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What Is Authentic Learning and How Do I Use It?

As teachers, we are constantly searching for articles, books, or advice on how to make learning ‘stick’ with our 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. 

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?

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?

Aspects of Authentic Learning

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.  This could look like something as simple as taking a community walk, field trip or even virtually connecting with other students or relevant special interest groups. 

Self-Directed Inquiry

If you are familiar with the Inquiry Cycle or Inquiry Based Learning, 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 and promotes independent inquiry in your students.

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. 

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), however, students of any age are capable of accomplishing this.  It is just necessary to give them the tools beforehand.

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 or ignite passion in 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 that’s when the learning sticks and continues to grow as they do.

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