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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?

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By Jay Mathews  | 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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For me, "authentic" has had somewhat of a negative or questionable connotation, especially when some talk of authentic assessments. Historically, that's been code for subjective student works like essays, projects, reports, and the dreaded - portfolio.

Progressives, like the Monty Neill crowd at Fair Test, insist these assessments are the superior alternative to the ubiquity of today's multiple-choice tests.
I have a couple of problems with their reasoning.

First, m-c exams are a much more efficient and effective measure of a student's ability. They costs considerably less to correct and can be (machine) corrected in a fraction of the time. Second, their authenticity (there's that word again) can too easily be called into question. Yes, they can be compromised, as in the great erasure scandal in Atlanta and across the state of Georgia, but that kind of impropriety pales in comparison to what can be done to/with a student's portfolio.

Was it, in fact, the student's work in the portfolio or did the student get "help" with some of these "authentic" works? It is simply too easy for someone else to influence the content of what goes into a portfolio. Again, was it the student's work or did the student get "help" from a teacher, a parent, a classmate, a sibling, a relative, a neighbor, an administrator, an aide, a neighbor, a counselor, etc.? The possibilities are infinite and quite troubling.

Attached to the progressives' authentic assessments is the progressive philosophy, including, but not limited to; 21st century skills, critical thinking, problem solving, collaborative works, etc., etc., all contrived attempts at "educating" students and all laced with fraud and improprieties.

There's a reason why John Dewey's "learn by doing" pedagogy, although hailed as the second coming of sliced bread at the time, never caught on in our schools and it's closely tied to why A. S, Neill's philosophy at Summer Hill never became mainstream. In theory, they sound "authentic" and practicable but in reality they translated into more of a wing-nut mentality with little or no chance of ever gaining credibility with the mainstream educational establishment; and that's a good thing.

Posted by: phoss1 | March 26, 2010 8:02 AM | Report abuse

Jay, your original post is a good illustration of the shifting meaning of "authentic." At the beginning, the word seems to mean "relevant to the students' everyday life or personal interests." At the end, you're equating "authentic" with "interesting inderdisciplinary course that prepares students for AP tests."

My spin on "authentic" is that you have to also add, authentic for whom? Some students love to have every topic given a hook that brings it close to what they're already interested in. By that standard, how do you make studying foreign language authentic? how do you teach deep content in an ancient history class without spending too much time linking every ancient culture to our culture? All of my best teachers in high school tried (and succeeded) to get us to the point where we didn't need those "hooks" all the time.

Posted by: jane100000 | March 26, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Bravo, you've reintroduced an earlier topic, the inclusion of "non-fiction" in Grade 3-12 education.
Now, let's tie "authentic" back to your recent concerns for cheating.
You would not expect schools with students spending more time with fewer teachers to have such problems. It is easy to imagine a course similar to the one you describe dropping some content and adding other, so that it also becomes a HS+ level introduction to cognitive science, or psychology, or American History, etc.
In contrast, most American parents are not surprised, and even expect their children's school days from the age of 12 on (6th grade) to be fragmented into 6-8 periods and subjects. They expect teachers of 120 to 150 students to coordinate curriculum and teaching with peers so that connections between courses become authentic. With that fragmentation, the first cheating that takes place is by teachers and curriculum writers who fill in matrices cross-referencing content and methods to demonstrate theoretical connections that might be made, but which rarely do except in the minds of bright students, or in settings such as the one in Radnor.

Posted by: incredulous | March 26, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Authentic learning....kinda like hard to define, but I know it when I see it. In a nutshell, the ability to apply what is learned, typically in a multidisciplinary fashion, often in order to arrive at a new conclusion, application, or design of well, nearly anything.

Some examples:

Thomas Jefferson - he well learned his lessons of the history of democracy having read and analyzed the formal documents and writings relating to such, and came up with the framework for a new democracy (and justification), along with other framers of the Declaration of Independence.

Richard Feynman - drawing upon his vast scientific knowledge to prove the weakness of the o-rings in relation to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Frederick Banting - using his knowledge of surgery (tension) in finding a way to extract insulin for treatment of diabetes. Initially, few had faith in his theory, plus, he was working "out of his field."

