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February 17, 2016
Gold Standard PBL: Authenticity

by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

BIE decided to make “authenticity” one of the new Essential Project Design Elements in our model of Gold Standard PBL, but it’s really been with us all along.  When we suggest ways to come up with ideas for projects, the list includes community issues, real-world problems, topics of personal relevance to students, current events, and so on. And the concept of authentic assessment, which has been around for a while in progressive education circles, has informed our thinking about the use of products and performances in projects to gather evidence of student learning, beyond traditional test-based assessment. We got a nudge to add authenticity to our Essential Elements from Sam Seidel, author of Hip Hop Genius, when he keynoted at our PBL World conference and urged the audience to make learning “real-er” for students.

I had a conversation about authenticity in PBL in a recent hangout with two members of BIE’s National Faculty, John Blaber and Todd Wigginton, plus Chaney Mosley, who directed the high school academies program at Metro Nashville Public Schools. We first talked about what authenticity meant and why it was important.

As a high school English teacher, John sees three elements of authenticity in his projects: real-world topics explored through authentic texts; student voice and choice, so that what they write about and discuss is authentic to them personally; and an authentic product. Todd, who is the Coordinator of Instructional Projects at Metro Nashville, likes the word “application” when thinking about authenticity; teachers show students how what they’re learning applies to the real world. Chaney added that he thinks about how students can transfer what they’re learning, asking, “When would a product be used in the world of work or other real-world context?”

Some Authentic Projects

We discussed some examples of projects than run the spectrum of authenticity, from realistic simulations to projects where students work with community organizations or adult experts, either brought into the classroom or visited away from school. For example, Todd mentioned a project in which third graders learned geometry by working with an architect who came to the classroom to help them create proposals to rebuild their neighborhood.

An authentic context and audience for a project raises the stakes for students, John pointed out, so the quality of their work really goes up. He described a high school English project about immigration reform, where students had to carefully consider how to write powerfully – and properly – when explaining their proposals to a state legislator. He mentioned another project done at a school in southern California in which students tackled an authentic issue in their community, water conservation during a drought, and were highly motivated to learn the science content and employ English Language Arts skills. (A clever part of their awareness-raising campaign was to hold a contest for “dirtiest car”!)

A good way to write an authentic driving question for a project and “ground it in a real-world context,” as Chaney put it, is to begin it with, “How can we, as _____” which places students in an authentic role. For example, he told about a project in which students acted as consultants for local entrepreneurs with the driving question, “How can we, as graphic designers, communicate a company’s purpose for an entrepreneur?” The entrepreneur gave students feedback during the project, and actually used the “winning” design. Todd added that the way students in which worked was also authentic; they used design thinking processes and iterative cycles of critique and revision, just as actual professionals work.

The idea for this project was hatched when some teachers in Metro Nashville spent three days job-shadowing staff at the Entrepreneur Center as part of the district’s innovative “Industry Externship” program. This program gives teachers the opportunity to see how to connect what they teach to a real-world career-based context. To begin the process, teams of teachers suggest the types of businesses they would like to work at, then the district matches them with contacts from its business partnerships or the Chamber of Commerce. At an orientation meeting, the district provides businesses with a manual outlining the program and suggesting ideas for how they can help.

Authentic projects, in addition to motivating students and improving the quality of their work, are also great for boosting parent engagement and connecting with community members, alumni, and older students. In the immigration project John described above, the entry event was a visit from a former student whose relatives had recently immigrated to the California. In another project about privacy and security in the digital age, a parent who was a journalist and a representative from the government served as expert resources. Chaney explained how students surveyed parents about needs and problems in their community, which became the basis for several projects, answering questions such as “How do I get rids of moles in my yard?” and “How can I grow food for my family?” (which btw led to them learn how to grow the tomatoes, onions, peppers and cilantro needed to make salsa).

Challenges and How to Overcome Them

When I asked about the challenges teachers face when designing authentic projects and how to overcome them, our guests had a lot to say. Todd (who like me taught history in high school) talked about how it can be challenging for history teachers to think of authentic projects because, well, history took place in the past, not in today’s “real world.” Of course some connections can be made between the past and current events, but it’s hard to do this for all the content that needs to be taught. Todd suggested teachers consider what a historian does – what is authentic work for them? “They don’t sit around and memorize facts, they’re doing research, analyzing documents, making an argument and defending it from evidence” (which is one of Common Core’s key ELA standards). So give students the opportunity to do the same things as a biologist or mathematician – “who doesn’t do the same 50 problems over and over.”

English teachers, John said, sometimes find it challenging to connect, say, literature to a real-world project. He advises the to look at underlying themes and issues – justice, identity, inequality – as corollaries to current events. But he adds a caution: to keep the project authentic to students, “don’t tell them what to think.”

Another challenge is sometimes teachers can be a bit timid about making outside contacts or to “admit we don’t have all the answers,” notes Todd. “They can take baby steps” toward fully authentic PBL: first try a simulation, then for the next project bring in one expert. John gave a great example of a teacher who talked with someone who worked at a local food bank and found out they needed materials in the primary language of many of its clients, which launched a project in a high school Spanish class. So don’t be afraid to ask; fellow teachers and friends might have contacts. Be curious and reach out to your community.

Do you have ideas about authenticity in PBL, or examples of authentic projects to share? Post a comment below!


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