Maintaining Authenticity in an Ever-Changing Reality

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By: Joe Steele, High School PBL Facilitator

Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

Columbus, IN


Having taught the first eight of my sixteen years in a traditional classroom and my last eight in a project-based learning (PBL) program, I am often asked to describe the differences between the two styles. For me, the answer seems to come down to one word: authenticity. So, with this being my first blog ever, I feel the need to start there. I want to examine a few aspects of what it means to be authentic in teaching and how in these two teaching styles I viewed authenticity differently.

As a traditional teacher I planned from the question, “How can I create an engaging lecture to most clearly deliver the information needed for all of my students to prove proficient in addressing my course standards?” Content, examples, and the value of the standards were presented, practiced and assessed in a standardized manner, focused on ensuring success on paper-based assessments. The 10th Grade Indiana English/Language Arts Standards, for example, call for students to read nonfiction and cite textual evidence and to write argumentatively, citing evidence from the text. With that in mind, I would try to find articles that were not only interesting to sophomores, but also lent themselves to students writing argumentative essays. My students were required to create similar writing pieces, because I could easily establish clear expectations and assess these kinds of writing assignments. The authenticity of my lessons in a traditional classroom were derived from:

a) the students’ possible connection to the topic

b) their work correlating to success in the course

c) their grade matching their ability to address the standards, and

d) the student’s readiness for the state exam, the next course or the next grade level.

Who I picture as the traditionalist teachers, are the teachers who John Dewey described as “imposed from above and outside,” meaning the teacher is the provider of knowledge, above and outside of the learning process. This type of teacher relies on students being focused, internally driven, respectful of a teacher’s authority, and having an innate ability to see the real-world application of their homogenized practice despite having little to no interaction with their peers. If students felt I was confused, lost or did not know information, they would lose faith in my ability to lead. Any deficit in the teacher, setting, materials or student resulted in a breakdown of the process.

In the constructivist, or project-based learning (PBL) classroom, I plan from the question: “How can I create situations in my classroom that fully prepare my students for when they have to address my course standards in their lives outside of the classroom?” I work to ensure the students are prepared for that future moment, be it in relationships, work, or leadership, as being ready for life is the truest assessment of learning. I reason, if my students are prepared to address the standards at any moment they need them, then the least they can do is prove proficiency on any standardized assessment when the time comes to master it. I make no assumptions about students realizing the value of my coursework, or recognizing that an argumentative essay prompt is going to help prepare them to defend their ideas while in some boardroom meeting or prove useful in an important conversation about their personal beliefs and values. I do not position myself as the authority, but a fellow investigator just further ahead on the journey. By being a facilitator, instead of a teacher, I earn the trust of the students; I am authentic in the extent of my capacities. My goal is to teach them how to navigate life, so I model what to do when you reach the limits of your knowledge or ability.  When we come across a vocabulary term I struggle with, I search it, interact with it and try to use it. I strive to create authentic learning moments: their coursework is a problem/issue/challenge/need we have been charged/tasked with from the outside world, and I am their guide while they figure it all out. Then, when they are on their own, they have a triage process and tool kit they can readily access. Any deficit in the student or teacher results in additional authentic learning moments that make up the heart of the PBL process. When students show they do not understand a piece of information, I can come to the rescue to host a workshop or empower them to find an answer themselves, while others are able to move forward independently.

My sophomores are still faced with the same state standards, which ask them to read various non-fiction works, citing evidence with argumentative techniques, but now I find a community need that requires those skills. In the past we’ve organized kickball tournaments, advised the superintendent on plans for delays and cancellations, hosted concerts, lobbied school boards, defined company rules, etc… Each of these divergent project examples required students to read about and research variables, decide on the best vendors, lobby adults, back up their opinions with evidence and use various elements of persuasion. Students created emails, brochures, handbooks, event posters, commercials, videos, speeches and meetings. It is a powerful moment after someone from the community asks my class to create something and students are able to list all of the skills (and ultimately standards) they will need to accomplish the task.

