Which would make the most effective lesson: learning what an engineer does by reading a book, or by solving an actual engineering problem? The former is what we typically expect from our classrooms; the latter describes a learning-by-doing approach called authentic learning.

The idea behind it is simple. Students feel more engaged and motivated to learn when they’re tackling real-world issues they care about. And as a result, they remember what they’ve learned so they can apply it more effectively in the future.

But it’s more than delivering instruction about these kinds of problems. Authentic learning means getting involved – and getting hands-on! So let’s explore what, exactly, it means… and what authentic lesson planning ideas you can practice in your classroom.

What is authentic learning, anyway?

Think of authentic learning as real-life learning – the kind that comes from first-hand experience rather than a textbook or lecture. It emphasizes building meaningful skills, knowledge and behaviors that students might use in a real or simulated environment. And the end result is more than the sum of its parts: it’s a tangible outcome that can be shared with the world.

Imagine these scenarios for your students:

  • Learning addition and subtraction not by completing worksheets at their desks, but rather by running a bake sale at lunch.
  • Studying birds not by watching a video, but rather by documenting local migration and sharing results with a local birdwatching organization.
  • Learning medieval art not by replicating The Unicorn Tapestries for their parents’ fridge, but rather by creating an exhibit at a local museum.

Not only are they engaging with the subject to create something tangible, but they’re also learning about everything involved in the experience:

  • Conducting in-depth research and creating plans
  • Managing the logistics of supply and delivery
  • Finding and communicating with experts
  • Building relationships with community organizations
  • Pricing and selling products and services

And at the same time, they’re building on their foundational skills – or achieving the standards set in their curriculum. Reading, writing, math, history… they’re all important elements in making authentic learning experiences come to life.

The core elements of authentic learning

So what makes authentic learning tick? We’ve gathered eight key principles you can use in your lesson planning:

  1. Activities are meaningful: Student work connects directly to the real world. Activities are designed to explore students’ passions, create meaningful discussions, connect on an emotional level and solve relevant problems they care about within a community.
  2. There’s a useful outcome: Students create a quality product or outcome from ideation to completion. And they do it just like the professionals do (or as close as they can get), using actual or simulated materials or environments.
  3. There’s a genuine audience: Students present that outcome to a defined group of real-world stakeholders. Yes, that might be parents, but it could also be a neighborhood, a business community, a sports association or even your school itself.
  4. Students have freedom: In authentic learning, teachers act less as instructors who deliver learning at the front of the room. Rather, they’re guides who direct student creation. They encourage curiosity and promote self-directed inquiry.
  5. There’s no “right” answer: Students can take multiple paths toward a solution that they define themselves. They are free to interact with, interpret and reflect on diverse approaches, and decide together which to pursue.
  6. Collaboration is baked in: Students work together in small and large groups to make decisions and complete tasks. They also work with partners in their community to bring their work to fruition.
  7. It’s cross-disciplinary: Very little of what we do in our lives fits neatly into buckets. Authentic learning encourages students to test out new roles, consider other perspectives and think across multiple subject areas.
  8. Learning takes time: Authentic learning is complex learning, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Students need time to identify a problem, investigate a solution and launch something new into the world.

How does authentic learning benefit students?

The whole premise of authentic learning is that students are more motivated to learn – and more engaged in that learning – when they’re doing something they care about. Something that impacts the world around them.

When they care, they take ownership. When they take ownership, they turn in a high-quality result. And in doing so, that learning is more liable to stick around for the long-term, compared to short-term memory exercises or learning that gets abandoned once the final test is complete.

This, proponents say, is how our minds are naturally primed to learn. But there’s a little more to it than that.

Authentic learning closely aligns with the kinds of complex tasks that we do in real life. As such, it encourages students to think more deeply, consider different perspectives and outcomes, and recognize nuances that just aren’t present in math worksheets or multiple-choice drills.

It builds portable skills that will serve students well in a fast-changing and unpredictable world. Complex communication skills like negotiation, for example, aren’t part of most lesson plans, but they’re necessary tools in most workplaces. Early exposure in a safe environment where students experiment and practice freely can help them succeed later on in adult life.

