Is authenticity a myth?

Teachers often aspire to create “authentic” learning tasks. Usually this means creating tasks that have some element of “real life” in them. But what do people really mean by “authentic” and are we really achieving authenticity anyway?

Authentic myths!

I’d like to contend that the popularised notion of “authenticity” in learning has become a myth. I say this, largely due to the overuse of the term among educators, bringing us to the point of where the term itself has lost its specific or (dare I say it) authentic meaning. Also, I believe that some key aspects of true authenticity are often found missing in discussions about what actually makes authentic learning. In many cases, authentic learning seems to have become more of an espoused theory, and not a theory in practice, with teachers cleverly trying to thinking up learning experiences that sound authentic to a teacher’s ear, but in reality, lacking some of the key aspects of genuine authenticity in practice as a learning experience for a student.

For some, authentic learning might mean that students:

  • authentically learnt something
  • learnt something in authentic way (this is somewhat of a tautology, I’d suggest!)
  • learnt something that is deemed as authentic content (or a genuine reflection of the “real world”)
  • learnt something that they can apply in the “real world”
  • learnt something that their teacher thought was worthwhile to learn
  • learnt something through doing something in practice or participating in an event
  • were engaged in an activity that might be seen as something that adults do in “real life”

None of these elements are bad things in themselves, and certainly, they may comprise some part of authentic learning experiences. However, these elements alone, despite often being talked of as what makes learning authentic, overlook the key aspects of student self-direction and motivation, open-endedness, intellectual challenge and the genuine connection between the student’s world and the learning tasks being presented. Therefore, I’d suggest that the above indicators are not at the crux of the matter when it comes to what makes learning an authentic experience for students. Seeing these dot-pointed aspects as what makes learning authentic merely perpetuates a myth of authenticity.

An analogy…

I’d like to pose an analogy that might give an insight into authenticity. Being a fanatical follower of football, I follow my team (the Lions) quite passionately. If someone were to suggest to me that I should follow another team for a season, which included them giving me the paraphernalia and merchandise, there is no reason I could not physically do this task. I could attend the games of another team and show all the signs of support, looking the part with all my supporter’s gear. However, in terms of the genuine reasons for supporting a football team, I would not be receiving the intended fulfillment from the activity, because, quite simply, my heart would not be in it. There would not be that genuine link between myself and my actions, therefore making the experience somewhat forgettable and inevitably meaningless. Even if the team happened to win the Grand Final that year, it would in effect be meaningless to me, because I would not genuinely be supporting that team, but rather doing it out of obligation. The experience would not be the same as supporting my own team, because when you support your own team, you have an investment in what is going on and desire to experience success. You want to be involved and feel a sense of connection, rather than just doing something merely to tick the boxes or go through the motions. Put simply, when you have a personal connection to an activity, you also have motivation. In the case of learning, motivation through a personal connection to the content and task is a key factor in whether a student learns or does not learn, particularly in an authentic manner.

Authentic for who?

As teachers, we can sometimes ask similar things of our students akin to that of “supporting another team” when it comes to learning. Much like merely providing a football supporter with merchandise from an opposition team, we can think that we’re creating an authentic learning experience by providing them with all the tools that we think are necessary and a context in which we think is authentically “real life”, all the while overlooking the lack of personal connection, motivation and engagement of the student in relation to the task and content. In essence, for learning to be authentic, it not only has to be something that is authentic in terms of the “rest of the world” or other people in the world, but also authentic for the individual student themselves in how they interact with, conceptualise and take an interest in the world.

So what?

So does this mean that teachers shouldn’t bother trying to make learning authentic because it’s all up to the students themselves? No, what it means is aligning planning practices to support the developments key aspects that allow students to make learning authentic for themselves. What is needed is a paradigm shift – moving away from thinking that it’s all about teachers coming up with authentic learning tasks, and moving towards thinking about how we can plan and deliver learning experiences that enable students to make their own learning authentic for themselves.

How can true authenticity be achieved?

True authenticity can be achieved by choosing a sphere of content and posing intellectually challenging and engaging open-ended problems or scenarios in which there is enough room for students to pose their own questions for self-directed investigations. Allowing students many avenues through which they can choose to seek their answers, create solutions or products and present their learning to others are also an important factors in connecting the content in learning experiences with students themselves in an authentic manner. Planning and delivering learning in this manner allows for a significant degree of student self-motivation, which as illustrated earlier with the football supporter analogy, is a key component in whether or not an experience in authentic for an individual or not. It is worth mentioning at this point in time that the content and tasks themselves should be of an intellectually challenging nature – learning that involves the solving of problems or the playing-out of a scenarios that are open-ended in nature and allow for creativity and self-directedness holds an inherent motivation factor as well as a great potential for meaningful learning. After all, there is nothing particularly intellectually challenging or meaningful about the well-worn task of simply creating a poster that merely reproduces information that could be found after five minutes of time spent googling or browsing wikipedia. Such tasks, once again, significantly lack the key aspects of authenticity due to what the student is actually engaged in, regardless of how important the content may seem.

Teacher reflection on planning and delivered learning experiences is an important part of seeking on-going success and improvement in delivering authentic learning. Tracking things such as the diversity of student investigations, the depth and rigour of investigation in to the content, changes in student thinking, students finding answers to their own questions and the ability of students to discuss and share their learning with others are all indicators of genuine student engagement in authentic learning. Observing these indicators can occur informally and anecdotally, but may also be documented more formally with the use of rubrics and assessment indicators. Teachers and leaders of schools need to make sure that time is created for reflection on the part of teachers as well as students into the success of learning experiences as well as areas for improvement in the future.

Questions for readers…

I’d like to finish this blog post by encouraging comments about the thoughts that I’ve posted here, particularly if you can share examples of when teaching and learning has measured up to the aim of being authentic.

  • Do you have an example of a learning task that was genuinely authentic for students?
  • What do you find difficult about creating authentic learning experiences for your students?
  • Have you seen examples of supposedly authentic learning experiences that have perpetuated a myth of authenticity?
  • How do you create opportunities for student self-direction in learning experiences?
  • How do you enable and support students to make learning authentic for themselves?

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