Authentic Learning Isn’t More Common — Because It’s Too Common?

Leanne Riseley, in “Moving Toward Authentic Learning” (10/7/13), raises a question asked by Marilyn Lombardi in “Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview” (Educause, May 2007): “Why isn’t authentic learning more common?”

This is a good question because the approach has been around for a while — plenty of time to go viral. But it hasn’t, and perhaps its origins provide a clue. It began in the medical field and seems to thrive in similar highly technical settings. One of my writing courses is technical communications, and for this course I’ve naturally incorporated authentic features. In courses with less defined real-world counterparts, such as English and history, the incorporation may be tougher.

I don’t have a quick answer or even a good one, but I’ll take a shot and share a relatively long, twisting, and awkward one that may or may not be in the ballpark.

The theoretical underpinning for authentic learning is transfer. Schools are training grounds, and the assumption is that what students learn in classrooms will transfer to the real world. The obstacle to transfer is the gap between school and reality. Thus, the instructional issue is how to close the gap, and the assumption here is: the smaller the gap, the better the transfer.

From this perspective, on-the-job training, or apprenticeship, offers the smallest gap. In between lies a continuum of arrangements that are progressively removed from the real world. Thus, at the other end is a classroom in a school that has little in common with the authentic environment.

The question for schools, then, is how to close the gap — short of moving into apprenticeships. (It could be argued that apprenticeships aren’t fully authentic.) Authentic learning is the compromise. However, “authentic” in this context is a misnomer. This approach is actually a semi-simulation (or semi-real) or hybrid, part pretend and part real.

The real-to-school continuum leaves a lot of wiggle room in between, which translates to difficulty in assigning “authentic” to any strategy. In a sense, nearly all approaches are authentic to some extent. It’s similar to attempts to define “blended” learning. Since it’s difficult to imagine any course that’s not somehow connected to the internet, it’s probably safe to say that if a course isn’t fully online, then it’s blended.

Thus, an activity is authentic if students address problems or are exposed to readings or videos by or featuring practitioners in the field. We could argue that it’s not authentic because it’s missing real-world conditions, feedback, or collaboration, but the counter could be simulations, rubrics developed by experts in the field, and input from classmates in the role of practitioners.

If we question the absence of a finished product that’s shared with the public, we might hear that presentations were recorded and shared on YouTube or final reports were published in one of the school’s journals.

The point is that when a term such as “authentic” loses its capacity to discriminate, when it becomes too inclusive, it becomes less useful in the sense that it can be made to apply to almost any strategy.

Thus, to answer the question, I’d say “authentic learning” isn’t more common because people don’t know what it really means. On the one hand, nearly all learning is authentic; on the other, all learning, short of full engagement in the field, is not authentic. All that gray stuff, that terra incognita, in between is the problem.

Perhaps a better way to approach authentic learning is to say that it’s an attitude toward teaching that makes the most of the instructional environment to simulate real-world conditions. In this view, “instructional environment” is variable and comprises a wide range of factors.

OK, that’s my shot. I’d like to hear yours.

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5 Responses to Authentic Learning Isn’t More Common — Because It’s Too Common?

  1. “An attitude toward teaching that makes the most of the instructional environment to simulate real-world conditions” or perhaps trying to incorporate real-world conditions into an instructional environment? I work in a technical institute and although we have work practicums, apprentices and other on-the-job experiences it seems that it is difficult to move away from the basic tool of exams. Why? On one hand the governing bodies that grant journeyman papers, nursing boards etc. all have national exams which comprise of multiple choice questions. Hence the instructors, while not seeing the test, know that they are expected to teach to the test. On the other hand, depending on the demands of the placement the student may not get a wide experience in the work place, for example I had a plumber tell me last week that his apprentice attained his hours by digging trenches for lines not by doing any plumbing.
    If you go back before formal education apprenticeship meant working side by side someone for years not three months or six weeks. If we are looking for authentic tasks it would mean that we would be using longer time frames than is the current practice.
    The other thought I have floating at the back of my head is multitasking in an ever changing dynamic environment. Today’s work environment is such that it is expected that people are working on a number of tasks at any one time ex) teaching multiple subjects, working on multiple patients etc. hence into this “authentic” piece we are missing cognitive interference. Or in my view, we aren’t expecting ‘authentic polished’ in the workplace we are looking for ‘done and moved on’.

    • JimS says:

      Pat, your statement, “I had a plumber tell me last week that his apprentice attained his hours by digging trenches for lines not by doing any plumbing,” reminds me so much of what passes for education. I teach college composition, and I shouldn’t be but I’m always shocked at some of my students’ poor mechanics. After years of high school English classes and college basic writing courses that they passed with A’s and B’s, they still can’t write error-free sentences. I’m not talking about typos or careless errors here and there but a wide range of critical problems in nearly every sentence.

      The shock isn’t so much with the students as with all the effort that teachers have been putting into “correcting” their papers over so many years. It’s as though we’ve had them digging trenches instead of learning how to improve their writing.

      And the frightening prospect is that maybe we have! Maybe we’re going about it all wrong. If we want them to want to learn how to improve their mechanics, what do we have to do? This is where authentic activities could be helpful, but they have to be authentic for the students.

      Funny how we keep circling back to the same questions and same answers . . .

  2. Greg Walker says:

    In the past I also taught at a technical institution. I found that most students who graduated ended up working at low paying (often minimum wage) jobs, and often not even in the filed they pursued. They learned to take Multiple choice tests for various “certifications”. This was really just another tool for employers to sort out who to hire. The learning was fast paced and rarely went below the surface. Learning to think critically was not a priority. Many students graduated and moved on to low paying jobs with huge students loans to pay off.

    Seth Godin says, “if you’re not going to be the absolute best at something then you might as well put a halt on your career track and quit.” The following is from Seth Godin in Stop Stealing Dreams: What is School For?
    When we teach a child to make good decisions, we benefit from a lifetime of
    good decisions.
    When we teach a child to love to learn, the amount of learning will become
    When we teach a child to deal with a changing world, she will never become
    When we are brave enough to teach a child to question authority, even ours, we
    insulate ourselves from those who would use their authority to work against each
    of us.
    And when we give students the desire to make things, even choices, we create a
    world filled with makers

    “The best way to complain is to make things”
    –James Murphy

    • JimS says:

      I really like all these Seth Godin quotes, especially “If you’re not going to be the absolute best at something then you might as well put a halt on your career track and quit” and “When we give students the desire to make things, even choices, we create a world filled with makers.”

      The first reminds me of my late father, who used to say, “If you’re going to do something, do it right or don’t do it at all.” For him, a poor effort was an insult to life.

      The second is a whole philosophy of education wrapped up in a single sentence: “When we give students the desire to make things, even choices, we create a world filled with makers.”

      When we build decision-making into the learning equation, we automatically introduce consequences such as risk and failure, and as we discussed in an earlier week, these require courage on the part of both students and teacher. How do we teach courage? How do we create a learning environment that rewards perseverance as much as success?

      And “make” is such a small word that speaks volumes. It means to construct, to create, to imagine, to develop, to risk, to explore, to dream, to laugh, to succeed, to fail, to persevere, to collaborate, to love, to create families, to work, to to believe, to hope — to do.

  3. Pingback: Responding to Authentic Learning Isn’t More Common | Leanne Riseley

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