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Use of inquiry and critical thinking skills is another characteristic of authentic learning

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experiences. The teacher creates problems that the students can use to discover, inquire, and

deduce (Rule, 2006). Teachers push students to think outside of the box as they connect the

learning to the real world. This critical thinking may happen through hands-on activities,

through debate, or through problem solving (Certo et al, 2003). For example, at Silverton School,

in Silverton, Colorado, students used critical thinking skills as they discovered what it means to

be “rich” or “poor”. The students looked at personal finances, national economic problems, and

then global issues of wealth and poverty to come to an understanding that being rich or poor is

not measured only by money (Expeditions, n.d.).

ALE’s also share the characteristic of being formed within a community of learners.

Even if students are working individually to find a solution to a real world problem, they are all

in a community of inquiry, striving for answers within an environment created by the need for

discovery. Students may collaborate in problem solving, creating, or presenting. They talk,

argue, and discuss with their peers while searching for solutions. They become actively involved

in making meaning (Kukral & Spector, 2012). For examples, they may collaborate with their

fellow students by writing a website together (Mac & Coniam, 2008), with the community by

working hand in hand on a community project or by offering valuable services to businesses

(O’Hanlon, 2008), or with a real audience through a newspaper or bulletin (Mac & Coniam,


Finally, ALE’s allow students to direct their own learning. They have ownership and

responsibility in the problem at hand. Teachers give choice to allow the students to both define

the problem and design how to find the solution (Rule, 2006). Teachers may use mini-lessons to




guide students through the decision-making process and to lead them to real life skills, but as

students are equipped, they become the primary directors of their learning (Huntley-Johnston,

Merritt, & Huffman, 1997). Teachers may have created the opportunity, the equity, and the

participation, but the students must engage with the learning to make it their own (Kalantzis &

Cope, 2004). At High Tech High in San Diego, California, through a collaborative project

between the humanities and Spanish classes, teachers tasked the students with doing a project

that related to the U.S./Mexico border. That was the only parameter given. Students decided for

themselves what topic or area they wanted to research, and then they decided how they wanted to

display their research for an audience of the school community as well as for Mexican students

they had been conversing with since the start of the unit. Their work, though given an

overarching theme, was completely student-driven, and much learning took place (Schwartz,


No teacher wants to hear, “How much does this count for?” or “How long does this have

to be?” or “Does this have to be typed?” These questions show that learning is a task for the

teacher, not for the student to learn life skills needed in the real world or for an authentic

audience. Teachers need to deliberately connect students to the real world to help them

understand the why behind what they do in the classroom. When teachers have created authentic

learning experiences well, learning becomes meaningful to the student (Barron & Darling-

Hammond, 2008). Students are committed with a sense of belonging within the learning

environment. The opportunity to step out of the classroom either physically or through their

mental attitude toward the task gives the students a sense of control over their own learning.

This sense of control in turn creates positivity (Shernoff, Csikszentmihalyi, Schneider, &




Shernoff, 2014). Students gain factual information in the process of problem-solving and can

transfer that knowledge to different situations and contexts. They are able to explore and apply

their learning as they discover solutions. In the discovery, they learn to define problems and find

solutions without being teacher directed (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008). The teacher gives

appropriate help as needed, but students rise to the challenge by increasing the skills they need to

reach a solution (Shernoff et al, 2014) Not only can the students find solutions, they are able to

give reasons and support for those solutions. In doing this, the students increase their motivation

and form work-habits to use beyond the classroom. They learn to collaborate and become

experts with confidence (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008). In other words, they become

motivated and engaged students learning life skills needed after they graduate from high school.

As teachers design work to motivate and engage their students through authentic learning

experiences, students realize the importance of what they are doing. With real tasks and real

audience, the need to think critically, collaboration and community, and self-directed learning,

students feel accomplishment and success knowing they have worked for their own learning

purpose, not just for a grade. Often they have shared what they have learned with an audience

outside of simply the teacher (Huntley-Johnston et al, 1997). By careful design, teachers have

created the “intrinsic fulfillment of meaningful work” for their students through authentic

learning experiences.

Misconceptions of Authentic Learning Experiences

As teachers work toward authentic classrooms, they may feel intimidated by certain

misconceptions of what ALE’s must look like. One misconception is that an ALE has to be all or

nothing. Teachers can work toward authenticity in their classroom as a progression. Creating




experiences in a daily lesson can be just as beneficial as creating a semester-long authentic

project. Teachers need permission to start small and to use other teaching methods besides ALEs

as well (Cronin, 1993). Another misconception about ALE’s is that a teacher’s lesson plans need

to be completely redone to include the authentic experience, but ALE’s may be designed from

already-created lesson plans. Many teachers subconsciously know that their students need to feel

that what they are doing is tied to the real world in some way (Cronin, 1993). Teachers may have

already created opportunities for collaboration, critical thinking, differentiation, and student

choice. A final myth about ALE’s is that they must always be fun, creative, and original.

Students may not enjoy the task, the task may have been done by another teacher already, or it

may feel ordinary to the teacher, but that does not mean it is not authentic. If it is tied to an

authentic task or has an authentic audience, if critical thinking skills are in full play, if the

classroom has become a community of learners working together, and if students have choice in

their own learning, then it has the potential of pulling students into a real world situation with

intrinsic, meaningful work (Cronin, 1993).

