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Teaching for Authenticity & Teaching for Transfer

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Teaching for Authenticity is not the same thing as Teaching for Transfer

After 12 years, I still had PBL wrong.  I still continue to grow in my understanding of this comprehensive instructional framework that I have seen empower students in urban, rural, and suburban schools. Reflecting upon my own practice, one must ask, what is the ultimate goal of learning? In my mind, the ultimate goal of learning is that students can learn at such a high level that they are able to transfer their learning.  Transfer, what a fun buzz word to say, it makes you sound smart, and probably plays well in a job interview, but what does it really mean and how does project-based learning prove to be a vehicle to allow students to transfer their learning?

Transfer to me simply means that the learner is able to apply their knowledge and understanding into multiple contexts.  When it comes to PBL, I mistook the concept of authenticity as being synonymous with transfer.  Authenticity refers to the extent of the real-world context the project involves and the connection the project has to a real world problem.  In other words, it is ONE context, not multiple. One of my all time favorite projects that I implemented in my classroom could have been more impactful for my students, if I had clearly distinguished the difference between transfer and authenticity in my project design. Below is a summary of my project:

Modern Day Abolitionists Project

Project Title Modern Day Abolitionists 
Grade/Subject Area 8th grade Social Studies
Driving QuestionHow can we abolish slavery today?
Key Concepts The economic and political factors leading to the Civil War. Key people involved in the Civil War. Analyze primary and secondary sources relevant to the Civil War.
Literacy Tasks

Reading: The Gettysburg Address, excerpts from The Liberator, 

Fiction: excerpts from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and a variety of historical fiction texts that students could choose from. 

Writing: Students chose a formal writing assignment, some chose to write a letter to a politician or a company who had been accused of unfair labor practices. Other students chose to create more of a technical document that displayed research comparing and contrasting slavery today with slavery prior to the civil war. 

Speaking/Listening: Students participated in several Socratic seminar discussions where they were required to use key vocabulary terms as they discussed questions such as: What were Robert E. Lee’s feelings toward abolitionists? How would you compare this to the feelings of the factory owner in India today? And, If you were a non-slave holder in the US and a foreign army invades to free slaves held in factories in your country. Would you be willing to fight and die for your country?

Outside Experts Students learned from and received feedback on their answer to the driving question from a local fair trade merchant, and a community relations director.  
Public Product Students created an interactive museum in an effort to generate awareness of the issue of modern day slavery in the textile and agricultural industries.  The museum was open to community members, peers, and parents.


Reflections and Adjustments on the Project

Students did well on the post assessment and most students demonstrated growth from the pre assessment given.  The student-to-student dialogue was strong throughout the process, there was even a buzz of excitement throughout the project.  Several years later, I asked a student if they remembered the project, and to my amazement, they immediately recited the driving question.  I am proud of this project, but I could have made it more academically challenging if I would have been more aware and clearly distinguished the difference between transfer and authenticity.

Upon reflection, here are a few ways that my students could have left the project with greater awareness of their own learning and evidence of transferring their learning.

Element of PBL Teaching for Authenticity Teaching for Transfer Comments
Driving QuestionHow can we abolish slavery today?How can knowledge of how slavery became so common in the United States before the Civil War help us to abolish slavery in the world today?Yes, it is more wordy and it doesn’t “fit on a bumper sticker,” but if students can answer this question they are much more likely to see the ultimate learning intention which is that knowledge of the past can solve problems of the present and the future.
Key Knowledge

-Students will be able to determine the causes of the Civil War

-Students will be able to compare and contrast the differences between the southern and northern economies

-Students will be able to use primary and secondary source documents of pre-civil war abolitionists and apply them to their own writing.

-Students will be able to compare pre-civil war abolitionists with modern day abolitionists.

Success Criteria:


Surface– I can define key terms such as abolitionist, yeoman, popular sovereignty, limited/total war, etc.

Deep– I can compare and contrast the economic causes of slavery in the pre-civil war era, with the economic causes of slavery today.

Transfer– I can see how my knowledge and understanding of the past and solve a problem that exists today (answer to the driving question).

If I would have clarified the learning intentions and success criteria of those learning intentions ahead of time, students would have had a greater understanding of the application of the content. This also would have allowed students to be more reflective on their own individual learning.

When it came to scaffolding the process, I could have been much more intentional about running workshops (small group guided practice instruction) and mini lessons (whole group direct instruction) around the surface and deep success criteria.  This would have built more confidence in their learning, and forced students to be much more detailed and specific in their responses to the driving question.


Can you imagine if I could have gotten my students to actually identify and use the terminology of surface, deep and transfer learning?  Even more, what if they were able to verbally tell me where they were in the learning process and where they were stuck? I could have been more specific and targeted in the instruction I gave.

Challenge in PBL Design

A challenge we have as designers of PBL, the amount of time can be intimidating. Moving forward, when identifying the difference between authenticity and transfer, future planning can become easier, because the focus is on the learning, not on the context.  So often in PBL, we design an authentic project, based on a current event, or situation.  We spend hours planning this out, only to have the event or problem no longer be relevant the following year.  Focusing more on teaching for transfer instead of focusing only on authenticity allows this to happen. Think about how the driving question was reworked, How can knowledge of how slavery became so common in the United States before the Civil War help us to abolish slavery in the world today? If I decided the following year that I wanted a different context, my learning intentions and success criteria could stay the same.  The process that I used (scaffolds, mini-lessons, workshops, Socratic seminars, vocabulary activities, etc.) could stay the same as well, I would simply change the context.  Think about it, How can knowledge of ______________________help us to _______________ in the world today? Fill in the blanks with a different context and you still have the transfer level driving question.

Authenticity is important, it engages students in the work, and it helps them see how the content is applied in a real world context.  When a project is authentic it helps to answer the “why does this matter?” Authenticity helps to motivate students, it provides a purpose for students to be empowered to see the connection to a real world context. Authenticity provides a context.

Transfer is the ultimate goal in learning. Don’t confuse the authentic context with the ultimate goal of students being able to clearly apply their learning in NEW contexts, not just one.  I want students to see that they can use their content knowledge and understanding about history to solve any problem of the present and future, not just the problem of modern day slavery.

Author- Brad Sever

This post is by our guest blogger Brad Sever. Brad has experience with Project-Based Learning in various capacities including middle school teacher, high school Instructional Coach, district PBL Coach, Expeditionary Learning Charter School Administrator, and an administrator at a large comprehensive high school. Brad has worked in urban, and suburban settings across the country. Brad is also author of the successful book Sustainable Project Based Learning. He brings a unique and powerful lens and we are honored to have him write a blog for us! You can follow Brad on Twitter @BradSever

Brad Sever

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