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by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

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Topic tags: what is PBL, how to do PBL, authenticity


May 24, 2012
What Does It Take for a Project to be “Authentic”?


by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

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 climate change.

4. It involves tools, tasks, standards, 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!


  • So, where do I stand. I took the theme of “making a difference,”  read a few stories, applied the theme to the main characters and then pulled the class in with their own ideas. “What can a sixth grader do, what can you do today, to make a difference?” From this 7 projects were started: three on bullying, litter, tutoring, PJ’s for a local children’s hospital and handbook for new students.  The students developed their own plans and with some contact support from me. After eight weeks, three were done, three needed more time to complete and one had stalled completely. Am I on the right track?

    Vicki Ann on March 27, 2014 
    [Reply to this comment]
    • Definitely on the right track! Those projects sound fully authentic to me, as long as they were implemented and not just an exercise. The timing problem is a common one, no easy answer, except you’ll figure it out better & better with more experience with PBL.

      John Larmer on April 17, 2014 
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  • English language teaching in France is now required to be PB but I am sure you can understand that most projects can only be of the simulation kind, as they are all also required to pertain to the English-speaking world. Students can only “pretend” they belong to that world.

    isajem on October 7, 2014 
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    • That is a logic and absolutely valid approach, and quite common. And yet, there is room too for an alternative approach, according to which all those French students learning English are part of the English-speaking world, as they are already speakers of that language. And, as such, their learning has the potential to have an impact around them. So, as long as the mastering of the language is the final goal, then yes, most of the PB work will be of the simulation kind. But if the emphasis is placed on what happens beyond the language acquisition process itself, that is, on how those students can make a contribution to their own communities through those new language skills they are acquiring, then the PB experience will be much more challenging, complete, rewarding, and authentic.

      [email protected] on November 19, 2014 
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  • There is a danger in internet discussions of attracting only supporters, while (as James Surowiecki argues in The Wisdom of the Crowd) we establish truth by contested debate. So here is a contrarian comment.

    I suggest there are three major problems with the theory of authentic learning - or authentic work as you explain it here.

    1. The term is horribly loaded. As you acknowledge, we might have some problems in defining exactly what it is, but we clearly get the message that it must, by definition, be a good thing.

    2. It ignores the purpose of formal education which is to change lives, not to be guided by the limited lives of the uneducated. As UK Professor Diana Laurillard puts it, formal education satisfies a “need to learn things we cannot know until we have learned them” (see link from my blog at According to your doctrine, the skills required to become successful businessmen are not “authentic” from the perspective of learners whose families live off benefit or crime.

    3. It proposes to teach through complex, applied situations when it is more plausible to suggest that *effective* learning isolates individual skills and concepts, enabling focused (if unrealistic) practice, before applying those dis-aggregated skills and concepts to the messy, concrete world in which we live. Harry Webb quotes Daisy Christodoulou as pointing out that one reason that South American soccer players are better than Europeans is that they spend more time practising skills and less time playing full games ( You might approve of what Professor Eric Mazur says on the essence of education at - but his point is that *before* you can apply your learning to complex, real-world situations, you have to have learnt what are abstract points in the first place. Like you have to have learnt your soccer skills before you can apply them to a real game.

    I recognise that (1) children need to be motivated, (2) they need to be persuaded that their education is useful, (3) that new skills and concepts have to be “connected” to existing ones, and (4) that true learning requires that you are able to apply abstract knowledge to concrete situations. But this does not mean a diet of complex and time-consuming project work to the exclusion of teaching dis-aggregated skills and abstract concepts. I suggest that such a proposal is likely to be motivated more by a concern to oppose authority (as re-enforced by expertise) than by a genuine concern to deliver effective education to those who need it most.

    So what I would propose is returning the ideas of Bloom, who suggests a sequencing of instructional styles, moving from memorization through manipulation to application. Let project-based learning take its place in a late stage of that sequence, playing a supporting role in a mixed pedagogical economy - not claiming to be a panacea in a sort of pedagogical mono-culture.


    CrispinWeston on December 1, 2014 
    [Reply to this comment]
    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments, we appreciate readers who engage deeply (and contrarily!). Let me just offer two quick responses for now, and we’ll send some more comments later.
      First, we have never claimed that PBL is a panacea, nor does it have to be a “steady diet”; we think other pedagogies can certainly be in the mix each year at a school. Also, Bloom’s taxonomy was never meant to be a guide for teaching, although it has been interpreted as such by many educators. And it did not mean, say, that students must only be taught at the “remember” level until they eventually make it to the “evaluate” level.

