Moving towards authentic learning….slowly.

In 1982 Alberta introduced the Achievement Testing Program for grades 3, 6, and 9, and in 1984 reinstated the Diploma Examinations Program at grade 12 as one requirement for high school graduation.

For 30 plus years, the province of Alberta has been running Provincial Achievement Test and Diploma Examinations. What have we created in the province? Teachers that teach to the test, students not excited about gearing up for these exams, and a public that may or may not believe that these tests actually improve their child’s learning.

The purpose of the Achievement Testing Program is to• determine if students are learning what they are expected to learn• report to Albertans how well students have achieved provincial standards at given points in their schooling

• assist schools, authorities, and the province in monitoring and improving student learning

Source: General Information Bulletin 2012-2013, Alberta Government

The Grade 12 Diploma Examinations Program, established in 1984, has three main purposes: • to certify the level of individual student achievement in selected Grade 12 courses• to ensure that province-wide standards of achievement are maintained

• to report individual and group results

Source: General Information Bulletin 2012-2013, Alberta Government

In schools, we are pushing for authentic learning experiences. Authentic learning typically focuses on real-world, complex problems and their solutions, using role-playing exercises, problem-based activities, case studies, and participation in  communities of practice. The learning environments are moving to a multidisciplinary approach.

Learning researchers (Reeves, T. C., Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. ,2002) created a paper-  Authentic activities and online learning.  They have distilled the essence of the authentic learning experience down to 10 design elements, providing educators with a useful checklist that can be adapted to any subject matter domain.

1. Real-world relevance: Authentic activities match the real-world tasks of professionals in practice as nearly as possible. Learning rises to the level of authenticity when it asks students to work actively with abstract concepts, facts, and formulae inside a realistic—and highly social—context mimicking “the ordinary practices of the [disciplinary] culture.”

2. Ill-defined problem: Challenges cannot be solved easily by the application of an existing algorithm; instead, authentic activities are relatively undefined and open to multiple interpretations, requiring students to identify for themselves the tasks and subtasks needed to complete the major task.

3. Sustained investigation: Problems cannot be solved in a matter of minutes or even hours. Instead, authentic activities comprise complex tasks to be investigated by students over a sustained period of time, requiring significant investment of time and intellectual resources.

4. Multiple sources and perspectives: Learners are not given a list of resources. Authentic activities provide the opportunity for students to examine the task from a variety of theoretical and practical perspectives, using a variety of resources, and requires students to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information in the process.

5. Collaboration: Success is not achievable by an individual learner working alone. Authentic activities make collaboration integral to the task, both within the course and in the real world.

6. Reflection (metacognition): Authentic activities enable learners to make choices and reflect on their learning, both individually and as a team or community.

7. Interdisciplinary perspective: Relevance is not confined to a single domain or subject matter specialization. Instead, authentic activities have consequences that extend beyond a particular discipline, encouraging students to adopt diverse roles and think in interdisciplinary terms.

8. Integrated assessment: Assessment is not merely summative in authentic activities but is woven seamlessly into the major task in a manner that reflects real-world evaluation processes.

9. Polished products: Conclusions are not merely exercises or substeps in preparation for something else. Authentic activities culminate in the creation of a whole product, valuable in its own right.

10. Multiple interpretations and outcomes: Rather than yielding a single correct answer obtained by the application of rules and procedures, authentic activities allow for diverse interpretations and competing solutions.



Authentic learning is happening all over the province, but standardize tests are limiting the progess. Here is a link to help the province and teachers be better assessers of authentic learning. It is a toolbox created by Jon Mueller.

I hope over time we see the cancelization of our provincial exams, a narrower curriculum with the ability to have more authentic learning, and better measurement of student performance. As our superintendent Chris Smeaton (@cdsmeaton) says “This type of learningrequires a shift from content focused to competency based. Knowledge is no longer sacredly held by only the adults in the school. It is readily available and easily accessible. Learning for tomorrow is about creating citizens and developing character.”

Random Thoughts About Assessment Reporting

I am not an assessment guru! But it seems that many schools still report grades the same as 20 years ago. I hate generalizing but, it is sad to see a percentage grade and a general comment to report our students’ learning. We have improved in the area of online reporting of our grades, but many schools still have print out report cards with comments on them. I think it is extremely odd to report our 21st century learning on a paper report card. Why don’t more schools have a paperless report card? Here is a New Jersey school district that have moved to paperless reporting. We have paperless banking, why not paperless report cards. We could also use technology (texting, email) to update parents and students when report cards are released. Currently, my dentist and mortgage broker send texts to remind me of my appointments and to wish me a happy birthday.

Or should we head down the road of a checklist-type report card. This idea stems from Atul Gawande and his book “The Checklist Manifesto: How to get things right”. The book’s main point is simple: no matter how expert you may be, well-designed checklists can improve outcomes. Gawande applies the book to surgical teams, pilots, and  people that build skyscrapers. Maybe teachers could improve the learning of students by using a checklist system for curricular outcomes. Attached is a surgery checklist used by the World Health Organization developed with Gawande.

Surgical Safety Checklist Production

Or why don’t we move towards a more competency based system? In Alberta, we have the new Framework for Student Learning, which has a graphic that covers the competencies that we would like in a 21st Century student.


A collegue of mine, Greg Miller, had an excellent post on his blog titled ” How Do We Measure a Competency?” In his blog, with which I agree, Greg states “that we should be exploring competency-based authentic assessment with a great deal of enthusiasm in our schools today.  Let’s give our teachers the necessary time and support to come together and work on this.  They’re the best resource we have.” Greg makes a super point of who should be completing the work, but when and where is the BIG question!

I have found a district in Denver, Colorado that has moved to a Compentency Based System (CBS). The entire educational system is organized around engaging students in 21st century skills. Students work at their development level and only advance when they have demostrated proficiency or mastery of a skill. Check out their site and look at their four core beliefs – learning is constant, time is the variable, personalized delivery, and systemic and systematic in nature. If you have extra time, take a look through the CBS that they have established. This was a system wide movement; if you need a quick brief, then check out the FAQ section.

Like I said at the start of this post, I am not an assessment guru! I think things should change and the biggest hurdle might be where and who will start a movement. I personally lean towards the CBS model; to implement this system it will take leadership from all levels – students, teachers, board members, parents, and adminstration.