How Authentic Is “Authentic Learning”?
Several months ago, I was talking to a peer about the buzz over “authentic learning,” a term we educators hear a lot about. Half jokingly, she asked me whether all the stress on authentic learning somehow meant that most of what goes on in schools is inauthentic learning, and whether there was really any type of learning that was inauthentic. So I ask two questions: (a) what exactly is “authentic learning,” and (b) is what we term “authentic learning” really that authentic?
First, we must find out what the dictionary definition of “authentic” is. While “authentic” can mean several things, the most common (and most likely to be the meaning we are looking for) is “not false or imitation.” In other words, what is authentic is what is genuine and not what is a copy. An authentic antique is a real antique rather than a replica, and an authentic signature of John Adams is John Adam’s real signature, rather than a forgery.
So praise for “authetnic learning” is praise for learning that is real, and not a copy. I suppose that what is meant by this is that “authentic learning” is realistic learning, as opposed to learning from second-hand sources like textbooks. That definition is supported by this paper about authentic learning:
Authentic learning typically focuses on real-world, complex problems and their solutions, using role-playing exercises, problem-based activities, case studies, and participation in virtual communities of practice.
Right off the bat, I think that this is rhetorically presumptuous. To call “real world, complex problems” learning “authentic learning” is to call non-real-world learning – book learning, etc. – “inauthentic learning,” or, learning that is somehow less real. It can certainly be argued that learning in real-world ways may be a more engaging style of learning – and possibly a more lasting type of learning – than book learning (or learning by lecture), but I am not sure that there is any good reason to say that the latter types of learning are less real simply because they may be less engaging.This sounds exciting! We are teaching students not just how to do math, but how to think about math like a mathematician would; not just facts about science, but how to think as a scientist would. This, it seems, is what schools are designed to do: teach students how to do things, not memorize things.
How do we achieve authetnic learning? The article suggests the following approach: rather than teaching students about a subject, engineer an environment where they can learn by doing and by trial and error.
learning environments] are “not constructed in order to teach geometry or to teach philosophy. A learning environment is similar to some ‘real world’ application or discipline: managing a city, building a house, flying an airplane, setting a budget, solving a crime, for example.
Another website devoted to giving tips on what authentic learning should look like says something similar:
Authentic learning says that…we should learn what happens in the “real world”, and become “cognitive apprentices” to the experts. When we learn about math, we learn to think like mathematicians. When we learn about the weather, we learn to use tools that a meteorologist would use. When we learn to draw, we are taught techniques that real artists use.
But look a bit closer. There is a flaw here. The passage makes an assumption that learning to think like a mathematician is different than learning math facts and their applications. But didn’t the mathematician, to be a mathematician, have to engage in…inauthentic learning of math facts and their applications before she was able to be a mathematician and do original problem solving? Does it do any good for us to teach a child to think like a historian before we arm that child with the facts necessary to think historically?
Of course, what the website and article advocate is not a “start from scratch” trial and error. Rather, it suggests that we teachers design activities where students can learn things for themselves rather than have us lecture and them absorb. It may be more effective when students learn as a product of problem-solving than for them to be handed information via teacher lectures.
In fact, the article lists several outcomes that “authentic learning” is supposed to achieve (and supposedly “inauthentic learning” does not achieve). These outcomes, though, seem like the same outcomes of learning higher-order thinking skills, such as judgement to distinguish reliable from unreliable information,” and “synthetic ability to recognize relevent patterns in unfamiliar contexts.”
These abilities are not exclusive to “authentic learning” environments, and it is certainly debatable as to whether they cannot be achieved by more traditional methods of instruction. Even so, these skills are higher order thinking skills which REQUIRE foundational knowledge of facts to achieve. How can a student learn to recognize reliable from non-reliable information if they do not have the factual knowledge to compare information to the facts?
I know that “authentic learning” real-world discovery learning is supposed to be able to teach facts as well as how to think about them, but the reality is that this method is a very cumbersome way to teach facts. I am at a loss for how to design an “inquiry based” way to teach biology students how to identify the parts and functions of organelles in a body cell. The easiest way to achieve this lesson is to give them a (not too long) lecture using powerpoint slides, and have them take down notes. Then, I might give a lesson that, as engagingly as possible, forces the students to think about and remember the parts of a cell. If the students had to discover all the biology content via real-world examples, the school year would definitely need to be extended.
I do not advocate constant lecture or the absolute shunning of “authentic learning.” I am just dubious that “authentic learning” is the only or best way to relay information to students and have them retain it. I am also quite infuriated by its name, which implies that all lessons not based on a real-world trial-and-error approach is inauthentic. Lastly, I am worried that while “authentic learning” claims to better prepare students for real world situations, it grossly distorts what the real world is. Teaching kids to think like mathemeticians is virtually indistinguishable from what most educators already do: teach students how to perform math operations. Giving students “authentic assessments” only prepares students for the real world insofar as the student will not be expected to engage in factual recall in the real world (They will, of course.)
Again, I am not saying that we should abandon “authentic learning.” Like any other fad in education, the idea is in fact a good one. It is the extremizing of it (the implication that all learning that deviates is “inauthentic”) that gets it into trouble.