Monday, June 25, 2012

Fretting About Somewhat Authentic Projects?

Advocates of project-based learning and other educators sometimes anxiously debate what constitutes authentic learning. When students are engaged in a scenario or simulation, should we consider this authentic learning? The mistaken assumption underlying this fretting is that if a project is not fully authentic, then it is not worth doing.  
Relax! In his recent blog post, John Larmer appropriately advises us to recognize that “somewhat authentic” learning, even if it is not as engaging as “fully authentic” learning, is still more likely to motivate students than learning that is not authentic.
Larmer describes a continuum. Writing an essay or report for one’s teacher is not authentic, although it can be valuable. Projects are “somewhat authentic” if students “are doing work that simulates what happens in the world outside of school.”  For example, it is “somewhat authentic” when students serve as an engineer or presidential advisor in a scenario or simulation.
Work is “fully authentic,” writes Larmer, if “the work has a direct impact on or use in the real world.” He cites as examples of “fully authentic” work: creating podcasts for visitors to local historic sites; and developing designs for a new play area in a nearby park.
I am not convinced that simulations constitute authentic work. Nonetheless, they can be very engaging so we can incorporate them in our classes even as we work to provide fully authentic learning experiences. As Larmer concludes, “fully authentic projects are often the most powerful and effective ones, because they are so engaging for students and allow them to feel like they can have an impact on their world . . .But if you can’t get there yet, don’t feel like you’re failing the authenticity test in your projects.”
Defining authentic work relates directly to discussions in our district regarding what constitutes “transformative learning.” Transformative learning occurs when students do work that makes a difference locally, nationally, and/or globally. Examples of transformative learning include the following performance tasks:
·         Elementary students implement a recycling plan on campus while learning about natural resources;
·         Middle School PE students add more joy to the lives of local senior citizens through square dancing performances; and
·         High School Driver’s Ed students use Claymation to create tutorials which they post for a global audience.

Clearly, transformative learning performance tasks meet Larmar’s definition of fully authentic projects because they have a direct impact on the world. As classroom teachers and other educators in York County, Virginia develop performance tasks, we sometimes struggle with whether a particular project constitutes transformative learning. For example, when students use the methods and tools of scientists to conduct research, are they engaged in transformative learning even if the results of their research do not make a difference in the world? Does it constitute transformative learning when students act as foreign policy advisors and create a mock plan for Obama and Congress for responded to an imagined attack by foreign forces? 
Even though I would not categorize these projects as transformative, they still are valuable. Even if you don’t agree with Larmer that scenarios and simulations are somewhat authentic, Larmar convincingly states that scenarios and simulations are often more engaging than traditional assignments. So, even if you value transformative learning, don't fret if your engaging performance tasks omit the opportunity for students to make an immediate difference in the world.

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