Sunday, August 18, 2013

The A Word

Authentic: : not false or imitation : real, actual via Merriam-Webster

Have you noticed the number of times people have thrown around the word authentic, especially when relating to student work? I have been guilty of that myself, I have talked for years about authentic student blogging. But, I don't think that word means what we think it means.

Can we really have authentic student work in the classroom? Since we require the work, doesn't that make it not authentic? Or, by definition is all work students do real? 

I have given assignments to my students where I thought they were doing authentic work. For example, I have had students write fiction which they shared on the internet through their blogs. Of course I was looking for an authentic audience to read their authentic writing. But, on considering what I had them do, I wonder if there was anything authentic about it. 

I know that some of my students really enjoyed writing fiction. Not only did they thrive with the assignments they were given, they spent their time writing new fiction or reworking older assignments to make them better. I believe that was authentic. It was true to them.

Many of my students did not want to write fiction. Some wrote some amazing stuff anyway, but it wasn't their choice. They did great work but had no choice about having to do it. Was being able to decide on what the story was about enough to make the assignment authentic? Did it become authentic when they took ownership? Is the fact that it was assigned enough to make it false?

At this point you are probably wondering why I care. I worry that we are lying to ourselves about the work we have our students doing. I worry that we placate our assignment 
decisions through words like authentic when they really aren't. 


  1. All too often, it is true that we console ourselves if we "approach" authenticity. I am quite convinced, under current educational structures, that it is a certainty that no assignment we direct our children to attempt will be authentic to all of them. The word authentic may describe a learning moment, but the term neither sanctions the merits of the learning, or the only way to learn. I can think of many authentic learning experiences I have had that were of dubious value. I can have also benefited from many abstract, decontextualized lessons.

    1. Excellent point. I also don't think that authentic learning should be our goal. I think learning should be our goal. I have no doubt that emulating or recreating something can be a very valuable learning experience. I also admit that part of the 'authentic' push may have been my fault. I used to talk about authentic audiences with blogging all the time. I do think that it is easier to find an authentic audience online that it is to create an activity that becomes authentic to the students though.

  2. We talk about authentic assessments a lot, too, in this way. I find it hard to know when to push and when to let go. Often times there are students who need more direction than others. I also think that when we say something is authentic we are assuming a lot of things that may not be known about the task being asked to complete. Since we do not know what all of our students are going to grow up and do with their lives or what those careers may look like, it is tough to say exactly what is authentic and what is not. I do believe that using outlets like this offers students an authentic audience for their work as well as feedback about what they are doing. I think the best we can offer students is the understanding you outlined in your post and allow them to be a part of building - what is authentic about the experience is that we are all asked to do things we would rather not do at some point in our careers and it is our job to figure out how to make the best of it when it happens. I think that is a universal truth and we can try and show students ways to find success in that.