There is a current belief that student tasks should be “authentic”. When I first heard that word (more years ago than I am going to share) I thought that it meant that the task should be real-life. So, if I was asking students to write a letter, then it should be a letter to someone they knew; or, if I was asking them to learn about area, they should wallpaper their bedroom. I still believe that those kinds of tasks are engaging, but I am rethinking my notion of authentic.
Perhaps “authentic” means that we ask students to do the work that real people do: read like real readers, write like real authors, do science like a scientist, do math like a mathematician, do geography like a geographer, create like an artist and so on. I was working with some teachers the other day and we were thinking about literature circles. There was a lot of discussion about role cards for students to help them focus their discussions. I have never, personally, found role cards to be particularly engaging for students (the literary luminary, the summarizer, the connector, the visualizer, the director, etc.) and I asked one of the teachers if she was part of a book club. “Oh, yes!” she responded, “I love to read.” I probed further and we began to discuss what she liked to talk about in her book club: the characters, if she liked the characters, how they related to her life, the theme of the book, whether the plot was believable, the author’s writing style. So why, I wonder, would kids be any different? We should teach them how to read and discuss like real readers.
When we use an inquiry-based stance in our teaching, we help kids to learn to think, to create, to do real work–to be authentic. Real mathematicians have to solve problems with the math they know. In a problem-solving classroom, kids approach a problem to solve with the confidence that the math they know will be sufficient. Like real mathematicians, they deepen their understanding and create new knowledge as they realize that other mathematical connections can be made. Real writers write–a lot. They muck about, start and stop, play with words, revise, start again, finish pieces and refinish them. Real writers are obsessed with choosing the very best words for their audience and purpose. Students in a Writers’ Workshop can experience the same type of authentic writing that real writers do when they spend their time really writing, not finishing writing tasks. Real scientists pose questions, test hypotheses, search out information and perform experiments. They share their findings in a community of scientists.
But kids are kids. They need their teachers’ guidance and expertise to learn to do the authentic work of real people. They also need lots of time to practice, mess up, practice, review, and try again. When the teacher directs all the learning, the tasks get done, but they are not authentic. When we give students voice and choice within a supportive environment, we help them to develop the stamina, skills and confidence to do the work of real thinkers, creators and doers.