James Dyson - a little more complicated in describing, but nice vacuum design, no?

Linda Collins - nurse in England who upon noticing that infants placed nearer the windows were less apt to have neonatal jaundice and that those having the condition fared better upon being placed in the sunnier areas of the hospital nursery. So, she gave them "therapy" as needed. Doctors took notice and research led to the understanding of the whys and phototherapy as a treatment for neonatal jaundice. Ah, teamwork, kinda.

So,if a kid having learned his fractions, can't divide a recipe, not much authentic learning. Also, if a high school student can't estimate a tip for a waiter in his/her head, ditto. Same for those who need a calculator to figure the price of an item that is 25% off. And ditto for a civil engineer who upon being asked to give a critical analysis of a bridge design, to find and explain the known weaknesses, and is unable to do so.

Knowledge and the application thereof (including reasoning) can show that authentic learning is as the term implies, reliable.

Posted by: shadwell1 | March 26, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Something else just came to mind. In reading the works of Nikola Tesla, he noted the frustration/pain he felt in watching Thomas Edison work. Tesla thought that if Edison had applied more math and book learning to his reseach, he would have saved himself much time. Plus, I believe that Tesla was the more "authentic scientist" when compared to Edison who often was accused of stealing ideas, including Tesla's, and filing patents in a speedy manner. Tesla was a brilliant scientist whose work was revolutionary.

Oh, and above, I meant "faired better" in the jaundice story.

Posted by: shadwell1 | March 26, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Authentic can be a buzzword... as is data-driven and rigorous and fidelity and (I could go on here). Overuse or vague use, doesn't mean that it automatically is meaningless.

To me, I value finding authenticity in my classroom activities with students for a number of reasons. Activities that I put in the authentic category are: conducting interviews of poll workers and voters on election day - documented and shared online in real time so the other class members can share in the experiences; crafting an assignment that challenges students to propose an amendment that moves the country toward being a more democratic nation (ie. altering the electoral college, changing voting age) then making a PSA, ad campaign promoting the main ideas with a culminating activity where the students pitch and discuss their ideas with a 'real person' who is working toward that goal in their 'real life'. When discussing the executive branch, all the students flow charted the actual process that it takes to accomplish a bureaucratic task - this had them calling offices, finding paperwork, navigating exec. branch web pages.

The areas of history and government are often taught in a way that disconnects the students from the real stories and how they impact the student's day to day life. Basing the course work in a sound factual foundation and then asking students to interact with real people in real places where the concepts 'live', is what authenticity means in my curriculum. This is not possible in absolutely every unit/lesson but it certainly is a goal that I have for the courses over the span of a year. When it makes sense and is possible, I bring the world to the students or bring the students to the world. I have found that these types of learning opportunities enhance the depth to which students internalize and retain the information. And there is nothing meaningless about that.

Posted by: dlaufenberg | March 26, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Very thoughtful posts.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 26, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse


Isn't what you're describing "applied learning"? Certainly that's an important thing, and perhaps a test of the depth of a student's learning, but I think calling it "authentic" (especially given the multiple meanings the term illustrated here) can be confusing.

Posted by: jlm22 | March 26, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Jay, you made an interesting point about students learning physics by visiting nuclear power plants. The custodial staff at these plants gets a tour every day, yet do they turn into physicists? Engineers? or even Technicians?

Hardly. They remain custodians.

BTW. I was a physics teacher at a FCPS school until recently.

Posted by: JohnL6 | March 26, 2010 7:35 PM | Report abuse

jlm22, regarding "applied learning"

The question Jay asked was, "what does authentic mean to you?" After consulting several dictionaries, I maintain my stance. If one can't apply what he has learned, then has authentic / genuine / real/ trustworthy learning taken place?

I offer the following link to a youtube video featuring Eric Mazur of Harvard in describing leaning in his physics class. This will describe more of what I mean.

Furthermore, who want a doctor with a 4.0, but with lousy clinical skills?