As the class is excited with the project challenge, directly after they’ve listed the skills needed to accomplish their goal, I still drop my tried and true traditional presentation on the standard with worksheets and homogenized assessments. Students are motivated to be successful in the whole group instruction, so they can get to work on their project and to create the highest quality product they can. We then establish benchmarks, the expectations and deadlines for the pieces of the overall product. The benchmarks should require proficiencies in elements of the standards being covered. If students are unable to meet the benchmarks, then in order to scaffold and support their learning, I offer workshops to reteach and clarify what they have missed.

Once we make authenticity our aim, we must attempt to determine our criteria to quantify levels and types of authenticity. One pitfall of project-based learning work can be to assume your coursework is “authentic” simply because someone out in this world does this task in life or because it is a topic of personal interest to the teacher. But research shows us that to be authentic, the work must be personal to the learner. For Harvard professor, David Shaffer, making a lesson based on the personal interest of the learner is the first of the four kinds of authenticity. He argues the four kinds of authentic learning are: a) personal to the learner, b) based in the real-world, c) have students use modes of operation and investigation based on the specific discipline and d) the assessments need to be a part of the learning process (Shaffer & Resnick 1999). He concludes that the best learning situations are thickened by attempting to layer each of these four types in each project. He also concludes the learning is thickened by integrating multiple disciplines and making our projects cross-curricular.

Another professor with brilliant insights into quantifying authenticity in work-based education is Dr. Johannes Strobel, from Purdue University. Strobel also realized we must continually examine our teaching practices to ensure they are truly authentic in an ever changing work-based learning environment. He concluded there are five ways by which a lesson can be considered authentic:

  • Contextual Authenticity - Students can identify connection of work to real needs.

  • Task-Based Authenticity - Students do real world tasks, modeling adults.

  • Impactful Authenticity  - Products created impact the world, science, or improve life.

  • Personal Authenticity - Exploration is a passion or is proximal to the local community.

  • Value Authenticity - Projects satisfy a student’s life question, curiosity or value.

Defining the various types of authenticity, a teacher can more easily connect their various standards to possible areas of focus (Strobel 2012). Also, by identifying that there are five different types, a teacher can better assure their coursework allows students opportunities to explore all forms of authenticity.

At our school, during summer workshops, we design an archetypal or ideal graduate of our program and envision him/her out there in the real world standing at a crossroads. We brainstorm, define and affinity map every aspect of this fully functioning, prepared, happy, successful citizen by silently reflecting and writing sticky notes of every positive trait he/she should possess by the end of his/her education. We then place characteristics with similarities, items that have an affinity for each other, together. Once the traits are listed and categorized, we as teachers look at life through the lens of our course standards. We set out to create the authentic learning situations that build or encourage the development of these traits, and find community partners and professions that embody these traits.

All decisions and variables that affect students, from school culture, to rules, to curriculum must be focused on ensuring our students’ success when they face life outside our doors. Research has shown us authenticity is heightened when a student is learning about issues that pique their interest, are based on real-world adult tasks, and which require them to behave like a scholar in the discipline of study. And finally, the student should be learning and interacting as they are being assessed. I admit, authenticity can be much more work, but it works so much better. Now’s the time to start creating authentic learning experiences for your kids!


Thick Authenticity: New Media and Authentic Learning Journal of Interactive Learning Research, Vol. 10, No. 2. (1999), pp. 195-215 by D. W. Schaffer, M. Resnick

Wang, J., & Dyehouse, M., & Weber, N. R., & Strobel, J. (2012, June), Conceptualizing Authenticity in Engineering Education: A Systematic Literature Review Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas.

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Joe Steele works at CSA New Tech High School as Language Arts Facilitator and also serves as a Magnify Learning PBL Certified Instructor. He lives deep in the hills of Brown County with his brilliant wife, Bridget, a middle school science PBL teacher, and their two youngest children, Savannah, 13, and Weston, 11. Their oldest, Kaleb, 22 is a senior at Indiana University.