Realistic vs. Authentic

My school division is all abuzz about Project-Based Learning (PBL) and Performance-Based Assessment (PBA). In comparison with the No-Child-Left-Behind-years obsession with standardized testing, it is refreshing to see more emphasis on these approaches, but I believe we have a scalability problem. The problem is with authenticity.

PBL by Jeff Lonnett, art teacher and PBL specialist
PBL by Jeff Lonnett, art teacher and PBL specialist

PBL and PBA are both at their best when the work that student’s do is authentic. In a learning context, “authentic” is defined as “real-life” or “real-world.”

Take, as an example, a school that is about to begin a renovation. Students at this school could be asked to redesign the school library and the architects and designers could use the student projects to really-actually decide how to renovate the space.

That’s real world! But how often can you do this? My school system has more than 185,000 students. If we were to insist that PBL and PBA be truly authentic, like the example above, we would mathematically reduce the frequency of these real-world experiences to… well, to the frequency with which they are already happening.  (Although we might solve all the worlds problems… with kids’ solutions.)

If we want PBL and PBA to happen more often in our schools, we can’t have every student solving truly authentic problems all the time! Fortunately, we at least have some words from Christopher Gareis to take the pressure off:

Things we have students do are not [always] truly authentic, but we can design learning activities and assessments to be realistic.

In other words, we can design authentic-like experiences for our students. We can create scenarios of potential real world challenges, and through this approach be able to expose students to engaging problem solving experiences.

Make it realistic, and when you can, make it authentic.

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