In Praise of Inauthentic Learning #change11

There is nothing authentic about me. Not that I can tell.

I climbed into a Bavarian stove once for an afternoon, and when I came out, wrote down the following:

“I stink, therefore I’ll bathe.”

It was my only insight, though one I share with James Baldwin’s Sonny, who smelled his own humanity in prison. He, at least, had the jazz piano to help orchestrate his riffs and runs into something unified.

I never found the author of my self. I never found my self. I’m glad I didn’t because the most inauthentic people I know are authentic.

After all my calculation, there was no sum, ergo, only a loose bundle of cogito held together by the thread of necessity. And since I didn’t have anywhere else to go that day, I untied the knot.

This is an inauthentic story. It is also the story of my inauthenticity.

Any so-called authentic learning must trade  the reality of inauthenticty for the illusion of authenticity.

But what a useful illusion it is! I can’t help but agree with Jan Herrington on the appeal of this model. She writes:

Authentic learning is appealing as a pedagogical approach on at least four counts:

1. It situates knowledge in realistic contexts, thereby contextualising knowledge, and making it less likely to remain ‘inert’ when needed to solve problems;
2. Realistic tasks cognitively challenge learners to solve problems and think in the same ways as professionals working in real world contexts;
3. Technology-based cognitive tools can be used both in the processes and products of learning;
4. Complex tasks require the creation of real products and artefacts, and are more worthy of the investment of time and effort in higher education than decontextualised exercises and tasks.

The creation of genuine sharable products ensures that authentic learning is in a position to capitalize on the participatory culture afforded by social media.

In this age of complexity, where there seems to be a deficit of innovative problem-solving, why not encourage our students to get to work applying the latest tools on the most pressing problems. Besides, it’s fun to solve problems, and we learn by doing.

And yet, in this call for more realistic contexts, I sense a major problem: almost none of our problems are realistic. How do I know this? Because we can barely imagine the solutions. In fact, many existing solutions were unimaginable just a decade ago. Or, at least, they first came into focus through imagination. They had to, since they didn’t exist in the material world at the time. Imagination, not reality, is the birthplace of the new.

There’s a reason that IBM, that great 20th Century institution of the Knowledge Worker, has concluded that the 21st Century will be won by the Creative Class. In fact, in their 2010 study, 1500 CEO’s confirmed this, calling creativity “the most crucial factor for future success.” Creativity can certainly be realistic (or else it would have no value to companies like IBM). However, the root practice of creativity is about as inauthentic as you can get. It’s Steve Jobs dropping acid and taking a calligraphy course (Hey, Steve, why don’t you do something more realistic with your life!). It’s Leonardo DaVinci wasting years designing a helicopter. Charles Darwin sailing the world and gazing into coral reefs. (What pressing real world problem could have justified Darwin’s adventure?) It’s Tim Berners-Lee doodling with HTML on the side. It’s Homer (or whoever) setting Greek history to hexameters. And so on.

All of these creations have authentic (and monetary) real world effects, but the creative processes that inspired them were of a different sort.

They were, to quote Herrington, “decontextualized exercises,” and I think we need more, not less, of them.

Leave a comment


  1. Jan Herrington

     /  December 13, 2011

    Andrew, what a great contribution to this discussion on authentic learning in #change11! How exciting if schools and universities could inspire the kind of creativity and inventiveness that motivated these great explorers, and that it could actually be done through the tasks we design for students. But I wonder whether decontextualized exercises in education today are more about applying algorithms or rules in meaningless ways rather than the more creative way you envisage. As a teacher of English and literature, have you used such ‘inauthentic learning’ or ‘decontextualized exercises’ in inventive ways as a pedagogical approach ? Can you share your ideas and examples?

    • Andrew Neuendorf

       /  December 13, 2011

      Thanks for your comments. I don’t like “applying algorithms or rules in meaningless ways” either. I certainly don’t mean “inauthentic” in that sense. I’m sort of playing with words. Mainly, I’m weary of too much focus on real-world application, especially since a) no one knows what real world things they’ll be doing upon graduation, and therefore too much specific application or “training” could lead to narrow minds and skill sets; b) real world applications are always changing, so too much focus on what’s relevant in the present could prove to be worthless in the near future; and c) I think there’s more value in trying to rethink the conceptual underpinnings of the ways things are done in the real world, so that we’re sending students out into that world to question it, re-think it, and make it better. I agree with Cardinal Newman who said the liberal arts are useless. He meant that as a good thing. Of course, it’s also important to be practical. But there’s plenty of time for that later.

      Here’s a brief example of something I’ve done that’s purely worthless. You’ll never do it for a job. For an essay I’ve asked students to write a letter-to-the-editor pretending to a literary figure from the past complaining about a problem in the present. Depending on the course, etc. it could be Socrates writing a letter to put his two cents in about the Herman Cain, for example. They have to integrate real quotations (in this case, from Plato) with their own writing and figure out what Socrates’s views would have been.

      • Jan Herrington

         /  December 15, 2011

        Hi again Andrew. I think your idea for a task is great, and not at all worthless. You say you’d never do this type of activity for a job, but people do this sort of writing all the time (e.g., a special piece for a newspaper or weekend magazine, an insightful blog entry or a television story). Mixing the past and the present is also a great way to get students to focus on the issues, almost as social commentators. Some might do that sort of thing for a job (journalist etc), but as you point out, who knows what jobs will look like in the future. Maybe there will be no journalists and we’ll read people’s blogs and tweets for news. To make it even more ‘authentic’ (as we’ve described it), I’d make it a special edition of a magazine, where students contribute different perspectives or articles, and then publish it on the web! #change11

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