Thursday, May 24, 2012

What Does It Take for a Project to be “Authentic”?

EDITOR'S DESK | John Larmer

Everyone thinks that Project Based Learning has something to do with “authentic” learning. But not everyone agrees what this means.

Take this quick quiz:

Which of the following projects could be called authentic? 
a) Students learn about endangered species in their region and take action to protect them, including a public awareness campaign, habitat restoration field work, and communication with local government officials.
b) Students design and create a calendar with pictures and information about endangered species, which they sell at a pre-winter break community event and donate the money to an environmental organization.
c) Students play the role of scientists who need to make recommendations to an environmental organization about how to protect endangered species in various ecosystems around the world.

To authenticity purists, a project is not really authentic unless it is in the real world, connected directly to the lives of students and real issues their communities. By this standard, choice “a” above certainly qualifies, and maybe “b”, but probably not “c”.

But I think the answer is “d) all of the above.” 

There is a sliding scale of authenticity in PBL, which goes from “Not Authentic” to “Somewhat Authentic” to “Fully Authentic.”

“Not authentic” means the work students do does not resemble the kind of work done in the world outside of school or it is not intended to have an effect on anything apart from an academic purpose. A not-authentic project would involve the kind of assignment students are typically given in school: compose an essay, create a poster or model, write and present a book report, or make a PowerPoint presentation on a topic they've researched. Beyond their teacher and maybe their classmates there’s no public audience for students’ work, no one actually uses what they create, and the work they do is not what people do in the real world.

“Somewhat authentic” means students are doing work that simulates what happens in the world outside of school. In a project that is somewhat authentic, students could play a role (as in choice “c” above): scientists, engineers, advisors to the President, or website designers who are placed in a scenario that reflects what might actually occur in the real world. Or students could create products that, although they are not actually going to be used by people in the real world, are the kinds of products people do use.

“Fully authentic” means students are doing work that is real to them—it is authentic to their lives— or the work has a direct impact on or use in the real world. The “real world,” by the way, could still be school, which is a very real place for students. In these projects, like choices “a” and “b” above, students might advocate for a cause; take action to improve their community; perform a service for someone; create a physical artifact to display or distribute, or express their own ideas about a topic in various media.

A project can be authentic in four ways, some of which may be combined in one project:

1. It meets a real need in the world beyond the classroom or the products students create are used by real people.

For example:

  • Students propose designs for a new play area in a nearby park.
  • Students plan and execute an environmental clean-up effort in their community.
  • Students create a website for young people about books they like.
  • Students write a guide and produce podcasts for visitors to historic sites in their county.
  • Students serve as consultants to local businesses, advising them on how to increase sales to young people.
  • Students develop a conflict resolution plan for their school.

2. It focuses on a problem or an issue or topic that is relevant to students’ lives—the more directly, the better—or on a problem or issue that is actually being faced by adults in the world students will soon enter.

For example:

  • Students create multimedia presentations that explore the question, “How do we make and lose friends?”
  • Students learn physics by investigating the question, “Why don’t I fall off my skateboard?”
  • Students form task forces to study possible effects of climate change on their community and recommend actions that could be taken.
  • Students decide whether the U.S. should intervene in a conflict inside another country that is causing a humanitarian crisis.

3. It sets up a scenario or simulation that is realistic, even if it is fictitious.

For example:

  • Students are asked by the Archbishop of Mexico in 1819 to recommend a location for the next mission in California.
  • Students act as architects who need to design a theatre that holds the maximum number of people, given constraints of available land, cost, safety, comfort, etc.
  • Students play the role of United Nations advisors to a country that has just overthrown a dictator and needs advice about how to start a democracy.
  • Students recommend which planet in our solar system ought to be explored by the next space probe as they compete for NASA funding.
  • Students are asked to propose ideas for a new TV reality show that educates viewers about science topics such as evolutionary biology and the geologic history of the earth.

4. It involves tools, tasks, or processes used by adults in real settings and by professionals in the workplace. This criteria for authenticity could apply to 
any of the above examples of projects.

For example:

  • Students investigating the physics of skateboarding test various surfaces for speed, using the scientific method and tools scientists use.
  • Students exploring the issue of how we make and lose friends conduct surveys, analyze data, record video interviews, and use online editing tools to assemble their presentations.
  • Students acting as U.N advisors to an emerging democracy analyze existing constitutions, write formal reports, and present recommendations to a panel.

I agree that fully authentic projects are often the most powerful and effective ones, because they are so engaging for students and allow them to feel like they can have an impact on their world—so the more of them, the better. But if you can’t get there yet, don't feel like you’re failing the authenticity test in your projects. Some is still better than none!

Director of Product Development


  1. This is a great post. I will be sharing it for sure. I started thinking a while back about Harts Ladder of Participation and I think this ties in really well. Thanks for the wealth of information!

  2. Thought-provoking post for sure! I believe answer 'c' is what teachers have been doing a lot of for the last ten years or more. "Pretending" works less in engaging students as they reach the middle school years and beyond. For example, I remember writing up a backgrounder to an assigment that read (IMO) like the introduction to an action video game. Students were part of a group who had deposed a corrupt dictator and had to introduce a market or mixed economy based on the country's economic characteristics, etc., that would have a positive impact on the population within one year.
    In ninth grade, all of this soon felt like a transparent sham. Students moved on to the work like any other teacher designed activity that comes out of a content heavy prescriptive curriculum. True engagement comes from an authentic audience, not the audience of one that has characterized schools for more than a century. With a Read/Write Web, social media and networked intelligence around every conceivable interest we could ever try to name, there is no reason why we cannot strive for the authenticity of 'a' as we move learning forward.

  3. Thank you for clarifying item 3 John. It seemed in conflict to the suggestion that simulations are less worthy of inquiry, based on the definition of a PBL. Still, simulations can be used and have their place when real world contexts are not available. As you poignantly say, "some is better than none."
    Ruben Hernandez
    Seal Beach, CA

  4. I loved John Larmer's message that we should not fret if we are creating somewhat authentic projects. The continuum he describes is a useful construct to use to reflect on projects. This post led me to write a related blog post.

  5. It helped me clarify my doubts about what can be termed as authentic and difference between authentic work and work in progress!! it also helped me understand that i need to push boundaries for self and balance the fact that this is primarily a student work and art of fine tuning the same!

    Interesting Reflections....
    Take away:- Re-Read this every time one has doubt about what one is doing!!!

  6. Thanks for sharing . . . this is a great "checkpoint" as I design learning units and assessments for my students. I love the possible relationship between the 3rd way you describe projects as being authentic and gameful learning tasks. Allowing students to "play" an an authentic role or playfully solve an authentic problem lends meaning to their work while allowing them to fail safely.