The Longman Dictionary says authenticity is “the quality of being real or true.” But what does authenticity mean in the context of the language classroom? Here, in part 1, Philip Warwick explores authenticity from two different sides: authentic learning and authentic teaching.
Definitions of authenticity are quite consistent. While the Longman Dictionary says it’s “the quality of being real or true,” other resources define it as “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character” and “not false or an imitation.” Words like “true” and “real” suggest authenticity is something we should strive for as teachers—and we intuitively know our learners respond when we set them tasks that connect to what’s really happening in their world. Authenticity has become core toapproaches like project-based learning, and for good reason.
Students notice when there’s a disconnect between what we ask them to do in the classroom, and what they will have to do outside the classroom. Conversely, they respond positively to authenticity in what they’re learning—it provides an automatic impetus for engagement.
Authentic learning, then, can involve having students engage with real-world problems. This might seem challenging at lower levels of language proficiency. However, voting for a favorite food, for example, has echoes of the real-life situation of negotiating with friends where to go for dinner, but with the language is pitched at a much lower level.
Added to that, authentic learning can also involve authentic thinking. Instead of voting for a favorite, the class might evaluate the relative merits of each kind of food and put them in a list from their favorite to their least favorite. This higher-order thinking skill—evaluation—requires students to critically assess information, an ability which has been identified as one of the keys to success socially and professionally in the 21st century.
Metacognitive skills—thinking about thinking—are also processes students of all levels can engage in. Students can rank or review an activity or task, thinking about what was easy and what was hard about it. By identifying the challenging aspects of the activity or task students might approach similar activities or tasks differently in future. They might also seek support not only by asking their teacher for help; they might also ask other students to help too, and so there may also be a social and community element to this, which also feels authentic.
Beyond the activity or task, students may be given some autonomy by directing their own learning. Using the idea of an activity around food again, they may ask to design a dream restaurant or create a recipe for an unusual dish. Nothing feels more authentic than choosing for yourself what you’d like to explore.
Students respond to teachers who are “real” too. That’s been reflected in drop-out rates in online courses. The completion rate for students enrolling in MOOCs (massive open online courses) like Coursera is said to be as low as just ten percent. The company argue that many people enrolling on the courses never intended to complete them anyway—they just wanted to dip into the content. However, many others connect the high drop-out rates with a lack of human connection. Learners need the sense of community that’s provided by a teacher and fellow students, and more and more online courses are trying to emulate the feeling of community students get in a face-to-face class.
But what else can teachers do to be authentic? One way is to relinquish the idea that we, as educators, can know everything about a topic whether it’s art, science, or the English language. The idea of “the sage on the stage” is outdated. A cursory Google search can reveal more knowledge about a topic than we could ever hope to amass. That means students also have easy access to the same wealth of information, and they can quickly check and verify anything their teacher tells them. Being “real” as a teacher means partnering with students on the learning journey, and accepting we don’t know everything—and we don’t need to anymore. Another simple way for teachers to keep it real is to engage emotionally with their class. That can include sharing personal information—as long as they feel comfortable doing so—and instilling a sense of genuine fun and enjoyment into teaching and learning. Positive emotions reflect...and so do negative ones.
Once you share personal information, your students might share too building a deeper bond that can inspire them to learn more. And if students see you enjoying the time you have together, they should start to enjoy it too. One way you might do that is to share your love of words, like the word “rhythm,” for example, which is a two syllable word without any vowels in its written form; or how some words, like paper clip, do what they describe—a paper clip clips paper.
Keeping it real in the classroom
Authenticity, “the quality of being real or true,” can mean different things whether you’re a teacher or a student. Learners are always on the lookout for tasks and activities that feel real. That might mean they’re looking to be presented with real-world challenges, or they might want to be asked to think in the ways that they would need to think outside the classroom.
Teachers can be “real” too. One of those ways is to let go of the idea that they need to know everything. That means embarking on a learning journey as a facilitator or activator—and even better if you are a facilitator or activator who’s open to sharing information about yourself, and who takes a playful approach to language and learning.
Phil Warick presented at Pearson Day Vietnam. For more photos from the event please visit our Pearson Vietnam Facebook page. For more information on resources for your English classroom please visit us here.