Innovative Authentic Learning

Based on student-driven inquiry authentic learning is seen as being able to engage learners more deeply on more complex tasks than other types of pedagogy (Groff, 2013). A growing body of research is not only demonstrating that student-inquiry leads to lasting learning and higher performance, but it is the pedagogy necessary to access 21st century skills like collaborative problem-solving and critical thinking (Darling-Hammond, et al, 2010).

Such pedagogies are often also referred to as project or problem-based learning which is defined by a broad access to learning materials and the development of new and varied forms of learning in order to stimulate activity, independence and cooperation. In addition, an increased focus on student’s critical reflection can be found with respect to the use of Information and communication technologies in teaching and learning and in society in general (Groff, 2013).

Authentic learning that brings real life experiences into the classroom is still all too uncommon in schools. Authentic learning is seen as an umbrella for several important pedagogical strategies with great potential to increase the engagement of students seeking connections between the world as they know it exists outside of school, and their experiences in school. The Taylor County School District in Kentucky implemented individualized authentic learning plans tailored to student’s interests and career paths. Partnerships with universities, local enterprises, and businesses have provided students with opportunities to pursue their professional curiosities. (Cook, 2014)

Use of learning strategies that incorporate real life experiences, technology, and tools that are already familiar to students, and interactions from community members are examples of approaches that can bring authentic learning into the classroom. Practices such as these may help retain students in school and prepare them for further education, careers, and citizenship in a way that traditional practices are too often failing to do (p. 30).

Authentic learning, as defined by the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, typically focuses on real-world, complex problems and their solutions, using role-playing exercises, problem-based activities, case studies, and participation in virtual communities of practice. As the related topic on deeper learning illustrates, experiential and hands-on learning curricula are growing increasingly popular in schools. At the School of the Future in New York, for example, students mirror the work of scientists from the design process to the scientific assessment of their projects (see: Innovative Pedagogical Methodology Models – System and Design Learning) (1). Establishing mutually beneficial relationships with businesses, organizations, and public entities in the community (Reconstructionism) are promising avenues for development, and effective models are beginning to emerge (p. 32).


While the concepts inherent in authentic learning are appropriate for a variety of disciplines, the need for authenticity is expressed most often in science, technology, and mathematics education. Through learning by doing in science, students gain the foundational skills, knowledge, and understanding of real scientists and technicians, as well as important related skills such as critical thinking, research and writing methods, and presentation techniques (p. 32).

Virtual Enterprises International is an example of how authentic learning experiences can connect students with the world of business and entrepreneurship, preparing them for continuing their education and entering the workforce (2). This in-school, global business simulation offers students project-based and collaborative learning, along with the development of 21st century skills in areas including problem-solving, communication, personal finance, and technology (p. 32).


Inspired by the Austrian model of apprenticeships, this experiential learning model engages students by replicating all the functions of real business in both structure and practice. Teacher-facilitators and business mentors guide students as they create and manage all facets of their virtual business from product development to marketing in a range of firms (p. 32).

While educators are slowly embracing the concept of authentic learning, there is a need for more concrete policies that will stimulate the interest of schools and help guide them throughout the process – from standards for defining and evaluating authentic learning to establishing safety protocol for offsite learning experiences. Current examples of authentic learning in practice often involve initial vocational education, in which high school students are undertaking apprenticeships and shadowing professionals at local enterprises (p. 33).

The European Commission’s report, WorkBased Learning in Europe, assesses the state of these programs and makes education and labor market policy recommendations to maximize their safety and effectiveness (3). Among other suggestions, the report calls for investing in other types of work-based learning, including the development of onsite labs and workshops in schools that link back to the offsite vocational training. In order to facilitate authentic learning in their classrooms, teachers continue to need adequate support to update their pedagogies and teaching materials (p. 33).

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The Common Core State Standards Initiative in the United States details what K-12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics, calling for more authentic learning assessments and projects. To support this initiative, Intel’s Common Core Standards Toolkit offers resources to education leaders involved in planning and implementing authentic learning (p. 33).

Similarly, ESTABLISH (“European Science and Technology in Action Building Links with Industry, Schools, and Home”) is an international project in which policy makers, parent groups, and others are coming together to develop authentic learning experiences for secondary students, while providing education programs for teachers to help them incorporate this new curriculum in their classrooms (4). While initiatives such as Common Core State Standards and ESTABLISH convey an active interest from school leaders to implement authentic learning in STEM areas, more leadership is needed across all school disciplines (p. 33).


3D printing, for example, is being viewed as a way to achieve more hands-on learning in the humanities, allowing students to explore cultural history through replicas of real-world artifacts. The Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum complex, recently launched a new 3D scanning and printing initiative. The project aims to open up access to museums’ massive digital collections, so that schools can print historical objects for teaching and learning (5) (p. 33).


Similarly, members of the Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University are seeing the educational benefits of 3D printing and modeling by creating special lesson plans for high school history classes. At a recent project at Clover Hill High School in Virginia, students had the opportunity to handle 3D printed replicas of Civil War-era wig curlers and pipes. High school students appreciated the historical value of the models and expressed deeper interest in learning more information about the items presented (p. 33).