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PBL: What Does It Take for a Project to Be "Authentic"?

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education
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Everyone thinks that Project-Based Learning has something to do with "authentic" learning. But not everyone agrees what this means.

Take this quick quiz.

Which of the following projects could be called authentic?

a) Students learn about endangered species in their region and take action to protect them, including a public awareness campaign, habitat restoration fieldwork and communication with local government officials.

b) Students design and create a calendar with pictures and information about endangered species, which they sell at a pre-winter break community event and donate the money to an environmental organization.

c) Students play the role of scientists who need to make recommendations to an environmental organization about how to protect endangered species in various ecosystems around the world.

To authenticity purists, a project is not really authentic unless it is in the real world, connected directly to the lives of students and real issues in their communities. By this standard, choice "a" above certainly qualifies, and maybe "b", but probably not "c".

But I think the answer is "d) All of the above."

There is a sliding scale of authenticity for projects, which goes from "not authentic" to "somewhat authentic" to "fully authentic."

Not Authentic

PBL means the students' work does not resemble the kind of work done in the world outside of school, or it is not intended to have an effect on anything apart from an academic purpose. A not-authentic "dessert project" would involve the kind of assignment students are typically given in school: compose an essay, create a poster or model, write and present a book report, or make a PowerPoint presentation on a topic they've researched. Beyond their teacher and maybe their classmates, there's no public audience for students' work, no one actually uses what they create, and the work they do is not what people do in the real world.

Somewhat Authentic

PBL means students are doing work that simulates what happens in the world outside of school. In a project that is somewhat authentic, students could play a role (as in choice "c" above) -- scientists, engineers, advisors to the President, website designers, etc. -- who are placed in a scenario that reflects what might actually occur in the real world. Or students could create products that, although they are not actually going to be used by people in the real world, are the kinds of products people do use.

Fully Authentic

PBL means students are doing work that is real to them -- it is authentic to their lives -- or the work has a direct impact on or use in the real world. The "real world," by the way, could still be school, which is a very real place for students. In these projects, like choices "a" and "b" above, students might advocate for a cause, take action to improve their community, perform a service for someone, create a physical artifact to display or distribute, or express their own ideas about a topic in various media.

A project can be authentic in four ways, some of which may be combined in one project:

  1. The project meets a real need in the world beyond the classroom, or the products that students create are used by real people.
    For example:
    • Students propose designs for a new play area in a nearby park.
    • Students plan and execute an environmental clean-up effort in their community.
    • Students create a website for young people about books they like.
    • Students write a guide and produce podcasts for visitors to historic sites in their county.
    • Students serve as consultants to local businesses, advising them on how to increase sales to young people.
    • Students develop a conflict resolution plan for their school.
  2. The project focuses on a problem, issue or topic that is relevant to students' lives -- the more directly, the better -- or on a problem or issue that is actually being faced by adults in the world students will soon enter.
    For example:
    • Students create multimedia presentations that explore the question, "How do we make and lose friends?"
    • Students learn physics by investigating the question, "Why don't I fall off my skateboard?"
    • Students form task forces to study possible effects of climate change on their community and recommend actions that could be taken.
    • Students decide whether the U.S. should intervene in a conflict inside another country that is causing a humanitarian crisis.
  3. The project sets up a scenario or simulation that is realistic, even if it is fictitious.
    For example:
    • Students are asked by the Archbishop of Mexico in 1818 to recommend a location for the 22nd mission in California. (This happens to be a featured project on BIE's new online program,
    • Students act as architects who need to design a theatre that holds the maximum number of people, given constraints of available land, cost, safety, comfort, etc.
    • Students play the role of United Nations advisors to a country that has just overthrown a dictator and needs advice about how to start a democracy.
    • Students recommend which planet in our solar system ought to be explored by the next space probe as they compete for NASA funding.
    • Students are asked to propose ideas for a new TV reality show that educates viewers about science topics such as evolutionary biology and the geologic history of the earth.
  4. The project involves tools, tasks or processes used by adults in real settings and by professionals in the workplace. (This criterion for authenticity could apply to any of the above examples of projects.)
    For example:
    • Students investigating the physics of skateboarding test various surfaces for speed, using the scientific method and tools scientists use.
    • Students exploring the issue of how we make and lose friends conduct surveys, analyze data, record video interviews, and use online editing tools to assemble their presentations.
    • Students acting as U.N advisors to an emerging democracy analyze existing constitutions, write formal reports, and present recommendations to a panel.

