Authentic Learning: It’s Elementary!

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Authentic learning is typically distinguished by four characteristics:

  1. The opportunity for learners to define and pursue their own questions and passions
  2. Inquiry work and the solving of real problems
  3. Discourse within a community of learners
  4. Activities that mimic the work of professionals and require the presentation of findings to audiences that will benefit from them

At first glance, authentic learning may seem like an unrealistic approach for elementary learners, but nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout this year, I’ve had the opportunity to design curricula with numerous teachers who will tell you that in fact, authentic learning is elementary! It all begins by embracing the fact that even our youngest learners have a great deal to teach others.

Make the Shift to Authentic Learning by Coaching Kids to Share Their Expertise:

  • Instead of asking learners to keep personal vocabulary lists or master words you’ve identified for them, invite them to speak with younger students about the most important words they’ve learned and used often this year. I overheard a fifth grader telling a third grader about the word unrealistic last week. “There just isn’t another word like it. When you know how to use it, you’ll be able to describe something you weren’t able to before,” she explained, after modeling how to use the word correctly. This easy and organic conversation seemed far more powerful than any quiz or game I’ve used in the past.
  • Rather than writing book reports, creating posters, or presenting on the texts they’ve read, challenge readers to establish their own Shelfari or Goodreads accounts. Ask them to post authentic reviews on Amazon. Play the book trailers they film on a constant loop in the library, where audiences might be most inspired to borrow the books they feature. We shouldn’t be waiting until high school to help kids establish a digital footprint.
  • Identify three or four students who approach problem-solving in varied ways. Invite them to the front of the room to demonstrate their processes beside one another, where their peers might learn from them. Shoot this data using your cell phone, and put it on display, where other learners might benefit from it.
  • Provide writers with a variety of diverse tools, and invite them to MAKE writing. Coach them to share what they learn, not only what they make. Value exhibition over publication.
  • Rather than writing research reports, challenge learners to study topics of interest and use what they discover to craft and share digital stories with a wide audience using apps like Storykit. You’ll find some great examples from Heather Bitka’s kindergarten classroom in my Diigo archives. Heather is a Lockport City School District teacher whose students taught me much about research at the primary level.
  • Position your students as teachers within and beyond your classroom. Help them define their expertise, and connect them with those who could benefit from it.

Just as kids have much to teach, they also have the power to advocate for the needs of others and influence critical changes in their world. It’s my personal opinion that the best authentic learning experiences are collaborative in nature. They inspire kids to work together in service to others.

Examples of Collaborative Authentic Learning Experiences:

  • Upcycling Projects bring kids together to transform trash into treasure. Learners study the importance of upcycling and take on a collaborative project wherein the products created are used or donated to those who might appreciate them best.
  • A classroom of writers might creative hardcover children’s books that are donated to a local children’s hospital.
  • After identifying a community need, classes chart a course for their collective advocacy work. This might include creating public service announcements, performing service work in order to improve conditions, writing op-ed pieces for the local paper that call for action, or speaking at community events.
  • Learners might identify unsung community heroes: people who provide a great service, but who may go unnoticed. The class works together to recognize the contributions these people make. This might include writing letters of thanks, creating a community website that features each of these individuals, or celebrating them at community events.
  • Teams could design proposals for solutions that might serve the school or greater community well. Proposals might be entered into competition, and winning entries might go on to pursue funding from parent-teacher groups or other sources.
  • Kids might prototype games or game pieces, invite audiences to test them, and work together to make their plan a real product.

It’s been my experience that the transition to authentic learning happens easily when we begin recognizing the fact that every student–regardless of age–has expertise to share. Asking them to define it, noticing it ourselves, and connecting those who have it to those who might benefit from it is a powerful first step. When we do this, collaboration is often an organic byproduct, and more significant projects begin to evolve out of the process. What advice do you have for those who are eager to pursue authentic learning at the elementary level? Please share your thoughts in the comments……

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at

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