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What Does Authentic Learning *Really* Mean?

In education, we often hear about the importance of “authentic learning.”

Authenticity is, after all, a core pillar of project-based learning.

But what does authentic learning really mean?

When I’ve asked this question to other educators, I’ve most often been met with vague and varying answers.

And that’s no fault of their own!

I began asking this question when I was looking for guidance and advice to use in my own classroom.

And through these conversations with other educators, I started to notice a pattern in teaching with project-based learning. While many of us do believe that authenticity is one of the most critical ingredients of PBL, we oftentimes have different visions for what authenticity looks like in practice (6 Ways to Guide Students to More Authentic Work in PBL).

In this blog post, we’ll explore this question – What does authentic learning *really* mean? – in depth.

What is Project-Based Learning?

Project-based learning is an approach to teaching and learning where students actively explore real-world problems and challenges through projects.

Research shows that project-based learning (PBL) has a profound impact in deepening educational experiences for students. PBL allows students to:

  • Develop and explore questions and problems
  • Conduct their own research
  • Make connections with experts in a specific subject matter
  • Create final products to share with the class or greater community

Project-based learning engages students in authentic, meaningful learning experiences.

Learn more about the PBLWorks Project-Based Learning Framework here.

What Does It Take for a Project to be Authentic?

According to John Larmer, former editor in chief at PBLWorks, a project can be authentic in four different ways:

  • The project meets a real need in the real world beyond the walls of the classroom.
  • The project has relevance to the student’s life – either through an issue, problem, or topic that is personally connected to the student.
  • The project involves a realistic scenario or simulation, even if it is fictitious.
  • The project consists of real processes, tools, tasks, or standards used in the workplace.

While I have always been a fan of the PBLWorks model, my former teaching partner Anna introduced me to the University of Pennsylvania’s project-based learning framework, which has many parallels.

University of Pennsylvania defines authenticity in PBL similarly, summarizing the relationship as: (1) students make a contribution to the world, and/or (2) students build personal connections to the work.

In my own experience as a teacher, I’ve also looked at increasing a project’s authenticity by having students engage with authentic audiences. Students might work on a project that has a real impact on a real community. Or, students might present their project findings to a real audience of community members.

So, what does it take for a project to be authentic? Based on these ideas, a project is authentic when:

  • Students make a contribution to the world
  • Students build personal connections to the work
  • And/or, students engage with an authentic audience

Students Make a Contribution to the World

A challenging problem or question is a driving force behind project-based learning (Edutopia). In PBL, students seek to answer a real-world dilemma, question, or puzzle by creating their project.

A project is authentic when it meets a real need or focuses on real people.

For example, students might work on a project that:

  • Solves a problem in the local community (i.e. an improved recycling system or clean-up effort to help eliminate trash)
  • Explores a current event (i.e. the impact of supply chain issues on the economy)

PBL empowers students to make a meaningful contribution to the world.

Students Build Personal Connections to the Work

In project-based learning, students can also build personal connections to their work, including their project topics. Through this process, students can “draw on their experiences, perspectives, and values” (6 Ways to Guide Students to More Authentic Work in PBL).

PBL provides an opportunity for students to explore their own personal connections to their project, even when students are actively exploring the same topic.

For example, students might work on a project that:

  • Explores a real issue they are currently facing (i.e. creating a presentation about reducing food waste in the school cafeteria, or combatting cyberbullying with a social media campaign)
  • Engages their interests and hobbies (i.e. a Physics project about surfing, or a stop motion film based on a scene from a book)
  • Showcases their lived experiences and values (i.e. a collection of short stories about their family for a Language Arts project)

Students Engage with an Authentic Audience

During a project-based learning unit, students have the opportunity to engage with an authentic audience. Students can connect with experts to learn more about their project topics, by meeting with local community members and stakeholders or even learning from experts on a specific topic and industry.

For example, if students are looking to create a mural for the community, they may choose to interview local residents to learn more about their stories (5 Strategies for Aligning PBL to Real-World Problem-Solving).

Teachers can facilitate bringing experts to meet directly with students!

At the end of a project-based learning unit, students will present their project, often referred to as a “public product.” During this stage, students will make their project work public, “explaining or presenting [their work] to people beyond the classroom” (PBLWorks).

Students can share their work with an authentic audience beyond the classroom, including:

  • Presenting to a panel of a community members
  • Pitching their ideas to “investors” (i.e. local business leaders)
  • Writing letters or emails to stakeholders (i.e. politicians, board members)
  • Displaying work in the community (i.e. mural, museum)
  • Sharing work online (i.e. website, social media)

So, What Does Authentic Learning *Really* Mean (And Why Is It Important)?

As an educator, I believe that a project can be authentic when:

  • Students make a contribution to the world
  • Students build personal connections to the work
  • And/or, students engage with an authentic audience

Authentic project-based learning can expose students to real-world contexts, including solving real-world problems that real-world people face.

Authentic project-based learning can increase student engagement.

But above all, authentic project-based learning can empower students to become positive change makers in the world.

Thank You!

Thank you for reading this blog post about authenticity in project-based learning. What authentic projects have you tried with your students? Let me know in the comments below, DM me on Instagram @edtechclass, or email me at I’d love to hear from you!


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