It also allows students to try on different hats and figure out which ones fit best. One student may discover he or she has a knack for making videos; another may prefer to create spreadsheets and crunch numbers. Ideally, an authentic learning activity will provide enough breadth for students to try different things, and enough depth for them to dive in when their interests and strengths align.

What does authentic learning look like in the classroom?

Building these kinds of skills doesn’t necessarily mean ditching instruction, lesson planning and curricula as we know them.

Critics of authentic learning may point to learning standards and question how a school can cover them effectively in an authentic learning format, or argue that the “basics” will get left behind, displaced by all the tasks required in an authentic learning activity.

However, teachers who integrate authentic learning in their lesson planning argue otherwise. In fact, they say, core standards and the “basics” of traditional learning happen more organically with an authentic approach. “The doing consolidates all the learning that went into the event,” writes authentic learning champion Steve Revington.

Putting authentic planning activities into practice

First, not all learning needs to be authentic learning. If you’re just starting or if you need to change a few minds, start small with a single pilot learning event.

But even a single project means injecting authentic planning activities into your lesson planning ideas.

  • Understand what your students, their families and their communities care about. Your students need to make a connection with the project if they’re going to get the most out of it.
  • Define a product that students will create and an event where they’ll showcase it. You can work with students to figure this out.
  • Align different subject areas and standards to create more depth and context. For example, if you’re creating a living Roman market, students may write creative stories about the people who buy and sell there, practice Roman numerals in math, create mosaic art and learn how to tell time using a sundial.
  • Plan with students, starting with a goal and shared vision. Identify what skills are needed, what tasks need to be completed, who needs to be involved and what resources they’ll use, along with a timeline.
  • Assign work together with the class. This may involve adopting roles, like “chef” or “engineer” to add a little dash of immersion.
  • Schedule time to do this work in your classroom and in others, as you get more teachers on board. Remember this kind of learning unfolds across several subject areas, so it’ll take more than one teacher to set aside time in their lesson plan.
  • Revisit your plan together as you go along. After all, most plans need adjustment, and learning is often organic and fluid, so it’s important to learn that things change – and that’s okay.
  • Reflect on how things are going – and after the project is finished, on how things went. Involve students to gauge how they feel, what they learned and what they’d do differently next time around.

How can technology support authentic learning?

Perhaps technology is the focus of your authentic learning project; after all, students have done amazing things in STEM, from removing microplastics from wastewater to helping those with hearing impairments navigate the world.

But technology plays an important supporting role in any authentic learning activity. For instance, your authentic planning activities may involve:

  • Online news and images can spark ideas in students for potential projects, community issues and problems to solve in their authentic learning activities.
  • Communication tools connect students to each other, to their communities and to outside resources.
  • Collaboration tools make it easy for students to gather resources, share ideas and work together on every aspect of their project.
  • Research tools allow students to find reliable, up-to-date information, from the same sources actual experts and professionals use.
  • Virtual environments give them a chance to test, test and test again until they get an experiment just right – without making a mess.
  • Interactive lessons can help them learn and practice the skills and knowledge they need to move ahead on their work, in a safe environment.

And, for teachers, technology is a great enabler, too.

  • Lesson planning platforms enable teachers to map each day’s authentic learning activities and improve the relevance of each individual lesson. This is particularly helpful when organizing your lesson planning ideas with those of other teachers involved in a student’s learning journey.
  • Curriculum mapping software can help align learning between different subject areas and ensure each class is on track to meet the standards they’re expected to achieve. It also helps you track and measure student progress toward their authentic learning goal.

Plus, using technology is part of authentic learning, because it’s such an ingrained part of our real world. Many jobs and everyday tasks require the use of digital tools in some way or another, so giving students time to explore and develop their skills with them now better prepares them for tomorrow’s future.

Instruction for life-long learning

Here’s the thing about the real world: sometimes, it gets messy. Our lives and experiences are filled with layers of nuance, and the correct path forward is rarely cut-and-dried. Rarely is there one “right” answer. We simply do our best, figuring things out by pulling on our previous knowledge, trying things out and evaluating where to go next. Each experience helps us to prepare for the next one.

That’s the kind of learning that authentic learning strives to achieve. And that’s the kind of learning that lasts a lifetime.

Want to take your lesson planning to the next level? Check out our articles on anchor activities and gamification for more ways to engage your students.

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