      John Larmer on December 5, 2014 
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    • As a Montessori teacher working to revitalize the current curriculum of our middle school program, I agree that there is great importance to the manipulation and memorization aspects to learning.  Montessorians submit to the idea of the three-period lesson, wherein a concept is first introduced, then children are asked to identify the concept, then asked to apply the concept. 

      However, the issue we are running into is that, in practicality, all of our middle school education at the moment consists of introducing a concept, then testing on the concept.  The kids are burned out (they were burned out at the end of the first quarter) and we’re getting cynical about our role as facilitators of learning.  Hence, our vision of introducing PBL to reconstitute the spirit of adolescent Montessori education.  But that doesn’t mean it will completely replaced the didactic model we are using now; what we intend to do is provide a workshop every morning on a set of skills in a particular subject area - in math, examples might be how to perform particular calculations, or perform statistical analysis; in humanities, how to read primary documents or use a topographical map; in science, how to use and care for lab equipment or how to write a science report.  The students will be tested traditionally on their mastery and understanding of the concepts and skills they learn in workshops, and then they will apply those skills to their bigger project.  We plan to have a year-long focus topic and a smaller theme every quarter that allows us to look at that topic from a different angle.  The students will have at least one guest speaker, one field trip, and one class project every quarter.  We will also be diligent about ensuring that area standards are incorporated into the workshops and into the big project, and students will be responsible for achieving certain sets of standards and skills every quarter, whether that means they do computer or pencil-and-paper math drills, attend specific workshops, “test out” of standards, complete readings and writing assignments, etc.

      It’s going to be a drastically revised version of the classroom that we implement next year, and it’s not going to be easy, but I’m pretty excited about it.

      marli1se on February 3, 2015 
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  • I discovered that my students generally enjoy PBL since it enables them to see the relevance of what they are learning to life beyond the walls of the classroom. It also develops critical thinking skills, teamwork, and creativity as they engage a topic of interest. These experiences are definitely important ingredients in the learning process, yet I also see the value of simply learning basic facts and skills. Such knowledge can then be incorporated into a PBL activity.

    lisamak1 on April 7, 2016 
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    • I appreciate your comment because my students have shared how being immersed in a project helps with the learning process and making connections between the grade-level standards and real-world applications. For example, one of the video speakers mentioned how important it is to identify the key issue (i.e.: immigration) in a novel and connect it to real-world events. The authentic piece allows the students to understand how the written word has been used to pierce the consciousness of readers to force them to make a stand on an issue then perform an action that allows them to “be the change” by sending a letter to their legislators to advocate for the local immigrants from their community.

      ddcarlton on June 22, 2016 
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  • I think that it can be overwhelming to think that the only way to be authentic is to have an end product that will be used in the real world. Knowing that it can be just as authentic to be about an issue that applies to their real life (context) or that they are doing authentic work to answer the driving question that would be seen in the real world.  I appreciate the idea in the video of the students using graphic design programs to market a small business when they coupled with an organization in the community that helps entrepreneurs start their business.  I agree when there is a connection to what they are learning and what goes on in the “real world” they are more motivated and engaged to participate.

    mlunt1 on June 22, 2016 
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  • I enjoy the authenticity piece of PBL! It truly helps for students who always ask “why”? In addition, authenticity forces the teacher to think outside of his/her comfort levels and collaborate with adults in the community who have an interest in helping children grow. Authenticity is a MUST for any lesson regardless of the pedagogical practice used.

    DCH on June 22, 2016 
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  • Olá!  Na escola que faço parte,  iniciamos o estudo sobre ABP. Apesar de muitas coisas não serem novas,  particularmente estou tendo muita dificuldade em pensar em.propostas com pergutas significativas, desafiadoras para possível projeto de identidade-Eu, o outro, nós- para crianças de 6/7anos de idade. Os registros acima me ajudaram um pouco. Ainda preciso.aprender mais.

    Thais Batista on January 15, 2017 
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  • I like having the students work on authentic projects that will stay with them even after they’ve completed the assignment.  Allowing the students to collaborate and research about a topic that is meaningful to them can increase their interest in learning.  PBL is a good way for the students to stay engaged.

    danielle_dominguez on February 6, 2017 
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