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Authentic Tasks

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Updated on Dec 23, 2009

The instructional activities teachers provide for their students play an integral role in shaping what is learned in classrooms. These activities, often referred to as tasks, are what students do to learn academic content and skills. Tasks provide a structure and goal for learning in classrooms and require time to accomplish. They are meant to engage students in an action, or sequence of actions, that require the application and production of knowledge. Some types of tasks are authentic, which means they are situated in meaningful contexts that reflect the way tasks might be found and approached in real life. Authentic tasks can encompass everyday situations, such as organizing to make and sell t-shirts for a community fundraiser, or real-world activities undertaken in disciplines, such as conducting an historical inquiry into the Lewis and Clark expedition. Authentic tasks are not the norm in schools and classrooms, but research and contemporary perspectives on how students learn suggest that these types of tasks are powerfully effective for learning.

A distinguishing feature of authentic tasks is that they have value and meaning beyond the classroom. When students engage in authentic tasks, they do and experience what they, or other people, might do or experience in a real-life setting. In a classroom, this might mean participating in real-world tasks that are similar to the kind of tasks that experts engage in. For example, authentic tasks in a science classroom might require students to conduct scientific investigations in a manner similar to how scientists conduct their work, but in ways that are appropriate and meaningful for students. In this kind of science classroom, students might investigate the air and water quality of their neighborhoods, examine how invasive species impact local habitats, or design and construct a model erosion management system for a city park. As students engage in these tasks, they learn important science content, develop skills that mirror the practices of expert scientists, and learn first-hand how to apply their skills and knowledge in real-life, problem-solving contexts.

Authentic tasks are important because they provide meaning and motivation for learning. They provide students with opportunities to relate to real-world situations, make connections to their own interests, and engage deeply with subject matter. One of the key benefits of authentic tasks is that they introduce students to ways of reasoning and problem solving that represent the work of professionals in practice, which has the advantage of helping students build real-world expertise. As students engage in authentic tasks, they create products or artifacts that showcase the skills and knowledge they have acquired. Often, these artifacts can be used for assessment purposes in a manner that reflects the complexity of how performance is evaluated in the real world.

THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVES

In the early 20th century, the educator and philosopher John Dewey (1933) advocated the use of authentic tasks to help students acquire and deepen subject matter knowledge and enhance their logical reasoning and self-regulation skills. Central to Dewey's view was that children learn best through purposeful activity and that real-world tasks are ideal for developing useful skills and knowledge. In subsequent decades, education researchers and learning theorists elaborated further on the notion of authenticity. Their work sought to explain how authentic tasks support thinking and to gain insight into the classroom conditions under which authentic tasks are most effective.

An important idea that emerged from learning theory and research is that students construct more useful, robust, and integrated knowledge when they are engaged in their learning and helped to develop sophisticated understanding. Requiring students to merely carry out a task will not ensure learning. All too often, classroom tasks result in the acquisition of discrete information that is not very meaningful, memorable, or usable. Psychologist David Perkins (1993) calls such information, which often results from rote memorizing and is not easily transferred to other situations, inert knowledge. For meaningful learning to occur, students need to be cognitively engaged, or intellectually invested, and active in applying ideas. Cognitive engagement depends not only on the task itself, but also on the context in which the task is situated. This idea is referred to as situated cognition (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). Situated cognition emphasizes that the activity and the context in which the activity unfolds are integral to what is learned.

According to the situated cognition perspective, when students learn new information in the context of authentic tasks, they are able to make sense of the new information and relate it to what they already know or have experienced. In such cases new ideas are more likely to become intelligible because they are put in context. Context provides students with a mental frame for making sense of the learning experience. Without some framework in which to connect new ideas, students face difficulty in bringing together new information and organizing it in a way that can be easily recalled and put to use.

Situated cognition also suggests that when students participate in authentic tasks, they acquire information about the conditions and situations in which it is useful to know and apply what they have learned. As a result, they are more likely to be able to take what they have learned in one situation and transfer it to another. Additionally, students are more likely to make relevant connections between their academics and their personal lives. As viewed through the situated cognition lens, authentic tasks engage students cognitively by providing opportunities to actively think about, integrate, and apply ideas in situations that are relevant beyond the classroom. This experience often results in learning that is personally meaningful and motivating for students.

