaluated? These are important questions to be addressed strongly and clearly at the beginning of the implementation process.

The solution: Use Common Core to leap into authentic learning. With this approach, standards are covered at a deeper level in a way that makes sense, provides purpose, and inspires students. It also revitalizes teachers who have been teaching the same thing over and over again. When this marriage occurs, standards can also be assessed while students learn and create for reasons bigger than themselves and for more meaningful reasons than to turn work into the teacher or receive a certain grade.

Planning steps:
1. Decide on the standards that needed to be covered.

  • It is easiest to launch off of social science or science standards because they more readily connect to current events that make the learning relevant for students.
  • Next, decide what literacy and math standards can be integrated and assessed. Many of the reading, speaking, and writing standards can easily fit into any Authentic Learning unit. Math is more specific and should be integrated when there is a strong connection to that math skill or strategy.

2. If Concept-Based Curriculum is a focus in the school or district, find and connect to those larger concepts, essential understandings, and guiding questions.
3. Connecting to the standards to be covered, as well as the larger concepts, identify something real and relevant going on in the world today. What might students be interested in? What might they not be interested in now, but might be interested in by learning more about it? Is this a problem to be solved or something students will create for others that is new and novel?
4. Decide on the intended authentic audience: Who needs or will benefit from the information?
5. Decide on the product: What is the best vehicle to get this information to the intended audience? Typical products can include things like wikis, blogs, podcasts, videocasts, and more.

Implementation steps:
1. Launch the problem with students to get them hooked. Tell them, or better yet, let
them tell you why this problem is important to them. The problem should provide
purpose and motivation for them to learn the standards.

  • Throughout the unit, keep referring back the goal or problem while teaching the standards, content and skills of the unit. Connecting the purpose or problem will keep students focused and deeply engaged. Many students will choose to continue the work at home, for fun.

2. Teach the concepts, standards, critical content and skills. Literacy (and some math)
learning experiences should center around the purpose or problem.
3. Assess standards.
4. Students determine authentic products and a specific audience.
5. Students create products and deliver to audience.
6. Assess product.
7. Reflect on process and learning.

Tips and tricks:

  • If a team can brainstorm the purpose, problem, and audience together, it is much easier and more effective than one teacher trying to go this alone.
  • The more aware teachers are of current events, locally and globally, the easier it is to find a problem to solve.
  • At an advanced level, or whenever possible, the more input the students have developing or choosing the problem, product, and audience, the more thinking and learning they are doing, and the more ownership they will feel in the process.
  • Teachers and students should expect to find this process exciting and invigorating, and challenging; there will be bumps along the way. The more teachers can let the students direct their own learning, the more powerful the learning will be. This takes practice, and students have to learn to learn how to learn this way. Authentic learning is a wonderful way for teachers to model lifelong learning.
  • Be prepared for the problem not to be solved. Sometimes the students can solve the problem, sometimes the problem is too big to solve, and often there are only steps taken to solve the problem–and those are important too!
  • Create a unit design planner that incorporates what teachers are already doing. Then add the real purpose, real product, and real audience pieces into the planner.
  • The more coaches, administrators, LMC Specialists, and iTech teachers can support students and teachers in these units, the more successful they will be.

Once the Authentic Learning light bulb goes on for teachers, they begin to want to teach all units in this way. The benefits to both teachers and students are enormous. We believe it engages students in a way they will never forget, where the deepest kinds of learning unfold.

Tracy Crowley is a former elementary school teacher who currently works as a K-8 Information Literacy Specialist in Community Consolidated School District 21 in Wheeling, Illinois.

Heather Popilek is a former middle school teacher who is currently working as a district Science and Exploratory Curriculum Coordinator in Community Consolidated School District 21 in Wheeling, Illinois.

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