Authenticity in Project Based Learning (PBL)

The case for Authenticity in PBL is a strong one.  The Buck Institute for Education has changed their “8 Essential Elements” to include Authenticity as part of the design qualities for Gold Standard level PBL approach.  The previously has used the term “Need to Know” in their 8 elements, but it’s been replaced by Authenticity, which I feel is a stronger element for student engagement and learning and it’s a much easier quality to measure.

In my experience with PBL, teachers, myself included, have struggled with the concept of teacher as sideline facilitator rather than the traditional role of teacher as center of the learning.  In regards to Authenticity in projects, teachers often struggle with the balance between swooping in and showing/doing/telling kids how their project can and should be Authentic and allowing them to find projects that meet the requirements for it to be so.

I have shared with my colleagues an article written by John Larmer titled, “PBL: What does it take for a project to be Authentic?” It outlines a clear path of four basic ways for projects to be authentic. John is careful to remind us in this article that projects should be judged on a “sliding scale.” Also, that when it comes to Authenticity, “some is better than none.”

One of the ways that I have brought authenticity to our school PBL program is to employ the use of mentors from our community.  After teachers have selected their topics in our PBL program and students have signed up for those topics, students then create a Driving Question and begin to design their project with the 8 essential elements. They have a project proposal form that they (with their supervising teacher) fill out to describe their project and how it will unfold. Students are encouraged to reflect on this proposal, re-evaluate and revise it throughout the semester as they go through their project.

The use of mentors from the community allow students to meet with, learn about and gain feedback from adults who are working in a professional capacity in the area that they are learning about.  A student who worked on creating a housing solution plan to address the homeless issues in San Francisco, for example, was able to meet with an architect who helped him to learn the necessary drafting skills to mark up plans for construction.  A student in an advertising PBL who wanted to raise awareness about literacy connected with a CEO of a literacy non-profit and was not only able to create an awareness campaign, but raised money for that company to put into use.

In our first semester using mentors in the PBL program, we reached out to parents and personal contacts through our school newsletter and personal crowdsourcing networks. We were able to collect about 35 names of professionals who came in to speak to groups or who were able/willing to work one on one with students on their projects in some capacity. Some were able to be Skyped in if they lived far away (a personal friend of mine who is a film maker in L.A. spoke to my class about his career and projects upcoming did so through a Google Hangout with students). We had a total of 105 student projects presented and hope to have an equal number of mentors as we move forward so that students have a 1:1 ratio of people resources they can draw on for their projects.

Using mentors is a powerful way to not only connect your community (parents, alumni, local businesses) with the school and students, but an incredible resource of knowledge and hands on learning. One of the ways that John Larmer says a project can be fully authentic is if it uses professional tools, processes or approaches that a professional in the field might employ. Inviting mentors in to talk to a whole class or work with your students is one way to gain insights into what they as professionals use in their daily work.

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