Educators and students must understand that “our main task together in the classroom is

to attend to learning – not just to learn but to attend to learning, to understand how we learn, and

get good at it, and talk about it, perhaps differently than we might other places” (Whitney, 2011

p. 58). When teachers design ALEs and students are motivated to engage, intrinsic learning can

take place and break through the stereotype of school as boring and rigid. Authentic learning

experiences may not take students out of the actual school setting. Even in the most well

designed ALE, teachers must admit to their students that what they do in the classroom may not

perfectly mirror the real world, but that does not mean what they learn is not connected to life




skills and assets they will need both now and in the future. An English teacher asks students to

read and write because the teacher needs to help the students learn to be “self conscious about

those practices” (Whitney, 2011 pg. 57). This is a student choosing to learn. Teaching students to

be discerning readers or effective writers also teaches them to become better “users” of these

skills (Whitney, 2011). This is a student thinking critically. Creating peer groups so that

students can give each other feedback on writing allows them to collaborate and communicate.

This is a community of learners. Teachers can use ALE’s to motivate students at a deeper level,

to create an atmosphere of authenticity in which learning is attached to life skills needed in the

real world. Teachers want students who are not just surviving school by counting seconds,

goofing around, or staring out the window; teachers want students who feel motivated to engage

in meaningful work. Students cannot feel disconnected from their learning (Shernoff et al,

2014). Instead, teachers can use authentic learning experiences to create connections between

the students and their life outside of the school building.

When teachers work to “attend to learning,” they can position their students to find that

intrinsic value in learning through authenticity in the classroom. ALE’s become useful tools for

learning when students and teachers find their place of identity and understanding together in the

classroom, through interaction and relevance. Teachers understand that each student comes from

an individual context that teachers can use to empower each student to make choices and

connections for their own learning. Teachers become facilitators and guides within the

classroom, empowering students to be competent decision-makers. Teachers also create

empowerment and motivation by setting high expectations for accomplishment within an ALE

(Vetter, 2010).




Creating Motivation with Authentic Learning Experiences

Teachers design many experiences in which students move into the intrinsically

meaningful work of ALE’s. The best way to clearly understand how ALE’s create motivation

and engagement is to see authentic learning at work. O’Hanlon (2008) shared how he connected

his students with local businesses to create content for websites that the businesses actually used.

Students received real world experience for a real audience. Another teacher created a real

audience by having her students publish an anthology of their work that they sold to local

businesses. The writing became specifically for an audience, causing them to choose topics that

made more sense for that broader audience. The editing and proofreading the students had to do

took on significant meaning because they knew mistakes would show carelessness and laziness

as writers. The class even learned about marketing and letter writing as they got word out that

their anthology was for sale. Not only did the students benefit, but so did the community

(Putnam, 2001). Another teacher organized her journalism class like an actual newspaper that

caused the students to take on the responsibility of all parts of brainstorming, researching,

writing, editing, and publishing. The students never worried about their grade because they were

too focused on putting out an excellent newspaper for a real audience. These students had a

sense of ownership, accomplishment, and pride in their work (Denman, 1995). Another example

of an authentic learning experience happened in an English classroom in which the teacher led

her students through the process of writing how-to books. Students were able to share their

expertise and saw how that expertise helped others learn something new (Huntley-Johnston et al,

1997). In a research project, Powers (2009) explained how he saw students go above and beyond

research requirements as they took ownership of their topic and became personally involved.




One student was invited to a private dinner for a Nobel Peace Prize winner through her research

project. This student’s research led to an extracurricular club at her school that allowed students

to meet people making a difference in the world, and to realize how they themselves could make

a difference. All of these examples increased student motivation because they incorporated a real

problem with a real audience, they allowed the students to use critical thinking and problem

solving skills, they took place as a community of learners, and the students had choice in the

direction their learning took.

Authentic Learning Experiences in the English Classroom

English curriculum is designed to focus on skills in discussing, reading, researching, and

writing (Kahn, 2007; Powers, 2009; Speaker & Speaker, 1991; Vetter, 2010). In any of these skill

areas, ALE’s can be used to motivate and engage students toward intrinsic learning in

meaningful work. Students will find meaning in discussing, reading, researching, and writing

when that learning is tied to real world/real audience work, to the need for critical thinking, and

to student-directed learning within the context of a community of learners.

Discussion is a skill area in the English curriculum that can be designed as an ALE. To

create an authentic learning experience using discussion, the discussion becomes open-ended,

not a question and answer recitation. Teachers create an ALE in discussion when they introduce

conflict or controversy and allow students to defend or analyze without implying a right or

wrong answer. Instead, students use discussion to analyze and assess their information and

experiences. Discussions take on the medium that best suits the students and situation; for

example, a blog post creates authentic commenting or an online forum allows students to speak

openly with people outside of their own classroom (Kahn, 2007). In one study, a group of




students in inner city Chicago began a discussion with local leaders, police, families, and clergy

about gun violence that led to service within their community (More Than You, n.d.). Students

can be motivated to feel meaningfully engaged as they become personally involved in the

contributions they bring to any classroom and to a greater audience. The discussion becomes a

sharing of ideas with others through critically thinking, which in turn leads to stronger sense of

community with whomever the discussion takes place. Right or wrong no longer becomes the

focus; instead, the process of discussing becomes the focus.

Reading is another area in which ALE’s can be incorporated. Students become authentic

readers when they engage with the words they read and incorporate the new knowledge into a

real problem or audience, into the need for critical thinking skills, into work as a community of

learners, and into the desire to direct their own learning. What the students do with what they

have read can lead to a meaningful authentic learning experience. For those students in inner

city Chicago who began a discussion on gun violence, that discussion began after they had read

information on the United States constitution. This led them to a connection between “We, the

people . . .” and themselves as those very people of whom the constitution spoke. Reading led to

authenticity through relationship (More Than You, n.d.)

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