AUTHENTIC TASKS IN CLASSROOMS

Authentic tasks are used in a wide range of classroom settings, including mathematics, science, and history classrooms. Furthermore, an increasing number of instructional programs feature authentic tasks as a means to situate learning in real-world contexts (Blumenfeld, Marx, & Harris, 2006). One example is Project-Based Science (PBS), a program for middle-school science classrooms developed by Joseph Krajcik and colleagues at the University of Michigan (Krajcik, et al., 2000) in which students engage in authentic tasks in ways that are similar to how scientists conduct their work. In PBS classrooms, students take part in scientific inquiry projects that are framed by driving questions that guide instruction and serve to organize students' investigations. For instance, in a project focusing on the physics of collisions, students learn about force and motion by engaging in tasks pertaining to the question, “Why do I need to wear a helmet when I ride my bike?” This question situates the science topic in a context that is likely to be of interest to young students. As they pursue answers to the driving question, they conduct investigations, collect data, weigh evidence, write explanations, and discuss and present findings. The authentic tasks help students learn scientific content and practices relevant and necessary to construct an evidence-based response.

Another instructional program that features authentic tasks is a video-based mathematics series called The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury, developed by John Brans-ford and his research group (Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1997). The program materials consist of video-based narrative adventures that present students in grades five and up with real-world mathematical challenges. For example, in a statistics and probability adventure called The Big Splash, students help a character develop and evaluate a business plan for raising funds for a student-run project. In another adventure called Blueprint for Success, students learn geometry as they help characters design a playground. A central purpose of the narrative adventures is to create experiences that are similar to the type of learning that takes place in real life. Additionally, the challenges provide students with opportunities to apply mathematics concepts and skills in realistic situations.

IMPACT ON LEARNING AND MOTIVATION

When tasks are authentic and situated in real-world contexts, students are more likely to be motivated. Motivation is important because it can lead to increased cognitive engagement and thereby enhance learning (Blumenfeld, Kempler, & Krajcik, 2006). For instance, authentic tasks often create compelling and relevant need-to-know situations for learning that heightens interest and motivates students to invest in their learning. More interest and investment in learning can lead to higher levels of engagement. In turn, sustained cognitive engagement helps students to acquire knowledge and skills as they go about working on tasks. A key benefit of authentic tasks, then, is that they provide a meaningful and motivating backdrop for learning that affords opportunities to actively think about and apply important ideas.

Research on authentic tasks indicates that when they are implemented they are associated with increased achievement and motivation for learning (e.g., Hickey, Moore, & Pelligrino, 2001). Authenticity may be particularly important for students from diverse backgrounds, especially those whose language and cultural backgrounds differ from the mainstream, and who may not perceive relevant connections between school and their everyday interests and lives. Luis Moll and colleagues (1992), for example, describe how teachers designed integrated science and mathematics projects that involved parents sharing their knowledge and expertise regarding topics connected to the surrounding community. Moll and his colleagues found that when teachers draw from students' funds of knowledge—the cognitive, linguistic, and cultural resources that they bring to school—to create tasks that help students make connections, students find meaning in what they are learning and a reason to understand. Overall, the research evidence on authentic tasks with learners in diverse school settings is encouraging: Students benefit academically and show increased interest, motivation, and engagement. Tasks that help students make connections also appear to help them to develop a more comprehensive and nuanced grasp of new material as well as an appreciation for why it is important.

DEVELOPING AND USING AUTHENTIC TASKS

To develop authentic tasks, teachers need to know their students' backgrounds and interests, school and community resources, as well as disciplinary content and practices. A high quality authentic task has several features, including real-world relevance, accessibility, feasibility, sustainability, and alignment to learning goals. Real-world relevance refers to the extent to which the task connects to issues or experiences beyond the classroom. Authentic tasks are most effective when they have personal value and meaning that extends to the surrounding world, thus providing students with a sense of purpose for engaging in the tasks. Accessibility highlights the appropriateness of the task given the prior knowledge and skills of students and its potential for helping students advance in their understanding. An authentic task that is accessible will help students learn important content and develop skills and enhance understanding about the situations in which the newly acquired knowledge and skills can be applied. Feasibility addresses the available school and community resources and whether students can carry out the task given the resources and materials at hand. Sustainability is the ability of a task to sustain cognitive engagement over time. This feature is critical for ensuring that students learn while participating in authentic tasks. A final key feature is alignment to learning goals. Authentic tasks that do not match important learning goals found in district or state standards are unlikely to be usable in school settings.

