Authentic Learning: Let’s Get Real

by Geneva Chapman, TES author and guest blogger

Many assume that authentic learning or addressing real-world problems is limited to community service projects in schools, when activities with authenticity actually do not require a problem or public service. Sometimes, authentic learning activities can be as simple as mounting a theatrical production, such as an elementary school version of the holiday favorite The Nutcracker.


The Nutcracker became an annual tradition for my third graders. I found the script for a children’s play based on my favorite ballet and immediately marshaled parents, the school district’s art director, and my class to produce the “play with music” as a class project.

The art director helped my students create six-foot panels that were taped to each side of our folding lunch tables and could be rotated to change the scenery. Parents helped make the easy-to-make costumes (how-to instructions were included in the magazine article) using old sheets that were dyed and decorated, and then stitched together by my students. While rehearsing the show, my students learned about the history of the ballet,the time period in which it was set, and about nutcrackers of various types and what they represented. Each year there were several girls taking ballet who auditioned for the leading role. Those who didn’t get the starring role still got to dance during the musical interludes.

While working at a gifted school, I found a student version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream offered by Scholastic Books and ordered it. My students put on a production of this shortened version of the comic classic featuring the original Elizabethan dialog and all of the hilarity of the play. Again, I got parents’ help to make costumes from sheets and reserved a theatre at a local school for our performance. My students did an excellent job. During the summer, another teacher and I had a six-week drama program for students from the school and put on a musical production, Just Plain Kids, created with the children at a local YWCA. At the end of the session, the production was performed for parents and friends.

I also led a mini-course that involved writing and producing a production based on a story in the book, Free to Be You and Me, about a princess who would not marry. The production was also featured at a Women’s Festival.

However, my most successful authentic learning experience was not theatrical, but entrepreneurial. Each year at the gifted schools, the teachers all created micro-economies for one of a series of mini-courses for the students in our classrooms. Instead of a micro-economy, I proposed a real business venture using real money to create and sell a real product. My students loved it.


For the project, we decided the best thing to sell at school would be a snack for the 10-10:30am break each day. We agreed that muffins would be great because they are sweet and can come in various varieties. However, in studying economics, we learned that market research is essential for a business plan to succeed. When we conducted an informal survey in the school, we found out that the students wanted nacho chips (only teachers liked the muffin idea). We named our company Chapman’s Chips and proceeded to create a business. First, we needed capital I asked the principal who was very involved in school activities to give us a short lesson on the stock market, about which he was quite knowledgeable.

Following the presentation, each student was asked to invest one dollar for a total of $25 from the students. I added another $25 to purchase the equipment and food we needed to get started. Students then “applied” for various jobs and were hired if they possessed the necessary skills. For example, good math students were hired to operate the cash register (donated by the school) and bookkeeping, students with excellent social and communication skills were hired to wait on customers, and artists and writers created our flyers, posters, and other advertising. Other students did the cooking, clean-up, shopping, and stocked shelves.  A group of students even built our nacho stand from a refrigerator box.


The first day and every day thereafter, there was a line down the hall of students who wanted to buy nacho chips for fifty cents. We sold out within twenty minutes, except on the days when we sold out in thirty. At the end of the six-week course, we had a profit of three times our investment. Each student got a $2 return on their $1 investment. This mini lesson in economics, though not totally realistic, made quite an impression on my students and other students in the school. Last year, I received a “friend request” on Facebook from one of the students in that class and was happy to see that she is an entrepreneur. She has her own printing business at home that she runs while taking care of her twins.

This venture cannot be fully credited to her experience in fifth grade, but I am sure that she has probably thought about it while running her real-world business. Economic ventures are one of the ways we can teach students about the real-world economy, possibly with more complexity than our little nacho stand. One such example of a really authentic entrepreneurial venture is the coffee shop I helped young adults with developmental disabilities in a day hab program start and learn to operate. The group also organized a campaign to collect and send wheelchairs to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.


While authentic learning is definitely effective in dealing with community service projects like my lesson on how to prevent water contamination by algal blooms, it can also be used to prepare students for real-world living as adults. As a family life educator, I designed curriculum for junior high school students enrolled in a grant-funded peer leader training program that targeted reducing the teen pregnancy rate. The curriculum I designed involved authentic learning because the goal was to help these students and the students they influenced come face-to-face with the reality of being a teen parent.

My current authentic learning idea is to have students create their own “reality shows.” I can imagine teens with digital cameras recording the “realities” in their neighborhoods (with the help of one or two adults) and making iMovies and digital stories. They may interview homeless people to learn their story, observe the effects of pollution or stray animals that have become feral. Students also could cover less controversial issues like the opening of a new restaurant, people waiting in line to vote, comments from people who’ve just seen a highly publicized movie, or some other social or community event. In some high schools, students are building “tiny houses,” the latest craze in construction, and selling them to raise funds.

Authentic or real-world experiences in schools provide students with several advantages.


  1. 1. engage interest
  2. 2. relate to issues in theirs or others’ lives
  3. 3. take them out of the classroom, if only figuratively, and help them learn about how the world works
  4. 4. teach and/or reinforce learning skills
  5. 5. help students develop creative thinking skills
  6. 6. improve critical thinking skills;
  7. 7. and, in some cases, teach problem-solving skills in the social and economic global society that our students will have to face some day as adults.