education philosopher

How Authentic Is “Authentic Learning”?

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, Teaching, Uncategorized by KevinCK on July 2, 2009

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.


2 Responses

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  1. David said, on July 3, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    I agree with your overall analysis (good idea, bad name, extremizing bad), but I had to dissent on a few of the finer points.

    The passage makes an assumption that learning to think like a mathematician is different than learning math facts and their applications.
    I’ve had a few arguments of the same form with friends lately. As I see it, assuming things are different isn’t really so bad in general. If they’re actually not different, you find out pretty quickly in most cases. OTOH, if you assume different things are the same, you’re oftentimes screwed. It’s like filling in a wrong number in Sudoku puzzles, where you pretty much just have to start over.

    If teachers set up these special “learning environments” and they find that the best way for kids to “fly an airplane” or “solve a crime” is to do a little reading (which they will to some degree, unless they’re just horrible at it), all the better. I read these quotes about “authentic learning” like “let’s just back up and see what it really takes to ‘think like a mathematician'”, not “you book-learners are going about it all wrong”. It certainly seems better to me than a lot of the other “theories of learning” you’ve mentioned, although (a) it still sounds expensive, and (b) there’s a lot of fluff to it.

    I can definitely say that I’ve learned things much better by facing challenges and finding the right tools to deal with them than by being walked step-by-step through lessons. I think students sometimes need to spend some time getting familiar with the questions before you lay the answers on them. It might be slower in the short run, but I can also say a lot of my early academic career was spent having the same facts washed over me from year to year until they stuck, so it might be worth the investment to learn some things right the first time.

  2. KevinCK said, on July 3, 2009 at 9:04 pm


    I agree that students (and both of us) often do learn best by problem-solving. But they only learn things that one can learn best by problems-solving that way. In other words, educators often miss the boat by talking about “authentic learning” as all there should be, and, to my mind, it is the “second half” of the equation only. Students first need to learn facts and to do that, “authentic learnng” feels like the more cumbersome, clumsy, and arduous approach. Now, once they learn facts and begin to learn how to think critically, and “understand” the facts they’ve learned holistically, THAT is where authentic learning should take place.

    I think you may be undersestimating teachers (or learning theorists) tendency toward extremes. Once a fad gets going, the thought is that the fad should be put into place 100% of the time (or somewhere close). In the case of authentic learning, for instance, when observation time came for me, that is ALL the administrators wanted to see in my lesson plan. Any hint of book or lecture learning was completely discouraged, and what they did not realize is that in order to learn authentically (in the way administration wanted) book and lecture learning almost had to take place first. But that was not the fad, so it was not to be practiced.

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