Authentic Learning

What Is Authentic Learning and How Do I Use It?

By Maggie Sabin, Primary Teacher, Amsterdam International Community School

As teachers, we are constantly searching for articles, books, or advice on how to make learning ‘stick’ with out students. In our classrooms, we want engaged learners who retain what they have learned and apply it in their lives for years to come. But how do we actually make this happen?

What can we do to ensure our students are getting the most out of every moment during school? There is definitely one surefire way to do this and it goes by the name of Authentic Learning. Not certain what that actually means? This post will cover what Authentic Learning actually is and how to use it in your classroom to create meaningful learning experiences for students.

Authentic Learning – A Loose Definition

What comes to mind when you hear the words “Authentic Learning”? Maybe you imagine a hands-on learning experience, learning from credible sources, or maybe nothing at all.

Authentic Learning has a myriad of definitions, but what it boils down to is making what your students learn meaningful by engaging them in relevant and real-world learning. A more official definition would be (Donovan, Bransford, & Pellegrino, 1999):

In education, authentic learning is an instructional approach that allows students to explore, discuss, and meaningfully construct concepts and relationships in contexts that involve real-world problems and projects that are relevant to the learner.

So, what does that all mean?

According to the Authentic Learning creator and guru, Steve Revington, Authentic Learning “is real life learning. It is a style of learning that encourages students to create a tangible, useful product to be shared with their world.”

Not only are we teachers bringing in real world context to our classrooms, but our students are taking real world issues and problems and working to solve them and developing solutions applicable to the world or community around them. This is the future of learning. Students will become adults in a world more complex than our own and will have to solve real world problems creatively and collaboratively. So why not start them on the path for success?

Discover additional student-centric approaches to teaching and learning.

Aspects of Authentic Learning

Now that you have an idea of the definition of Authentic Learning, let’s dive into the aspects that make Authentic Learning what it is.

Learning as an Active Process

This means that students are not just sitting at their desks listening to lecture after lecture. This is not teacher directed learning. It is student-led learning where your class is up and moving and exploring the world around them.

Self-Directed Inquiry

If you are familiar with the Inquiry Cycle or Inquiry Based Learningv, this will come naturally to your classroom. If not, this just means that the learning going on in your classroom is led by your students’ questions and curiosities. The questions they have will guide your lessons to exploring and researching the answers.

Problem Solving

Problem solving in this case refers to the real-world problems your students may be facing or witnessing in their communities or beyond. This is where social activism and justice can play a big role in your classroom. It may require higher level thinking from your students to go beyond themselves and see larger problems in their communities (not just a personal problem like Johnny stealing a block from Susie)

You can help guide your students by taking field trips to local charities or reading books about global problems. Here you can start to come up with actual solutions your students can create and promote to the community.

Reflection in Real World Contexts

Really focus on real world issues that garner an emotional connection with your students. Authentic Learning is about making learning meaningful and what better way to do so than to focus on your students and things that directly impact them? Find books, films, or pictures of children facing challenges or have students share problems they may know about or have faced themselves. Once students become emotionally invested in their learning then that’s when the learning sticks and continues to grow as they do.

Your Journey Towards Authentic Learning

At this point you may be asking yourself “how do I apply this to my classroom? How do I make learning meaningful and authentic?” It all may seem a bit overwhelming and complicated, but I promise it is a lot simpler than you may think.

Get to Know Your Students

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Where do my students come from?
  • What is the family dynamic/socioeconomic status/culture?
  • What does each student enjoy doing? Reading? Making? Watching? Eating? What beliefs do my students have?

The answers to these questions can be found by talking your students. Observe them during play. Ask them these questions! Once you have the answers, it is easy to start bringing in material or lessons that make a connection with your students.

Get to Know Your Families

It’s just as important to get to know the families or your students, as it is to know your students. Find out the answers to these questions:

  • Who makes up the family unit?
  • Where do they come from?
  • What do they do?
  • What do they enjoy doing together?

I suggest setting up an opportunity at the beginning of the school year for you to get to sit down and talk to the families to get to know them and their children.

Get to Know Your Community

Really find out where your students are coming from especially if you are not from the area or are new to the area. Ask these questions:

  • What are the demographics?
  • What is your community known for or proud of?
  • What are some issues or problems facing your community in general?

Go through and experience your community as if you were one of your students. See it from their perspective.

Get to Know Your School and Yourself

Really take time to reflect on your personal beliefs about learning, about your community or about your students. Take note of what you believe is important and what your teaching philosophy is. Really ask yourself these questions:

  • What might be some outdated thoughts or practices on learning do I or my school has?
  • What learning programs are already in place? How can I change or work with them to make learning more meaningful?
  • What learning programs already support Authentic Learning?
  • What might be holding me back from implementing Authentic Learning in my classroom?

Getting to know ourselves as teachers and as people will help us to better connect with our students and make their learning more meaningful.

My aim for this post is for teachers everywhere, in every type of institution can begin to understand what Authentic Learning is and how to really connect with your classroom to make their experiences and learning truly meaningful to them. Once a child connects to learning on a personal level and can see how it relates to their world, the possibilities for growth are endless. I hope you found something that speaks to you here and that you feel inspired to bring Authentic Learning into your own classrooms.

Explore other educator-written blogs focused on innovative and impactful teaching strategies.

Contributing Author:

Maggie Sabin is a Primary Teacher at Amsterdam International Community School. She has a Master’s in Early Childhood Education and has been teaching Early Years for five years. She has experience with IB Curriculum, the PYP, IPC, Reggio Emilia and Responsive Classroom.

Maggie Sabin

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