What’s Authentic, More or Less?

One of the reasons people advocate for Project-Based Learning is that it’s more “authentic” than much of “typical school.” But authenticity is one of those slippery words and concepts. When people say they want students to “have more authentic learning opportunities,” we all have a tendency to nod our heads, and think we’re in agreement. But without examination, our seeming agreement can mask lots of important distinctions and questions.

A few years ago, I wrote a book chapter with an academic title I’m not that crazy about: “Trajectories of Participation and Identification in Learning Communities Involving Disciplinary Practices.” Deep breath. Whew! What is the ratio of syllables per word in that title? (35/11=3.2!) It was in an equally academic book called Design Research on Learning and Thinking in Educational Settings: Enhancing Intellectual Growth and Functioning by David Yun Dai. One aspect of that paper was unpacking what I mean by authenticity in educational activities like projects. In this post, I want to liberate those ideas from their academic obscurity, as I’ve found them useful to talk about with fellow educators over the past few years.

Three Senses of Authenticity

In the chapter, I laid out three senses of authenticity, which are related to one another but not the same. I didn’t make these ideas up out of thin air. Rather, they draw on scholarship from Jréne Rahm, David Williamson Shaffer, Mitchel Resnick, and Etienne Wenger, among others. But here’s my take: I think there are three ways school-based project-based learning activities may be authentic:

  • authentic to me
  • authentic to others outside the classroom
  • by involving the use of authentic tools that people really use outside school

Authentic to Me

a hug, representing personal concernWhen something is authentic to me as a learner, I find it to be personally relevant and meaningful. Memorable examples for me from my prior work are teens who were interested in the dangers and effects of smoking because they had family members who smoked. One teen wrote an article about quitting smoking, spurred by his grandfather’s experience. Another teen authored an infographic about when during a lifetime one pays for tobacco use, based on concerns about her grandmother.

Obviously, personal relevance can affect motivation to participate in the learning experience, which I think is one of the main attractions of project-based learning to many educators. But I don’t think it stops with motivation. The kind of engagement that happens when a project is personally meaningful to students helps them deepen their understanding of the material, ways of thinking, and ways of being involved in the activities. Cognitively, it makes the experiences more richly indexed in memory, and the conditions under which the ideas and practices can be used more apparent; both these things mean the knowledge gained will be more usable to the learners in the future. Because it wasn’t just an isolated school task.

Authentic to Others
Which brings me to the next sense: experiences increase in their authenticity when they are meaningful to others outside the school. This is why many English Language Arts teachers strive to have an authentic audience, other than the teacher, for the writing and expressions created by their students. an audience viewing a filmThe news articles and infographics linked above were published in a real science newsmagazine called SciJourner, which is rigorously edited. SciJourner’s editorial standards are based on professional journalism standards, and managing editor Alan Newman used to be the editor of a publication of the American Chemical Society. Since it is a real publication, when students publish an article or infographic in it, they often receive recognition in their school community. Some of the articles get thousands of hits, and one even has over ten thousand of hits. They also get comments from readers all around the world.

Authentic Tools

I’m using “tools” in a sort of funky way here. I don’t just mean physical tools like a hammer, though computer tools and other technologies that people use are part of what I mean. I also mean “conceptual tools” like the practices that people carry out in their lives. One of the things that makes school-based learning activities less authentic is when the technological and/or conceptual tools that are used are really only used in school. In English Language Arts, one “inauthentic” tool is the five paragraph theme. Outside of school, who writes in that genre? No one. Outside school, people write letters, memos, stories, reports, and possibly less rigidly structured essays. And they compose multimodal and multimedia pieces: advertisements, documentaries, radio broadcasts, podcasts, and films.

icon representing a tool kitWhen students use technologies and literacy practices that people really use in the world outside school, it has multiple benefits. Again, it decreases that separation of school from the “real world.” Most importantly, it makes what is learned applicable to more tasks that students could pursue in their lives beyond and after formal schooling.

Putting It All Together

Not all projects will have the same level of all three senses of authenticity, but I believe there is a valuable sense in which more of each of these elements make a project more effective as learning experiences. We’ve found this framework useful within our initiative so far, when discussing strengths and weaknesses of project ideas and designs. So we’ll refer to them as we continue with our co-design of project-based curricula.

What do you think?


October 2015
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  1. Commie Ateh
    October 19, 2015

    Thanks for this explicit discourse on authentic PBL. Very handy as my next unit in an educational measurement course focuses on authentic project based learning for effective classroom assessment. It seems to me that with ‘authentic tool’ one should also emphasize the academically acceptable ‘tools’ like requiring the five paragraph essay (though this is not a typical good example). While focusing on ‘authentic’ that has to do with the real world, we don’t want to miss the authentic learning. I find this important piece missing in the framework or I might just be missing it.

  2. Joe Polman
    October 19, 2015

    Thanks for the comment, Commie. I think you are spot on with the importance of assessment. In one of the articles I linked to above, Shaffer & Resnick (1999; full reference below) put forth the idea that “learning where the means of assessment reflect the learning process” is more authentic. I agree with that, but decided to not to highlight it as much as they had. In the classroom, we have to plan for assessment, and I think assessment should aim to be both academically rigorous and seek to fit with the project-based work going on. So I would prefer to utilize or develop assessment tools other than the five paragraph essay to rely on to assess student learning. Other performance-based assessments of the products and/or events that students create in projects are my preference, and those can be keyed to targeted standards and outcomes (e.g., in our case for English Language Arts).

    Shaffer, D. W., and Resnick, M. (1999). “Thick” authenticity: New media and authentic learning. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 10(2), 195-215.

  3. Becca Kaplan
    October 21, 2015

    This is a great post– thank you!!

  4. […] concrete or abstract, linking it with a song, and justifying choices made.  This endeavor felt authentic to us, as it was an opportunity to deepen our own thinking and connections to the COW project (this […]

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