Posted by: shadwell1 | March 26, 2010 9:19 PM | Report abuse

"For me, "authentic" has had somewhat of a negative or questionable connotation, especially when some talk of authentic assessments. Historically, that's been code for subjective student works like essays, projects, reports, and the dreaded - portfolio."


That's the problem exactly.

Is Jay really saying that being able to apply skills learned in one class to an AP test is authentic?

"Applied learning" is something else altogether, and without question, relatively few kids master knowledge to the level of being able to apply their school knowledge in any context. And as long as we keep insisting that kids of vastly different abilities are capable of learning the same information in the same amount of time, that's going to continue to be the case.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | March 27, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

My high school only offered one "official" AP course (biology) back when I went through in the early '90's. Yet nearly all of the top students took and passed multiple AP exams (I personally got three 5's and two 4's). The courses were advertised as "AP equivalent" but only the bio teacher was willing to jump through the College Board's hoops to designate her class as AP.

By the time my youngest brother graduated in '03, however, the school offered 9 "official" AP courses. I think it was pressure from the parents as a result of the much stiffer competition for slots at top colleges that drove the change. From what I could tell, the AP classes my brother took were not any more challenging than the "AP equivalent" ones I had taken nearly a decade earlier.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | March 27, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

For CrimsonWife: interesting story. Could you please reveal the name and location of this school? That is NOT a common tale for most high schools, and the percentage of AP tests taken without taking an AP course is below 1 percent. But it would be fun to check yr recollection and see if the long term faculty there felt that change.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 28, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Jay, I sent you an email with the information.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | March 29, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

If you want a more academic definition, which of course you do . . .

I just happened to come across this definition by Newmann, Marks, and Gamoran (1995):

Authentic pedagogy uses three criteria: construction of knowledge, disciplined inquiry, and value beyond High School.

I think the last one struck me the most. I think I agree. It's not that children school but that they are acquiring lifelong skills(and knowledge) that has universal application.

I currently live in the Silicon valley and if there is one thing we've learned it's that you can't ever stop learning. Even if you've been in a comfortable job for 30 years you might be looking in a different industry tomorrow. How well can you adapt?

Authentic learning means life-long learning.

Posted by: sluehring | March 29, 2010 7:40 PM | Report abuse

Another thought: often, knowledge that will turn out to be authentic (in the sense of applicable in one's life or relevant to one's interests) doesn't become so until years later. Engineers don't need calculus until they become engineers. Foreign language becomes crucial if you're transferred overseas (and you may never get the chance to be sent overseas unless you already know the language). And so forth. One habit of mind that is really valuable for students is the ability to imagine that the (possibly boring) subject that they're currently studying will become important and useful later on.

Posted by: jane100000 | March 30, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

As a language teacher, we use "authentic" to refer to language as it actually occurs. Too often, textbooks will use examples and exercises of sentences that you would never actually hear in the "real world" of that language.

The most authentic learning I ever did was as a Peace Corps Volunteer. We had an amazing language team, and we learned and practiced short conversations for different situations, and they were ALWAYS authentic - meaning that when I left class that afternoon and went to the store or the train station, I used those exact sentences to get what I needed. They once set up an "assessment" of play-acting. One classroom was turned into a family's home, and they would offer you a drink and engage you in small talk. Another classroom became the train station, and you had to ask for a ticket to somewhere. A third one was a restaurant, and you had to order food. In each of them, they would try to force you to negotiate a different problem; for example, the "restaurant" didn't have what you ordered, so you had to choose something else, requiring a higher-level of language skills to go back and forth in conversation.

Now, compare that to some of the chapters we study in foreign language classes, where we're asked to write to an advice column, or read a marriage announcement. I've never written to an advice columnist in English, and I rarely read marriage announcements - those just aren't the way that most of use our language, day-in and day-out. That's the difference between "authentic" learning and the rest of it.

By the way, after ten weeks of language training in the Peace Corps, I scored Intermediate-High on the ACTFL speaking test, and was able to successfully negotiate most situations on my own - surely a testament to our fantastic teachers.

Posted by: LadybugLa | March 31, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

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