Authentic Learning Environments

I recently received an email this morning from a network administrator in Kansas who read my article, Safety and Social Networking. His critique follows.

Dr. Couros,

I would like to compliment you on your recent article in “Technology and Learning” covering safety and social networking. It was very informative and enlightening, and it is of great concern to all school districts.

However, I do take issue with the inflated language we use in today’s EdSpeak. I particularly take issue with the use of the term “Authentic.” Its usual use today seems to be as a meaningless term used only to add supposed validity to some term or concept. For example, in your article you write about how social networks can, “Create authentic 21st-century learning environments.” In defining what exactly this means, could you please give me an example of what an “Un-Authentic 21st-century learning environment” would be?

First of all, thanks for writing. I appreciate the feedback, and I think that you have raised an important concern. I myself am a critic of what you identify as “edspeak”. Educational jargon is prevalent in our language. In fact, I was informed that a friend of mine recently used the Educational Jargon Generator to successfully apply for proposal funding. The jargon is sometimes powerful, but more often empty and meaningless.

When deciding how to respond, I first thought about simply sending a link to a photo that I had taken recently.

Welcome to the Machine

We could start with our entire educational model as being one ripe with inauthentic learning experiences. In many cases still, students are “given” third-hand information while sitting at desks, learning skills though textbooks rather than through experience. Cognitive apprenticeship models, differentiated instruction, and other potentially more “authentic” learning experiences are viewed by teachers and administrators as impossible to implement, sustain or assess.

However, I think your critique deserves a better explanation. So, I turned to my Twitter network. Here are some of the responses.

Jeff wanted to help, but his school seemed to block Flickr.

Picture 2.pdf (1 page)

Kelly shares several examples of non-authentic learning.

Untitled 3

Here are a few other responses from Twitter:

Un-authentic English teachers at my school yesterday came to Library and picked out the books that students would use for research. (gwwand)

For me, authentic would be students learning and CREATING with technology. Unauthentic would use a laptop and projector to present a Powerpoint as the lesson or using computer to type tests or look things up but never let kids touch – too busy is excuse. (Holtsman and here)

Students sitting in a classroom just watching a teacher do a simulation with a projector or pretty much anything on the Smartboard. (marsenault)

“Un-authentic learning environment?” um … Pick a school, any school. Odds are good that’ll be the example you need. (nlowell)

My husband works for a private company with consultants in India. He uses tools IM tools and video conferencing all the time and has to keep track of time around the globe. Authentic learning should address these changes in business around the globe. (njtechteacher and here)

Rob Wall also responded via email with a terrific, well-worded response.

Perhaps these are jargon terms, but like jargon in other areas, like
the sciences, they do have very specific meaning.

First – “authentic” means genuine as opposed to artificial, contrived
or imitative. In traditional schooling, many experiences are
contrived. We tell students to write for their audience, yet the
audience for whom they are writing is just the teacher or perhaps
their class. An authentic audience is an audience beyond the teacher,
class or even the school. It is a heterogeneous audience as one would
write for if one wrote in a newspaper or magazine article. It is an
audience that chooses to read what is being written instead of a group
that is chosen by the writer or a teacher.

Similarly, we often speak of authentic learning. This is a type of
learning that is meant to have relevance beyond the context of the
classroom and past the final exam. It is learning that gives the
learner skills and knowledge that will support them in their role as a
worker, as a citizen and as a human being.

As for the other adjective “21st” century, again this is perhaps
jargon, but it has a meaning within the study of learning, education
and pedagogy. It denotes a practice or belief in sharp contradiction
to some of those of the 19th and 20th century. Much of the practice of
education as it occurs in public schools today is based on the goals
of 19th century society, namely the instruction necessary to
participate in a society based on an industrial economy. The basis of
the economy, in North America, Europe and some other parts of the
world, in the 21st is not production of goods in a factory but the
production and use of intellectual property. Trying to produce workers
and managers for an economy that no longer exists is delusional. We
need schools that prepare students for this century.

Richard Schwier, most thoughtfully, adds:

Example: When we ban YouTube and other social tools in classrooms, we are actually reducing the authenticity of the classrooms. Why? Because that is exactly where many of our student go to learn in their “other” lives. Often, they are taught conventional ways of learning about things — nothing wrong with that for the most part — to the exclusion of many new and emerging ways of learning about things — and I think there’s plenty wrong with that. It may be that a better word than “unauthentic” would be “disingenuous”. We pretend we know less than we do about what would make an effective and saturated learning environment for our students.

I stand by my belief that social networks can create authentic learning experiences and have the potential of creating authentic audiences for our children. Schools currently are not set up to do this well. We fear change. We fear technology. We fear connecting to people outside of our communities. We fear letting students take charge of their own learning.

Students are more connected, more wise, and eager to learn than we often give them credit. Yet, we reject their learned communities, their ways of knowing and their existing knowledge. Instead, we try our best to force their adaptation to a world that no longer exists. While the term “authentic” may be problematic or trendy, or could be labeled edspeak, it is the word I used at the time, in the moment of writing that article. This word led to your reaction, your message to me, my appeal to my social network, and to this written blog post.

If this shared process is not an authentic or genuine experience, what label would you give it?

  • One might argue that the whole “1 textbook, 30 lectures, 2 exams” university course model is inauthentic, except that thast model is explicitly designed to produce university professors. So for them, it’s a highly authentic experience. ;-^

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  • Pat

    This was a great post! I think having an authentic learning environment is vital in education today. As a special ed teacher, if the learning is not authentic, then I usually lose my students. They have to see the real life application to the lesson and be engaged in actually doing the lesson, not just hearing about it.

  • Always great to be challenged and forced to think through things we often take for grant it. Glad you took up the task and answered things in a very authentic way. Nicely done.

  • My biggest challenge as an elementary school educator is to provide “authentic” audience for my students. My students post their writing on their blogs which allow them to have readership. Where else could a grade 7 student have 50 people read about what he wants to be when he grows up? These people also choose to respond to the student whether it be peers, other teachers or family.
    Providing “authentic” experiences means that when we read a novel we connect to the novel in authentic ways and not by filling in question & answer sheets. We want to post questions about the book to the author. We want to talk to people whether face to face or by using Web 2.0 tools who have experiences related to the book. My job is to eliminate the walls of my classroom and provide meaningful experiences for my students to carry with them throughout their life.

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  • As I read this I recalled a conversation I had with a colleague just last week about how disengaged his own high school boys are with school. He stated, “I have no doubt they do more learning when they get home than what they’re doing at school.”

    I just read a post in Leadertalk where students were part of the discussion in terms of what makes a school effective and progressive.

    4 general points emerged: relevant curriculum, connections, transitions, and engagement. Seems to me our kids are desperate for authentic learning environments…we really need to do a better job of creating them!

  • This post hits home for me. I work with youth at-risk and it is very difficult to engage them in their own learning experience. Most students have their own Personal Performance Plan (PPP) and technology has been proven as one way to engage them. However, the issue at our school is access to updated computers and Web tools. Trying to provide an “authentic audience” is a challenge as we are restricted by limited funding available for technology and other resources.

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