Poking at Preconceptions
Although I have grown to rather hate the term “authentic” in an education context, I must admit to being a bit allured by the idea of authentic assessments. My main problem is that the word “authentic” is actually quite muddy, a point “Defining Authentic Classroom Assessment” refreshingly concedes in its opening.
In my experience, too often “authentic” is reductionist code for some kind of contrived task meant to mimic the “real-world,” but doesn’t and is grounded in what students already know, in effort to be relevant to them. While I am certainly no defender of standardized tests, there are a fair amount of “authentic” tests in the “real world.” Just ask any unionized tradesman or civil servant, as well as any doctor or lawyer, to name just a few occupations.
Still, my fascination with the idea of authentic assessment probably predates my being a teacher. Reading the piece by Frey, Schmitt, and Allen offered some great clarity on reestablishing a working definition of the term, authentic assessment, offering more nuance and meaning.
As a teacher consultant with the National Writing Project, I think I may be predisposed to operating within a Frey, Schmitt, and Allen frame. For example, genuine audiences have been of particular interest to me. As an English teacher, I have spent a lot of time over the years trying to make writing a genuinely authentic task, as much as possible in my classes.
In fact, I just pressed home the point with my three sections of ninth graders, saying, “All writing begins with an audience of one, and it’s you – the writer.” As a result, I have made an attempt to de-emphasize assignments and tasks that strike me as less authentic. I still have improvement to make but no one assignment currently rises to the level of a redesign. So, let me capture a recent experience and add to it looking forward.
Recounting an Authentic Change
For years, ninth graders at the school where I work were tasked with what I felt was a hackneyed attempt at a literary research paper, masquerading as a project focused more on the process of research. However, the product always proved to be more decisive than the process, and the results were often poor, semi-plagiarized, papers that amounted to little more than extended annotated bibliographies that only a teacher would ever see, with proper citation no given.
Sadly, this seems to be more prevalent in schools than I would like. What’s worse, few students were really learning the value of research skills, rarely were terribly interested in the author or their work, and usually experienced a significant drop in performance, not to mention their letter grade for that semester.
It took years for me to convince people of an alternative approach. Resistance to any change was strong, until it wasn’t. We were ready for rejuvenation.
Enter the late Ken Macrorie’s I-Search Paper. From his original “contextbook,” published in 1980, Ken Macrorie advances the idea that no one can begin looking at something without a preconceived notion. He honored the idea that research is a quest and the more personal the better. Admittedly, Macrorie’s text looks a little dated now. Yet it is remarkably prescient regarding a world-wide-webbed world. His ideas remain remarkably resonant.
Riffing off Macrorie’s basic idea, we refashioned our whole approach to teaching research and the final product. Students self-select the topic of their research. Crafting deep, interesting questions about topics of interest becomes central to the effort. We teachers focus primarily on skills associated with authentic research, especially in a world with Google merely a thumb-swipe away. We have re-oriented students toward gathering data from real people, rather than simply the Internet or library.
Now our students write something that looks a whole lot more like an I-Search paper than a traditional research paper. The task is actually more complex, with more moving parts, and engages students in process that is more preparatory for the kind of research they are likely to do in their lives, inside and outside of school. The process is primary, and the paper product has become more an exercise in how to prepare work for an audience of more than a single teacher, with proper formatting and citation. Best of all, it asks the student to investigate something in which they actually have an interest or care.
There remains a departmental resistance, but it has faded. However, since making the switch the results have actually been significantly improved. The papers are more interesting and reflect genuine research and investigation.
As a team of teachers, we continue to modify and adjust our I-Search-influenced unit. I have experimented with different modes of presentation beyond simply a final papers, but this is where I would like to make this assessment even more authentic, in the truest spirit of the term.
As an exercise in distilling the quest into the most simplistic of terms, I have encouraged students to make Google Search Story videos. The old service simplifying the process is now gone, but I am considering it as a requirement, but I am still looking for more ways to make the work public. Now that we teach ninth grade in a 1:1 laptop environment, we have been employing blogging as a more routine practice for class. Thus, this year I will be leveraging our use of blogging as an integral part of the I-Search process, making the work more public and reflective in real time. Lastly, I am even considering having students distill their research into some kind of limited presentation, like a five slide deck or PechaKucha style, and having them script and record their presentation.