Moving Towards Authentic Learning In the Classrooms

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Authentic Learning

Authentic Learning In the Classroom Video

What is Authentic Learning?

Authentic learning is real-life learning. In his book, Authentic Learning Real World Experiences that Build 21st Century Skills, Todd Stanley points out there are many ways to achieve authentic learning, but at its best, authentic learning should have:

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Leverage the Real World Classroom

One way to consider authenticity in the classroom is to stack new habits with what teachers are already doing in the classroom. Stacking is the idea that we integrate a new habit with habits we already have in place.
Author of Increasing Authenticity in the Classroom article Michael McDowell defines stacking as the idea that we integrate a new habit with habits we already have in place. McDowell explains that Stacking is focused on embedding a habit before, during, or after something we already do. The following stacking prompts may be helpful:
Before I do the following, I will…
After I do the following, I will…
In between, I will…
To increase authenticity in our classroom, high-leverage authenticity habits fall within three key areas: contexts, content, and choice. Let’s review each area and evaluate important questions and a few suggested habits.

Context is the degree to which students and teachers engage in contemporaneous, real world situations, opportunities, challenges, and people. Students are drawn to questions such as what’s happening now, how does that connect to me and the people I care about, and how can I help solve that problem? McDowell believes such questions are all powerful motivators for kids. The following questions and habits are wonderful ways to promote greater real-world contexts in the classroom: How does this task, activity, or lesson connect to my life presently? Where does this idea apply right now in the world? Across how many contexts? Who is currently working on these problems? Who can I engage in these contexts to learn about opportunities and challenges, perspectives, and potential people and organizations with whom I may work?

McDowell suggests teachers may want to introduce students to a real-world professional or community member impacted by a problem, who will work to understand and solve the challenge. This would include interviewing community members and reading about the current situation.

Content is the degree to which teachers and students engage in the academic knowledge and skills used in the real world. To promote the development of core content as a means of increasing authenticity, teachers should consider the following questions and habits:
To what extent do the task and context relate to the content area (discipline) I’m learning about?
To what extent do I need to learn surface and deep knowledge in one or more disciplines to get through the authentic challenges I’m working on?
McDowell suggests teachers can incorporate a pre-assessment and direct instruction for those students who need it, before students engage in a problem-based experience. Or, after a lesson is completed, teachers can have students discuss the similarities and differences between what they have learned in class and the knowledge and skills they would need in different real world situations.

Choice is the degree to which students and teachers have autonomy within authentic contexts. Students need a level of defined autonomy in the classroom. Clear boundaries surrounding a set of choices for students potentially include the specific question(s) to work on, the products to create, the choice of group members to work with, and the means for navigating group dynamics and choice of problem-solving strategies. The following questions and habits are helpful to prime such discussions.
Where do I have the opportunity to express my perspective on the product/presentation/process/work structure (group)?
To what extent do I have a choice in how I display my work?
Where are the boundaries of my choice?

Before students begin creating a product, teachers can have them present their choice to others and receive feedback using a tuning protocol. Another option would be to have students work in groups and reflect on the successes and challenges of their individual and collective decision-making using a critical friends protocol.

McDowell believes authenticity requires daily embedded practices that bring the real world into our classrooms. With a few shifts in our practice, we can bring authenticity into our classrooms and into our students’ daily lives.

You can think of high-leverage authenticity habits: contexts, content, and choice as a framework for authentic learning in the classroom.

Elements of Authentic Learning Experience

According to Dayna Laur, author of the Authentic Learning Experience book, there are four elements:

Challenge Inquiry

Challenging Investigation

Imperative for Student Engagement – must tailor to students’ desire to dig deep into content revolve around open-ended real world questions and promote critical thinking

The application of critical thinking skills to solve challenging investigation creates a culture of engagement and promotes deep understanding of core content and standards.

To facilitate the 21st century Critical Thinking Skills, teachers must model the process of critical thinking, and then monitor and assess the critical thinking skills of each student.

Formulating a challenging investigation is the first step in the design process.

Community Career

Connection Directly tied to challenging investigation – it goes beyond simple service learning opportunities and takes away “why do I need to know this?” – Strongly tied to the 21st Century skill of collaboration.


For solutions and proposals, created in response to challenging investigation. Justification is grounded in content knowledge. It uses research and interactions with professionals to support students’ solutions. Students not only consume information, but also produce new meaning from that information.

Outside Audience

Possible solutions, proposals, or end products are presented to an outside audience, not teachers or classmates. Promotes 21st century communication skills.

How can teachers begin to create authentic learning in the classroom? Where do you start?

Todd Stanley believes inquiry-based learning is where authentic learning starts, because inquiry is learning at its most authentic.

Here is an article Bringing Inquiry-Based Learning Into Your Class by Trevor Mckenzie, where he discusses a four-step approach to using a powerful model that increases student agency in learning.

What is Inquiry-Based-Learning?

It means tailoring your curriculum to what your students are interested in, rather than having a set agenda that you can’t veer from—it means letting children’s curiosity take the lead and then guiding that interest to explore, research, and reflect upon their own learning. This is according to MATTIE SCHULER, author of What Is Inquiry-Based Learning? A Guide for Educators.

Schuler believes that when children are presented with topics they are interested in, the first step of engagement is automatic. From there, students can have a hands-on, real-world learning experience about whatever the topic is. Therefore, teaching and learning is less from books or abstract concepts, and is embedded in their everyday experience.

Schuler cites “The Inquiry Process embraces the ways children learn best. It is a tool for you to plan curriculum in response to children’s curiosity and questioning, acknowledging the problems children encounter and identify as they act on their questions, and taking seriously the solutions they hypothesize in relation to their experiences.” —The Cycle of Inquiry Process, From Children’s Interests to Children’s.

Schuler also discusses how inquiry-based learning promotes critical thinking. Schuler cites From Children’s Interests to Children’s Thinking, research showed children learn best through the same processes that scientists use:

  • Asking questions and defining problems
  • Developing and using models 
  • Planning and carrying out investigations 
  • Analyzing and interpreting
  • Using mathematical and computational thinking
  • Engaging in argument from evidence (explaining their findings)

Schuler says these steps are similar to the Inquiry Cycle, which is directly related to inquiry based learning. Schuler notes that according to the American Association of School Librarians, the 5E Inquiry-Based Instructional Model is based on cognitive psychology, constructivist theory to learning, and best practices in STEM instruction (Bybee and Landes, 1990). 

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Schuler shows how teachers take the learning objectives from crafting a storybook and reach those from the block city? Following the 5Es of Inquiry:

  • Engage—This engagement is already naturally happening with their block city. 
  • Explore—Start with questioning: There’s a new visitor to the city, but they aren’t sure how to get around. What can we do? 
  • Explain—Allow for discussion and exploration; provide resources. Offer clipboards and paper for the students to plan. Pull up a map online or Google Earth to zoom in on roads. 
  • Elaborate—In small groups, have the students plan and write directions, a map, or road signs for the block city. 
  • Evaluate—Have students reflect on why we need labels and signs, and how they help others.

Difference Between Inquiry Based Learning and Project Based Learning

If you ever wonder what is the difference between Inquiry Based Learning and Project Based Learning, check out the What the Heck is the Difference Between IBL and PBL article

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