Teachers can develop high-quality authentic tasks in various ways. One approach is to use learning goals as a starting point. With learning goals in mind, teachers can then brainstorm tasks that will interest students and encompass important ideas and skills. Another way is to use existing curriculum materials and identify opportunities within the materials to create authentic tasks that connect to students' everyday lives and curiosities. Teachers can also develop authentic tasks by listening to students and drawing directly from their ideas, interests, and experiences, as well as issues in their communities. Another approach involves teachers collaborating with students to identify and structure possible tasks. Finally, teachers can work with community experts, such as writers, architects, scientists, engineers, and historians, to develop meaningful and engaging tasks that help students learn about professional practices.

Using authentic tasks effectively with students requires that teachers attend to several features of the classroom environment. Foremost, teachers need to create classroom conditions that support students in learning from authentic tasks (Newmann & Wehlage, 1993). It is necessary to provide guidance to students in how to engage in tasks and how to learn from them. Without specialized support, or scaffolding, from a teacher, students will not develop the skills and knowledge to successfully engage in authentic tasks. Teachers must also create a social climate that supports students in working together productively and encourages students to take risks and try hard on tasks. Another important feature is assessment. Teachers need to provide for authentic assessment of learning that is integrated within the tasks and reflective of the purposes and complexity of the tasks.

LIMITATIONS IN USING AUTHENTIC TASKS

Using authentic tasks in classrooms is complex and difficult. Teachers can be challenged because they may have never participated in authentic tasks and may not know how to enact them. In contrast to typical classroom tasks, authentic tasks are carried out over days or weeks rather than minutes or hours. Teachers need to carefully sequence activities so that students acquire the appropriate skills and knowledge as they work over time. They also need to orient their students to new ways of learning. Students are expected to take on more responsibility and be more self-directed in their learning. Participation alone is not sufficient: Students need to be interested in the task and find personal relevance in it. Yet not all students will find tasks personally meaningful. In such instances, teachers need to use instructional strategies to support students' motivation and cognitive engagement. Another challenge for students is that effective participation in authentic tasks often involves solving problems in which there are no quick and easy solutions. Students can become discouraged with the difficulty of completing tasks. If teachers are to use authentic tasks effectively, they must address the challenges of organizing instruction and supporting students.

A major limitation in using authentic tasks is that they do not fit well within existing school organization and culture (Resnick, 1987). The organizational features of schools, including teacher workload, class scheduling, material resources, and assessments that measure knowledge of simple facts, are structured for traditional instruction and narrow assessment. Furthermore, school norms typically involve students in learning directly from either the teacher or textbook. Teachers, students, and parents expect tasks to fit this model of instruction. Authentic tasks involve a different way of thinking about tasks in classrooms. They require more instructional time and resources, a different instructional stance on the part of teachers, and more effort on the part of students.

Although the benefits in using authentic tasks are clear, the widespread use of these tasks will require changes in the roles of teachers and students, as well as changes in the structure of schools. Though formidable, such changes promise to transform classrooms into places where students engage in complex tasks that are meaningful to them, relate to real-world situations, and help them develop usable knowledge and robust understandings. This kind of learning environment may prove advantageous for all learners.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Blumenfeld, P. C., Kempler, T., & Krajcik, J. S. (2006). Motivation and cognitive engagement in learning environments. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Blumenfeld, P. C., Marx, R. W. & Harris, C. J. (2006). Learning environments. In W. Damon, R. M. Lerner, K. A. Renninger, and I. E. Sigel (Eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology 6th ed., Vol. 4: Child Psychology in Practice. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Brown, J. S., Collins, A. & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42.

Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt. (1997). The Jasper project: Lessons in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Dewey, J. (1933). How we think (2nd ed.). Boston: D. C. Heath.

Hickey, D. T., Moore, A. M., & Pellegrino, J. W. (2001). The Motivational and Academic Consequences of Elementary Mathematics Environments: Do Constructivist Innovations and Reforms Make a Difference? American Educational Research Journal, 38(3), 611–652.

Krajcik, J. S., Blumenfeld, P. C., Marx, R. W., & Soloway, E. (2000). Instructional, curricular, and technological supports for inquiry in science classrooms. In J. Minstrell & E. H. van Zee (Eds.), Inquiring into inquiry learning and teaching in science. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31(2), 132–141.

Newmann, F. M., & Wehlage, G. G. (1993). Five standards of authentic instruction. Educational Leadership, 50, 8–12.

Perkins, D. N. (1993). Teaching for understanding. American Educator, 17(3), 8, 28–35.

Resnick, L. B. (1987). Learning in school and out. Educational Researcher, 16(9), 13–20.

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