I agree that fully authentic projects are often the most powerful and effective ones, because they are so engaging for students and allow them to feel like they can have an impact on their world -- so the more of them, the better. But if you can't get there yet, don't feel like you're failing the authenticity test in your projects. Some is still better than none!

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Comments (14) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Greg Reiva's picture
Greg Reiva
High School Science Teacher

I teach physical science and physics at a high school in Illinois. I have implemented science curriculum initiatives that are interdisciplinary and project-based. It is essential that these projects provide value in the minds of the students. This effort directly reflects the relevance issue that is being presented in this article by John Larmar.

Intrinsic motivation to learn by students is the most important factor that needs to be considered when providing relevancy in the classroom. One of the most important influences that spurs student success of project-based learning is multiple opportunities for feedback from peers, teachers and stakeholders within the community.

For years I have tailored curriculum initiatives in science that optimize these important aspects of project-based learning and lead to increased student academic achievement in the classroom.

Jean's picture

Educators--novice to expert--would highly benefit from this information. It supports differentiation instruction that essentially highlights a goal identified in mission statements. This information would be a hot topic in professional learning communities where teachers of all levels contribute ideas, resources, and experiences specific to their discipline. I love the rubric approach to assessing authenticity. Students, too, will benefit by understanding authenticity ranges/levels.

Frances Turnage's picture

The truth is that I have always been a little hesitant to undertake projects in the classroom because I have seen so many that do not have any real educational value. However, this year I watched a colleague have HUGE success in the classroom doing projects, and I really want to learn more about doing "authentic" projects. I thought about it a lot, but I was having a lot of problems coming up with ideas. Thankfully, after reading this article, I have a ton of great ideas. Thanks so much!

Sandra Wozniak's picture
Sandra Wozniak
President, NJ Association for Middle Level Education

I love that you end with a few words of encouragement! It is important to keep the ultimate goal of authenticity in mind, but don't throw out a great project if it does not rise to 100%. PBLs take a lot of upfront work. Summertime is a great time to get a head start. I have some hints for getting your materials organized in my blog at

Rich Cairn's picture

Nice article.
Your second example, making a calendar, might be authentic or not, depending on how deeply students must think about the information they present.
We find in our Windows on History program (students produce local history websites that publishing alone isn't enough. Students must learn to analyze primary sources, placing them in context and corroborating with other sources. Otherwise they may publish sloppy thinking or incorrect information.

Anna's picture

The sliding scale of authenticity for projects is an interesting way to look at PBL. Understanding the scale, which goes from "not authentic" to "somewhat authentic" to "fully authentic" gives me a new way to think about how to correctly implement PBL ideas within my classroom. Also, reading the "four ways" to create authentic project based learning in the classroom is a great way get some ideas flowing. Fully authentic project based learning opportunities are vital ways to make students feel they have a voice in the world, all while allowing them to participate in meaningful learning.

Robert Stowe's picture

Jean made an excellent point about the transparency of authenticity for students. I think students should be made aware what differences they may experience between their classroom based project and future projects outside the classroom. Experiences outside the classroom for students who are in a PBL activity may be quite different than for ordinary citizens as people may be more generous and understanding when dealing with a group of students. Even if a project is "fully authentic" it may good to have a discussion with the students at the end of the project to highlight the different experiences they might expect if they took on the same initiatives as an employee or a member of a community rather than as a student.

Iain Swanston's picture

Robert I think you have a great point. Students need to discuss this in advance and the article offers a great explanation of the differing values gained.

Dr. Nancy Sulla's picture
Dr. Nancy Sulla
Author and Educational Consultant

To rekindle this important conversation . . .

Great post and explanation. I like to differentiate between the terms authentic and, the subset term, relevant. Those problems that are related directly to the students' lives are relevant. A client teacher had her students recommend how to spend the school's budgeted $15,000 to replant foliage around the school's latest construction zone.

Otherwise, while not relevant, if a problem represents a situation that could actually happen in life, or in a science fiction setting (and remember, for primary grade students, animals really DO talk!), then it's authentic.

That way, you don't have to make an authentic task seem any less important or powerful.

Another consideration is the level to which students have to grapple with the problem:

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