“Authentic” science learning is generally considered to be a good thing that might help engage students who are otherwise not interested in science. But … what makes science education authentic?
I have been thinking a lot about this question because I will be doing some work with students where the conjecture is that authentic science learning will make a difference in how they think of science and how they think of themselves in relation to science. I will be able to make better sense out of what I observe in working with those students if I start with some conceptions about the different ways in which the students’ work might be authentic.
So, I have spent the past few days reading pretty widely about place-based and “authentic” science–jumping from one resource to another–to see how educators and researchers use and define the term. Not surprisingly, writers sometimes use the term without saying what they think it means. (Isn’t it obvious? It means AUTHENTIC for heaven’s sake!) In other cases, the treatment is deeply rooted in school culture, in terms of, for example, “ways to add authenticity to science tasks” (Lee & Songer, 2003, p. 926). Such articles may usefully point to pedagogical challenges and pitfalls associated with bringing scientists and their work into the classroom, but they don’t help in my quest to understand just what it is that is authentic about authentic science learning experiences.
What follows is a brief summary of 3 views of “authentic science learning,” followed by a reminder about why and how school science often falls short of the mark.
Authentic Science is Doing the Things Professional Scientists Do
Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989), in an influential, much cited paper, approach the question by considering learning “as a process of enculturation” (p. 34). The idea is that scientists, mathematicians, attorneys, nurses, and so on all work within cultures in which there are shared beliefs about what is true, how one establishes what is accepted to be true, what comprises good practice, the goals of good practice, and so on.
The activities of a domain are framed by its culture. Their meaning and purpose are socially constructed through negotiations among present and past members. Activities thus cohere in a way that is, in theory, if not always in practice, accessible to members who move within the social framework. These coherent, meaningful, and purposeful activities are authentic, according to the definition of the term we use here. Authentic activities then, are most simply defined as the ordinary practices of the culture. (p. 34)
Authentic Science is Useful Science
Van Eijck and Roth (2009), in their ethnographic case study of “Brad,” an Aboriginal student engaged in a science internship, characterize the thinking by Brown, et al. (1989) as asserting that authentic learning experiences are those where “students of mathematics, science, or history engage in activities that bear considerable family resemblance with the activities in which scientists, mathematicians, or historians normally are engaged” (p. 615). They go on to argue that the positivist discourse and competitive culture of science as currently practiced may tend to exclude women and people of other cultures that have different epistemological commitments. This issue arose in their case study, since First Nations people in Canada may seek to learn and use science as one way of knowing that they couple with other ways of knowing to take a more wholistic view of nature. Consequently, Van Eijck and Roth focus their thinking about authenticity more on the use of science rather than on the culture of science, defining “authentic science experiences as participation in any form of activity where science is also brought to bear on decision-making, as long as this activity is real rather than artificial” (p. 633).
Authentic Science is Science that is Changed by the Students’ Participation
Van Eijck and Roth’s (2009) work is framed in terms of activity theory as developed by Engeström (2008, 2015) and others. In activity theory, the actors are understood to be influenced by the culture(s) within which they are acting but are also understood to be changing those cultures as they act. Van Eijck and Roth (2009) use this conception as another way to define authentic science: “authentic science experiences are those in which participants are provided the opportunity to participate through actions that entail changes in these practices and therewith produce and reproduce the practices rather than only observe them” (p. 634). In the case that Van Eijck and Roth present, Brad’s work in the culture of conservation science at a nature center shapes his actions and his understanding of the world, as does his existence as a member of a First Nations band. But Brad’s work at the nature center, where he brought an increased focus on native plants and their uses, also changed the culture of the center. In this sense, his participation was active, making a difference, and so was authentic participation.
It is interesting to note that this notion of authenticity, where impacts of actions are reciprocal, with participants shaping what the project is and what it can be as well as being shaped by their participation, is closely related to thinking by McCallie, et al. (2008) in their report on public engagement with science and informal science education. They write:
Public Engagement with Science in terms of informal science education refers to activities, events, or interactions characterized by mutual learning—not one-way transmission from “experts” to publics—among people of varied backgrounds, scientific expertise, and life experiences who articulate and discuss their perspectives, ideas, knowledge, and values. A PES activity may—but does not necessarily—directly inform the direction of scientific investigations, institutions, and/or science policy. (p.18)
Authentic Science is Not School Science
Definitions of authentic science learning often distinguish it from what typically happens in school, defining it in part by what it is not. For example, Brown, et al. (1989), in focusing on authenticity as connection to a professional culture, note that offering such activities within schools often results in a mismatch: “School activity too often tends to be hybrid, implicitly framed by one culture, but explicitly attributed to another. Classroom activity very much takes place within the culture of schools, although it is attributed to the culture of readers, writers, mathematicians, historians, economists, geographers, and so forth.” (p. 34).
Van Eijck and Roth (2009) make a similar point as they explain why Brad’s internship was authentic: “The outcomes of these practices served practical and meaningful aims in other practices and did not end up as dummies for the sake of engaging and assessing people in the practice in which they were produced (such as often happens in schooling).”
So … ?
I am trying to understand what “authentic science learning” might be, rather than trying to come up with a normative or a priori definition. In other words, I do not have to choose between these different understandings of the concept, but instead can use them to sensitize me to things I might observe. More quantitatively, you can think of these conceptions as different factors that might emerge in a factor analysis of the concept.
- Situated learning, or what Lave and Wenger (1991) call “legitimate peripheral participation” in scientific work and practice, may contribute to students’ perception that the work is meaningful and authentic. The presence of working scientists, careful attention to protocols, use of scientific tools, and use of science’s epistemological stance toward evidence and argument may all contribute to the sense of legitimacy and authenticity. It may be possible to tease apart the relative importance of these different features of the work in terms of their contribution to student engagement.
- The usefulness of the work may contribute to perceived authenticity. I hope to explore the differential importance of “usefulness to the scientist” and “usefulness to the students’ community.” I don’t expect to be able to fully separate those effects; I would be pleased to come away with insights into how I might separate them in future work.
- Engagement of students as authentic participants, where they can see that their participation is affecting the outcomes and direction of the work, is another kind of authenticity that deserves attention. It may be that some students are more successful at this than others, which would provide an opportunity to see if such differences are associated with other changes in learning or perspective.
Questions for Readers
Do these conceptions of “authentic science learning” match up in some way with your experience?
Do you have different ideas about what makes science learning authentic?
Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42.
Engeström, Y. (2008). From teams to knots: Activity-theoretical studies of collaboration and learning at work. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Engeström, Y. (2015). Learning by Expanding: An Activity-Theoretical Approach to Developmental Research (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Lee, H.-S., & Songer, N. B. (2003). Making authentic science accessible to students. International Journal of Science Education, 25(8), 923–948.
McCallie, E., Bell, L., Lohwater, T., Falk, J. H., Lehr, J., Lewenstein, B., et al. (2009). Many Experts, Many Audiences: Public Engagement with Science and Informal Science Education. Washington, DC: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education. Retrieved from http://informalscience.org/images/research/PublicEngagementwithScience.pdf
van Eijck, M., & Roth, W.-M. (2009). Authentic science experiences as a vehicle to change students’ orientations toward science and scientific career choices: Learning from the path followed by Brad. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 4(3), 611–638. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11422-009-9183-8