Authentic Learning: What Does It Mean and What Does It Look Like?

As I was working my way through my M.S. in Instructional Design and Technology, I was focused on discovering new ways to make learning authentic for the students that I serve. How could I provide students with project-based learning opportunities that engage them in the community working with or for people who could give them experiences true to their content area? I kept looking for a gold standard of what authentic learning would look like. For one of my classes, it was required of me at the time to develop an online professional development workshop. In collecting data for my project, and as I mentioned in my previous post, I found that authentic had become so much of an educational buzz word that it had seemed to lose all meaning. How could such a commonly used word in the educational vernacular mean something different to each educator?

What I have always envisioned is a sort of cognitive apprenticeship in which students work in the classroom served a purpose, provided a project, or delivered a performance for a business, the community, a community member, or many other outlets. I also felt that if it were done correctly, it would be difficult to draw a line from where the work in class began and community engagement piece ended. The meshing of the two would provide real opportunities in the content area to participate. In other words, students could do history not just study it. Students could use algebra, not just learn about it. Student ELA skills would be embedded into every real-world project they immersed themselves into by creating written business plans or proposals for example. If you want to know what your students think, we need to get those students writing or producing artifacts that show their thought process. Sometimes a student doesn’t know what they think until they write it down and see what they have to say.

Not only would they engage in these authentic activities, but the work that they did would serve a real purpose. For example, in a science or STEM class, could students design as prosthetic hand rather than just read about it? Could it be something that was developed as an open source project as to cost the end user nothing, but it could provide a real applicable solution to a life problem? Can what they produce not only be assessed but also can that assessment reflect a solution to a problem that might exist in their learning community? Will their feedback come from multiple entities rather than just the teacher in the class, or at best the 25 classmates sitting around them each day? How can we redesign learning so that student feedback is immediate and true to the project at hand?

Probably one of the greatest lessons in learning for our students is to then take that feedback, reflect on their learning, and initiate a plan to address potential areas of growth. This reflective thought is often a missing component to student learning as we bounce from assessment to assessment and from lesson to lesson but is no doubt the greatest argument for us to explore a path towards standards-based grading. That, however, is a topic for another day.  What I found through collecting data was that my perception of these authentic learning opportunities was not the same way that each educator I talked to viewed authentic learning.

In truth, neither I nor the teachers I had conversations with were wrong. In fact, I now view authentic learning in a spectrum format and believe that when re(designing) lessons, figuring out ways to capitalize on potential opportunities to put our students into those authentic roles. It is also na├»ve to think that the gold standard, whatever that might be, of authentic learning can be met with every lesson. However, when we begin to reflect and design our lessons to meet the needs of our students, this must be something would put at the forefront of our planning rather than just a focus purely on the content. One of the most valuable things we can do when planning for our students is to not “lock them in a box.” If we over prescribe what we want the assessment to look like, it becomes ours and not there’s. 

If we sacrifice student agency, we also sacrifice authentic engagement to a degree. There must be freedom within form for the student to think for themselves and to create for the world. If it’s not possible for a lesson to place a student in an authentic environment to do the work of professionals in that content area or field of study, perhaps the best second would be to simply assign that student the project giving them an authentic role to play. If we look at this domain in the 4 shifts protocol, there are some questions we can ask ourselves as we prepare to make learning meaningful for our students (McLeod & Graber, 2019).

If it is not possible to infuse your students into a community rich project with real solutions for real problems of people, then perhaps we can place a student in that authentic role to meet this need. Or perhaps in a science class if students are designing and making their own speakers, it may not be something that they will sell on Amazon in the end; however, it may be possible to lay the groundwork explaining the real world need for such a design and also place them in an authentic role to provide purpose and relevancy to what they are doing. Is there some type of authentic product or performance that can be created?
This lesson from Harnessing Technology for Deeper Learning is perhaps my favorite example of this thought process from a junior high math course.

The initial problem:
“You have 1,400 square feet of boards to use for a new treehouse. Design a treehouse that has a volume of at least 250 cubic feet. Include sketches of your treehouse. Are your dimensions reasonable? Explain your answer.”

This is obviously a difficult problem that might take Mr. Witherell a month to get wrong; however, our students have amazing math teachers and I am confident they would do well with it. The problem is however somewhat ambiguous and for the student who craves relevancy to what they learn, it leads them asking the question “why do I care.” The age-old question that every math teacher will get asked by a student at some point “why do I need to know this?” will eventually come out potentially causing that teachers’ blood to nearly boil out of their skin. The teacher will calm themselves and politely answer, “because Johnny it's just something you need to know,” engaging in a cyclical debate that will only end when the bell rings. If you take the ambiguity out of the lesson, this no longer becomes an issue. Working through each of the 4 shift domains, this problem can be strengthened into a lesson of deeper learning. Looking at the authentic domain above, if a role is assigned the lesson gains strength.

The new problem:
For this lesson, we are designing treehouses. There is a community member who would like you to design a treehouse for her children. They would also like sketches as well as a 3-D prototype of the treehouse before it is built so that she can envision the finished product. This will also allow you to make changes without having to start again from scratch and waste building materials. The community member is on a budget and has already purchased the lumber, which consists of 1,400 square feet of boards. Due to the furniture that she has already purchased, the treehouse needs to have a volume of 250 cubic feet. Because of the tight budget, the proposal must include calculations and 3-D modeling sketches. She is also checking with other area school districts for the project as well and wants to go with the best proposal. You will need to figure out the proposal, develop a 3-D model, and create a persuasive presentation that is supported by sound mathematical concepts and reasoning. You will also need a digital prototype or 3-D printed prototype. Let’s see if you can convince her of your proposal.

McLeod & Graber, 2019.


McLeod, S., & Graber, J. (2019). Harnessing technology for deeper learning. Solution Tree Press.


  1. The re-written problem brings a sense of real-world and the ever important "why". I like it!


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