Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Four Misconceptions about Authentic Learning

Cronin, J. F. (1993). Four Misconceptions about Authentic Learning. Educational Leadership, 50(7), 78-80.


Summary: This short article by John Cronin cautions teachers interested in project based learning of the pitfalls that come with “authentic learning”. Cronin states that the central idea behind “authentic learning” is that a student’s experience in school closely reflects his experience in the real world. School systems should not then prioritize insular curriculum abstract from the surrounding community. Instead, teachers should constantly push genuine connections through their curriculum, replacing outdated systems (his example- math problem sets)  with more authentic challenges (categorizing food labels to improve personal nutrition). Cronin is an obvious, experienced advocate of authentic learning, leading schools to encourage and develop a more experiential curriculum. However, he believes that the potential power for authentic learning only becomes lost when over-complicated with unrealistic expectations, “dense vocabulary”, and convoluted models.  


This article reads as a straightforward, albeit very basic, guide for project based learning. In that effort, Cronin primarily focuses on four major obstacles to authentic learning, stating that these misconceptions often discourage teachers from continuing to develop and implement a more engaging curriculum. Frustrated by their failed efforts, they believe that authentic learning is either impossible or not worth the trouble, reverting back to more traditional, text heavy exercises. Cronin writes to these teachers in the hopes of empowering them to continue the experiment in their classroom.


Cronin’s Four Misconceptions-
  • If you can't take 'em to Spain, they might as well not learn Spanish at all.” - Here Cronin argues that the degree of authenticity of each lesson is relative. Spanish teachers may never get the chance to fully immerse their students into the ideal language learning environment (ie a country of the native tongue), but that does not mean they should give up on authentic learning. Teachers must find reasonable means and exercises that they can implement within the limits of their classrooms, but will also encourage more genuine engagement. In the case of the Spanish teachers, this means using more class time facilitating  conversations in Spanish among students than cranking out grammar worksheets.

  • “If you haven't got your chef's license, then you'll have to starve”- Too often, teachers refuse to bring outside skills or studies into their curriculum because it is out of their comfort zone or skill set. Cronin argues that teachers do not have to be perfect (in either a particular skill or in their lesson) in order to incorporate creative projects or authentic assessment into class. We do not have to be master chefs to cook with students. Instead, we can learn alongside them and improve both our knife skills and our individual lesson for the following year.

  • “If it isn't real fun, then it isn't real”- I really enjoyed this section. Cronin states that too often teachers confuse fun, engaging tasks with authentic ones. Although teacher should dream big and try to implement some degree of “fun” into their curriculum, not every aspect of a project will be groundbreaking or entertaining. In fact, most creative projects require certain “real life” tasks that are as mundane as they are completely necessary. Simply put, if a teacher cooks with students, everyone will have to learn how to clean up. Cronin argues that that emphasis and encouraged discipline will only help students mature and become more competent adults.

  • “If you want to learn to play the piano, you must start by mastering Chopin.”- There is often the pressure for PBL teachers to create these amazing and polished products. However, not every task in a classroom can be so involved. In fact, Cronin believes that teachers often miss opportunities for authentic learning when constantly shooting for the stars. The ability to learn from simple real life tasks will translate into a daily success that can affect a student as much as a giant mural. Instead of thinking of authentic learning as one incredible experience over an entire school year, teachers should instead try to generate these experiences, on a smaller scale, every day.

In order for educators to actively pursue and create more authentic learning environments, they first must feel that these environments are tangible, manageable, and sustainable. In the end Cronin offers a few steps to further guide teachers through authentic learning. His three steps all encourage teachers to realistically scale down the expectations and scaffold of their assessments and work. Teachers do not need to recreate the wheel or rebuild the pyramids. Instead, teachers must patiently develop a creative curriculum over time, allowing for a natural growth of authentic lessons and an efficient system.


Cronin’s conclusion echoes my original intention in coming to High Tech. At my last school, my efforts to take on creative and authentic projects often ran directly into these dilemmas. In my frustration, I thought that there was some sort of magic or complicated algorithm that only the best teachers developed over time. Although there is value in teaching experience, authentic learning is not merely aged magic. Instead, it can be a grounded system of learning that pushes the students to creatively connect with the real world around them. A classroom or learning environment will not change or develop over night. However, as long as we consciously strive to implement simple and purposeful work in our classroom that connects students to the needs and development of their own lives, we are heading in the right direction.


When beaten down by the doom and gloom of a bad day or poor lesson, listen to Cronin’s words of encouragement to put it into perspective- “Work toward more authenticity, not complete authenticity.”


Quote: “The point of authentic learning is to let students encounter and master situations that resemble real life. These situations are often stimulating and engaging. It is a grave mistake, however, to shield students from the fact that some of life's work is tedious and unimaginative but, nonetheless, absolutely necessary.”



Comment: In my short time at HTH, I have heard many teachers talk about creativity, beauty, and unleashing a student’s untapped imagination. However, I have not yet heard a celebration of the rote and mundane. I completely agree with Cronin here and believe this skill to be essential to both effective teaching and creative projects. Teachers must build classroom cultures that embrace the ordinary, instilling a belief that those responsibilities are just as important as the imagination. Without the grit or self discipline to work, the quality and joy of a creative project will never exist.  Any experience or project requires that surgical preparation and execution and students need to be included in that process.


This quote also helps put creative teaching into perspective. As much as teachers, especially new teachers, want to make every class and lesson completely engaging, real life simply does not work out that way. We have chores. We have errands. We have those small, detailed tasks that must get done. However, by teaching how to embrace this type of integral work, teachers will encourage a much more authentic learning experience.

1 comment:

Alejandra Padilla said...

Alex, your annotation is very inspiring and detailed. I feel like we are both in a position where we need strategies for new teacher who are beginning to work on PBL and this article seems to be a basic read for them. In our schools in Tijuana we have been struggling with balancing projects and what our National Public Education Secretary asks of us. It was very settling to me reading in your post that all the chores and everyday tasks can be simple and ordinary and that even big projects can have areas of improvement, but we shouldn't be afraid to do them. I believe that if the project or task comes from an authentic place in the Teacher's heart, it will be meaningful enough for students to be motivated.

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