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The Essence of Authentic Learning @ SLA

One of Philadelphia’s many building murals
(CC) Photo by Steve Ransom

I’m at Philadelphia’s EDUCON, a unique sort of learning event where sessions start with a proposed question, to be answered by the audience through conversation. The function of the presenter is to generate that problem-solving conversation.

Day one focuses on the Science Leadership Academy, a unique sort of school that hosts the conference. SLA students conduct tours of the school where we can talk with them and their teachers. It was my fourth tour of the school, two during EDUCON days, and two during normal school days walking through with its principal and founder, Chris Lehmann.  Of course, nothing about SLA is normal.

Today, I had a personal tour, just me and Tyler, a senior with an interest in astronomy. He is working with the astronomy staff at The Franklin Institute on a number of projects. Needless to say, I shared with him my neighbor, Paul Gilster’s blog, Centauri Dreams.

Each time I visit SLA, I walk away with a different aspect of the place resonating between my ear. I remember my second tour with Lehmann, walking around and people would walk up, interrupting the tour, for a conversation with the principal.  I suddenly realized that most of the time I unable to tell whether the person was a student or one of the school’s young teachers. The topics of the conversation never concerned the logistics of schooling, but were about the work of accomplishing some important goal or mission.

Today?  Well it was authentic learning, a term I heard and overheard several times in the halls and classrooms.  What struck me, was that there was always some sense of apology at the use of the word, like the speaker had not choice but to invoke it instead of some better phrase.

Authentic learning is a term with a long history in education, spanning well before NCLB – and it is a term that, frankly, has seen better days.  I suppose it is true in most professions that a term or phrase becomes used by so many people, in so many places, within so many contexts, that the label’s weight shadows it’s original meaning.  Many of us come to distrust the term and are left to use examples to convey our meaning – and examples rarely reach its essence.

I won’t presume to define authentic learning here.  But during my conversations with instructors at the school and with Tyler, and seeing similarities between the educational practices at SLA and the vocational classes I took as a high school student, I saw a commonality that was informative to me.  The linchpin effect of authentic learning is that..

The value of what is being learned is obvious to the learner
Does not have to be explained by the teacher.

There is great power
When the learning why
Is part of
The learning how.



  • http://branzburg.blogspot.com Jeff Branzburg

    To me, one of the fascinating things about authentic learning is that what is authentic for me may not be so for you. Each of our interests adds authenticity, so imposed curricula almost be definition cannot be authentic for all!

  • http://www.educationreform.co.uk Neil Moffatt

    Interesting to hear a variation of what is essentially child-centred, or progressive learning. With so much political attention on schools and teachers and grades, the pupils often do not get a look in, But if they feel they have some ownership of the material they will learn, then engagement is a natural consequence, the nature of which is qualitatively different from teacher initiated and ordained teaching.

  • Heather Davis

    Thanks for your post. Lately I find that I am cringing inside when I say or write “authentic learning” because it seems so over used. I appreciate that I am not alone in these feelings.

    As I just wrote that I realized that educators who are attending EduCon or working to lead the way for other teachers the term may be getting old but it still maybe new to educators who are just being introduced to this way of thinking.

    I am no longer in the classroom full time after 38 years but am now responsible for the IT Professional Development of the Elementary staff at my school. As I think about them I am sure there are some that are not aware of the term authentic learning or maybe how it applies to technology in the classroom.

    I wonder what would be a better expression as we can’t throw it out entirely?

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    As HR related tasks are away for company’s core business, they lack expertise in such sectors for their business.They struggled to maintain and manage their manpower upto their expectations.Companies doing serious business cannot afford to devote precious time and manpower to HR related issues.To overcome this issue,they need to get served under some efficient HR services from experts.Iris-Corp have simplified each process and have devised integrated solutions which are structured to handle the entire range of HR functions through its Hr Management Services

Photo taken by Ewan McIntosh in a Taxi in Shanghai

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Cultivating Your Personal Learning Network
2nd Edition (2012)

Redefining Literacy 2.0 (2008)
Classroom Blogging
(2007) • Lulu
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Raw Materials for the Mind

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