What does authentic learning mean, if anything?
Those of us who wallow in educational jargon have all heard the term "authentic." It seems to mean lessons that connect to the real world, like a physics class visiting a nuclear power plant or an English class performing a play by Edward Albee.
But like all fashionable terms, its meaning can evolve, or be distorted, depending on your point of view. I often use it to describe the powerful effect of telling Advanced Placement students in inner city schools that they are preparing for the same exam that kids in the richest school in the suburbs are taking. That makes their studies seem more authentic. Am I misusing the word?
How do you use it? Is it important in schools? Or is it just another buzz word gone bad?
I raise this intriguing issue, which had not occurred to me before, because of an email from Carl Rosin, an English and interdisciplinary/gifted class teacher at Radnor High School, 12 miles west of Philadelphia:
"Could you weigh in on the much-ballyhooed idea of having the classroom attempt to attain authenticity? I don't use ballyhooed to disparage the idea, only to point out that it's a term that is thrown around often, as glittering generalities are in such a politicized age. The idea of the authentic played a prominent role in the 21st-century technology-based initiative "Classrooms for the Future," which swept Pennsylvania two years ago, helping my school and hundreds of others get much-needed technology upgrades."
Our exchange of emails since has only expanded the possible definition of "authentic," at least in my mind. It has also raised the possibility that the authenticity of the unusual course conducted by Rosin and his teaching partner, Paul Wright, means that students in the class who want to take Advanced Placement exams don't have to take Advanced Placement courses to prepare for them. If you enroll instead in something like Rosin and Wright's "Viewpoints on Modern America," with Rosin representing English and Wright representing social studies, you can still ace the AP English Language exam.
Rosin said he and Wright "strive along two axes: on one lies content knowledge, critical thinking skills, and academic skills, and on the other engagement and authenticity. One way we try to weave these together is by breaking down the classroom walls, often by inviting the outside world in."
Here is an impressive example: This year Wright arranged conference calls for the class with "Predictably Irrational" author Dan Ariely and "Liar's Poker" author Michael Lewis . That was part of their study of the crash of 1929, the recession of the past three years, the functioning of financial markets, and Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" and their investigation of the psychology of the American Dream.
Pardon me while I take a breath. It is hard to write and read a course description like that, much less imagine what it is like to study at that level of sophistication.
Their course is among four interdisciplinary programs -- one for each grade -- developed at Radnor over the last 20 years. Viewpoints is for juniors. It is designated a GIEP (Gifted Individualized Education Program) course, but Rosin said it is open to anyone with a grasp of the language and love of the subject. "It is possible for a non-GIEP student to take a conceptual/essay test to get into the program," Rosin said, "and the overwhelming majority who show the interest and take the test do come in."
One part of our email exchange on authenticity made me sit up straighter in my cubicle chair. Rosin referred to my often-expressed disappointment with the rigor and depth of courses labeled "honors," and my view that AP and International Baccalaureate classes are usually better taught than whatever the school might offer as an alternative.
The Rosin-Wright course is labeled an honors course. The two teachers encounter doubts like mine among Radnor students and their parents. "We sometimes struggle to get kids to stay in the four-year interdisciplinary sequence (they can opt in or out each year, and back again) due to the competition from our vibrant AP program, partially because the AP classes are also excellent and partially because rumors have spread to suggest that the colleges prefer AP, which they understand, over interdisciplinary, which unfortunately doesn't mean much to them," Rosin said.
He said their Viewpoints course "tends to have the lowest enrollment of the four interdisciplinary classes, at least in part because it competes with the popular and very well-taught AP U.S. History course; it would be almost impossible for a student to take both."
So he and his partner, with that yen for innovation that characterizes so many good teachers, decided to try an experiment. "We don't offer AP English Language & Composition at Radnor," he said, "but Viewpoints is so heavy with non-fiction and communication-awareness that it seemed to Paul and me very compatible with the AP Lang curriculum."
"Last year we shifted our curriculum very slightly and encouraged our kids to take the AP Lang exam. All 16 who ended up taking the exam passed (one 3, six 4s, nine 5s, if I remember correctly), with an average AP score of 4.5. There were 26 total in the class. The ten who didn't take the exam were equally outstanding students. I wish more would take the exam."
That, to me, is authentic. The College Board makes AP teachers submit syllabi for their courses to ensure that they are adhering to a plan that will prepare their students for the exam. If the syllabi don't pass muster (they almost always do), the teachers aren't allowed to affix the AP label to the course.
But those rules do not prevent non-AP teachers like Rosin and Wright from encouraging their students to take a relevant AP test at the end of the year. Such a practice would stop people like me from suggesting that their honors course was a low-pressure, talk-among-yourselves discussion group that didn't do much to strengthen analytical and conceptual abilities.
Of course, that's just me. What does authentic mean to you? Are Rosin and Wright on to something that will give all kinds of imaginative teachers a way to not only assert authenticity, but prove it?
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| March 26, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: Carl Rosin, Paul Wright, Radnor High School, Viewpoints on Modern America, authenticity in school, meaning of authentic learning, what is authentic
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