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Authenticity and the Learning Ecosystem

Educators talk about “authentic learning” and the term may be hard to define, but we know it when we see it. When students are learning from real-life experiences, engaging in project-based and play-based learning, and can be assessed while in the moment of learning—these experiences feel valuable and impactful. Says Sara LaHayne, founder and CEO of Move this World, a social-emotional learning program, learning “needs to be interactive, collaborative, and experiential in order to be authentic.”

When did we start craving authenticity in education? Wendy Pearson, Utah-based virtual instructional coach, sees the desire for authentic learning experiences as a response to a system out of balance. Pearson compares our educational system to our beloved planet, ideally an ecosystem with all plants, animals, insects and microorganisms working in harmony to sustain life. When the system is in balance, the connection between each diverse element enables all organisms to maintain sustainability, and even flourish.

Our educational ecosystem, Pearson argues, has been upset by decades of legislation leading to increasingly stringent accountability measures, mandated state testing and data collection, and funding dependent on compliance. Pearson sees these influences as outside and unnatural forces upsetting the delicate balance of the educational ecosystem, straining its sustainability—taking the focus away from authentic teaching and learning.

Our natural ecosystem has seen similar imbalances introduced by outside initiatives. In Yellowstone National Park in the 1920s, government policy allowing the extermination of the gray wolf caused a collapse of the ecosystem.

When the chief predator was eliminated, other populations exploded—like the elk—while species which depended on the predatory cycle of the wolf and elk were thrown off balance. Coyotes, beaver, fish, and all other forms of life were negatively impacted. Fortunately, in 1995 the gray wolf was reintroduced into the park, and the ecosystem slowly became rebalanced.

Pearson uses this allegory of our natural world to convey her experiences in education. Significant legislation, such as No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act, were noble initiatives but created disturbance in the natural educational ecosystem. Pearson observed that real, authentic learning took a back seat to schools and districts ensuring that Adequate Yearly Progress was met by any means necessary.

In her work as a virtual instructional coach, Pearson believes that digital learning has been the gray wolf in the educational ecosystem, reintroducing balance to unbalanced teaching and learning practices. “Since digital learning has been introduced in our schools, it has begun to change the entire ecosystem of our imbalanced educational system. Teachers now have access to the tools they need to formatively assess students in adaptive, asynchronous environments. They can assign practice work and get daily, weekly, monthly, and even standard-based reports on individual and class-wide progress toward growth and standards proficiency.” Instruction and assessment can be authentic—not always having the goal of meeting accountability guidelines. Pearson observes that teachers feel comfortable analyzing authentic learning data and use it to plan learning experiences in both core and remedial practices and are able to meet the diverse needs of learners with all types of exceptionalities. With digital learning, our educational ecosystem is coming back into balance again.

This interview is based on an article by contributing writer Wendy Pearson. Wendy has been an educator for over 15 years, specializing in curriculum design, professional learning, instructional coaching and learning engagement, most notably in non-traditional and digital learning environments. She resides in Elk Ridge, Utah.

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