Authentic Learning

Much of the 20th century recitation script for education, in particular the articulation of measurable goals and the focus on efficiency, was based on the assumption that becoming educated was a tame problem. So that curriculum goals could be achieved efficiently, the problems that became learner tasks were de-contextualized; the context of rich information and social interaction from which the problem is derived was removed. While this was done for the purpose of removing complicating information, such de-contextualized problems were isolated from the real-world and had little meaning beyond the classroom. Although such de-contextualizing removed opportunities for students to find connections between their everyday experiences and schooling which is now known to facilitate learning, it is still practices in many communities.

Kathy Davidson and David Goldberg (2010), scholars associated with the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Project, used the term flat classrooms to describe initial attempts in recent decades to design curriculum and instruction around context-rich problems rather than de-contextualized problems. They identified project-based learning, differentiated instruction, authentic assessment, and cooperative learning as some of the educational practices that preserve context and encourage social interaction in learning tasks. Educators and leaders have observed that efforts to create flat classrooms are sometimes met with resistance from various stakeholders in educational communities, however. Flat classrooms and ICT that allows for interaction are mutually compatible; the methods are improved through the application of ICT and teachers who adopt the methods find the methods easier to implement. Still, however, Davidson and Goldberg recognize educators have been slow to adopt ICT-rich flat classrooms.

For 20th century purposes, de-contextualized curriculum created independent from students’ interests and experiences that has been stripped of complicating factors and designed to create products and performances for teachers alone may have been sufficient. Advocates of flat classrooms are among those who argued that more complex and sophisticated problems were appropriate for student tasks, especially in those communities where understanding and not simply information recall was the purpose of education. Mehlenbacher (2010) observed, “Over time, our definition of [learner] tasks has generally grown more realistic, meaning we have generally acknowledged that tasks cannot be easily algorithmized or parameterized” (233). Student tasks in the 21st century are anticipated to be context-rich. By retaining the complexities of problems that become the focus of curriculum and instruction, it is reasoned learners will develop the innovative thinking that is of particular importance in the unpredictable future.

Jan Herrington, Ron Oliver, and Anthony Reeves (2007), scholars from Australia, concluded learning tasks that allow students to generate and test their own ideas and that replicate the rich situational complexity that is encountered by professionals working the fields under study are appropriate for meeting the needs of 21st century learners. They reviewed research and meta-research conducted around the turn of the century and found that classrooms in which that complexity has been conserved share nine characteristics, and they use those to characterized authentic learning environments:

Based in Real-World Problems

When challenged by students, “Why do we need to know this?” many educators respond by describing situations in which the ideas and skills being taught may be useful once the students have developed them. Herrington, Oliver, and Reeves (2007) noted, however, “it is not sufficient to simply provide suitable examples from real-world situations to illustrate the concept or issue being taught” (27). By leaving the details intact as the problems are transferred from the professional world into the classroom, educators preserve the conditions that make the skills and knowledge necessary and students find connections between their experiences and the problems as they gain experience working through—although not necessarily solving—real world problems.

Extended Time to Work

Because real-world problems require days or weeks (or even longer) of effort to sufficiently understand and solve, authentic learning tasks should allow students to work on the problems for similar lengths of time. Artificially simplifying problems so that they fit into available time frames may be necessary, but does jeopardize the real-world nature of the problems.

 Access to Experts

In traditional classrooms, the teacher is the individual who has the most experience in the field, and hence is the community’s expert. Through authentic learning activities such as apprenticeships and case studies, students engaged in authentic learning will encounter professionals and other experts in the field with even greater experience than the teacher. Access to these experts provides students with different perspectives and understandings of the structure of the discipline as it is applied to real-world problems. In some instances, educators who have experience in the field—for example music teachers who also have performing careers or science teachers who have worked as researchers—may be able to provide such expertise, but authentic learning requires the distinctly different perspectives of both the professional educator and the expert.

Multiple Perspectives

The problems that focus study in authentic learning environments are likely to be wicked and so the multiple perspectives that different individuals and populations bring to those problems are introduced to classrooms. When designing authentic learning tasks, educators will both recognize and encourage students to consider and reconsider the problem from different perspectives, and the planning will not prescribe students adopt a particular perspective. Further, in 21st century classrooms, authentic learning makes use of the primary and secondary sources that are available via networks, and so tertiary sources (such as textbooks) are of lesser importance.


Whereas much pedagogy is designed to encourage students to work together, and those methods do encourage social interaction which is fundamental to human learning, Herrington, Oliver, and Reeves define collaboration as social learning that results in a product that could not have been created independently by any of the participants. This represents a more sophisticated view of social learning than simply allowing or encouraging students to work together when completing learning tasks.


Authentic learning tasks encourage students to think about how the parts of their solution fit together and the processes that led them to the solutions they create. Further, they are led to revisit their process and solution to assess their strategies and approaches. This process is typically referred to as reflecting on the work, and through those processes, students become meta-cognitive; they think about their thinking.

Access to Scaffolding

In traditional classrooms, both the cognitive structure of the disciplines and the details and applications of these structures are prescribed in the curriculum. In authentic learning environments, the structures are provided by the teachers and other experts and the students gain experience within that structure by filling in details and exploring applications. For example, a science teacher may introduce experiments as a tool that scientists use, and then students will study how experts design experiments and they will design their own experiments. As they conduct experiments from real-world problems, students in an authentic science classroom will gain experience with the details of experimental design and data collection and analysis. In this way, authentic learning facilitates coaching and guidance by teachers and experts rather than direct instruction.


A part of reflection and a part of collaboration in authentic learning is articulation, and Herrington, Oliver, and Reeves (2007) include original speaking and writing and performing as part of authentic learning. Much articulation in K-12 curriculum and instruction occurs within the scaffolding provided by educators’ questions and prompts. While that type of guided-articulation can be important as students develop expertise, authentic learning also requires learners to compose their own versions of new understanding and insights independent of expert scaffolding.

Authentic Assessment

In all learning environments, some tasks are completed with the expressed intent that the students’ learning will be judged based on their performance. In traditional learning environments, these tasks are typically contrived and have little relevance beyond the classroom. Tests are generally identified as an example of tasks that have little relevance beyond the classrooms. (It should be noted that in some professions—for example those related to information technology—performance on tests is used as a gateway through which professionals earn certifications or licenses. As an adult, I observed my father, who had been a truck driver for decades, studying to earn his license to haul hazardous materials as cargo. While the test covered important aspects of hauling such materials safely and in accordance with relevant laws, once he earned the license, his performance on the test was of minimal importance to his supervisors.) In authentic learning settings, the products and performances used to judge students’ learning are similar to those produced by professionals working in the field. The products and performances have meaning in the real-world, as well as having meaning in the classroom.


Davidson, Cathy, and David Goldberg. The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Herrington, Jan, Ron Oliver, and Anthony Reeves. 2007. “Authentic Learning on the Web: Guidelines for Course Design.” In Flexible Learning in an Information Society, edited by Badrul Kahn, 26-35. Hershey, PA: Idea Group.

Mehlenbacher, Brad. 2010. Instruction and Technology: Designs for Everyday Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.