Friday 4ALL: How to Make a Task Authentic

Pine Crest School student Audrey Kline with her 8th grade Earth science project about asbestos: Fort Lauderdale, Florida

A huge component of the WebQuests and inquiry-based lessons teachers create in the eMINTS program is the authentic task. It is difficult to come up with tasks and activities that are authentic or real-world that also match somewhat abstract state standards.

The first thing I often ask teachers to do is consider how a particular piece or content or skill would be used in the real world. This exercise challenges the validity of a particular standard. Teachers are forced to really consider just how important an objective may be to their students’ long-term learning. Often, what they find is that the standards do hold value, but that value is clearer to them and provides new purpose. Also, this practice gives the teachers reasons to share with their students as to the importance of learning and practicing the standards. The real-world applications they discover soon become the authentic tasks for which they’ve been searching.

Take the fourth grade teacher trying to teach her students letter writing. Instead of teaching the parts of a letter and having students write letters that will never be sent, use every opportunity to write real letters to real people. Students could write letters to the authors they’re reading, scientists with current research on the topics with which they’re experimenting in class, or public officials when they have questions on the inner-workings of state government. In this case, there doesn’t need to be a separate unit for letter-writing. The skill is developed in filling authentic needs the students and class may have.

While this can be a doable task for most teachers of most content areas, it can be a challenge for upper-Math courses. Math is typically very applicable to everyday life. However, courses such as Calculus and Trigonometry present an additional challenge. These courses are there in order to provide students with a background for engineering, a difficult thing to understand for non-engineers. Still, these teachers may just have to think like an engineer. Plus, not every activity has to be authentic, but those that do make the abstract real will go a long way in making an impression on students.

Another way in which tasks can become more authentic is by breaking free of the constraints set out by arbitrary subject areas and chronological grade levels. Real life is not neatly divided among subject areas or age groups. We all work within a context that requires several disciplines. Additionally, people of all age groups could share the same occupation at the same time. Nowhere is this more apparent than in how the state of Missouri is reorganizing their state standards to fit ranges of grades as opposed to individual grade levels.

As far as creating authentic tasks that incorporate a variety of disciplines, we have our teachers start with a task that interests students and search for the skills and content found in standards. Starting with student interests can often make writing an interdisciplinary project easy. For example, having students create a television program based on a topic of interest requires numerous skills and knowledge that span across standards in all subject areas.

A third way we can come up with authentic tasks is to move our focus from instruction to that of learning. When we focus on learning over teaching, we think about how knowledge is used and the needs it fullfills. We release the learning from the constraints of the traditional teacher-student relationship.

Authentic tasks for our students is not an easy thing to do, but it’s a worthwhile practice in order to make learning tangible and valuable for our students. What some ways in which you come up with authentic tasks for your students to complete that still meet standards? What are some examples of the authentic tasks you’ve found to be successful? What are the challenges you see with creating authentic tasks for your students?

Zac Early is an instructional specialist with the eMINTS National Center.