Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

What Is Authentic Learning?

"Knowledge which is obtained under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind." ~ Plato


ccording to the dictionary, one definition of the word authentic is "made to be or look just like an original." One might then infer that authentic learning would describe learning made to be like the original…the kind of learning that takes place from the moment a child pops into the world. We observe this type of learning when children employ their senses and their innate curiosity to actively explore and interact with their environment. Children learn by observing others and through trial and error. In other words, authentic learning is active learning.

One need only consider how much a child learns, largely without direct instruction, in the first three or four years of life to recognize the success of authentic learning. It would be understandable if adults wanted to broaden the learner's opportunities for active learning as the child gets older—to support authentic learning by expanding and enriching the learning environment. What is beyond comprehension is why adults would take those learners out of the natural environment, constrain their activity, and make all future decisions about what, when, and how they learn for the next 12 years!

Arguments about the purpose of education have been going on since Socrates and the Sophists. One side (objectivists/instructionists) in this dichotomy believes that there is a body of knowledge "out there" that every educated person needs to know. It is up to adults/experts to identify that knowledge and to give it to the young. This is the basis of the "Academic Achievement" paradigm. Basing their argument on a wealth of research in neurophysiology, the "other side" (constructivists) insist that knowledge and wisdom are internally generated, reached through questions, not answers, and through the same types of active inquiry and interaction with the environment found in the youngest learners.

Although the objectivists have largely prevailed, leading to the issues that plague public education today, the constructivist approach has remained alive and well. What is both ironic and troubling is that many of the people who continue to mandate the objectivist paradigm in public education for "other people's children" choose to send their own children to constructivist schools! It may be enlightening to learn what "authentic learning" looked like in the last several centuries.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)


ne of the first to cast doubt on the "teacher as teller" status of education in an organized way was 18th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He began by questioning the philosophical foundation of education, namely "the Calvinist belief that children are inherently lazy and untrustworthy and that it is society's role to mold their minds and characters into a socially acceptable form."(1)

Rousseau contended that it is not the children that are evil, but society. "[Children] must be safeguarded from its contaminating influence. The problem is the way in which social institutions, especially schools, distort children into their own image, forcing them all into the same mold, regardless of the fit."(2) (Note: How sad that Rousseau's words are as appropriate today as they were three centuries ago!)

Rousseau insisted that "The development of the child is a natural unfolding, not a mechanical process that needs adult management and regulation at every turn. Children are born to learn, and, if given a nurturing, stimulating environment in which they are allowed to follow their own natural rhythms and mature at their own pace, they will largely educate themselves. . . .The aim of education should be the free and uninhibited development of the learner."(3)

Rousseau decried the practice of introducing formal academic subjects, such as the study of mathematics, science, or geography, at an early age. He insisted that children learn best by actively engaging with the natural world in a sensory way through first-hand experience. According to Rousseau, education should begin with a cultivation of the senses and not the abstract intellect.

"[If] nature gives the child's brain the suppleness that fits it to receive all sorts of impressions, it is not in order to engrave on this brain the names of kings, dates, the terms of heraldry, globes and geography, and all those words without any sense for the child's age, and devoid of utility for any age whatsoever, with which his sad and sterile childhood is burdened."(4)

Rousseau also disagreed with the authority-driven "teacher as teller" mode of teaching. He believed that true teaching was based, not on authority and control, but on a loving bond between teacher and student, within which the two could explore matters of interest together. He trusted children to find things out for themselves and recommended that teachers "do everything by doing nothing." He urged teachers to put opportunities to learn within the child's reach and then sit back and let the natural learning process take over.

Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827)

Heinrich Pestalozzi joined Rousseau in rejecting the pessimistic Calvinist philosophy that was the foundation of the then-emerging system of universal compulsory education in Prussia. This system, with its military-style discipline and rigid routine of rote memorization soon became the model for similar systems throughout Europe and the United States.

Like Rousseau, Pestalozzi insisted that early education be centered on immediate, active experience, beginning with firsthand observations and gradually moving toward the more abstract world of language, concepts, and ideas. In The Education of Man, Pestalozzi wrote,

"To arrive at knowledge slowly, by one's own experience, is better than to learn by rote, in a hurry, facts that other people know, and then glutted with words, to lose one's own free, observant, and inquisitive ability to study.…Life itself is the true basis of teaching and education."(5)

Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852)

Friedrich Froebel shared Pestalozzi's faith in the innate desire of children to learn.

"To young plants and animals we give space and time, knowing that they will grow correctly according to inherent laws. We give them rest and avoid any violent interference such as disturbs healthy growth, but the human being is regarded as a piece of wax or a lump of clay that can be molded into any shape we choose. Why is it that we close our minds to the lessons that nature silently teaches? Wild plants that grow where they are crowded and confined scarcely suggest any shape of their own, but if we see them growing freely in the fields we can then observe their ordered life and form…. So children who are early forced by their parents into a pattern and purpose unsuited to their nature might have grown in beauty and in fullness of their powers."
"Each successive generation and each successive individual should go through the entire pattern of early human development.…He should not do this by copying and imitating, which is a dead approach, but by…free and independent activity. Every human being should reinterpret this pattern freely, and express human potentiality in an entirely personal and unique manner, so that the nature of man in its infinity and its diversity becomes ever more easily discerned. Must we go on stamping out our children like coins…?"(6)

In 1916, Froebel started an experimental school known as a Kindergarten (garden of children). His ideas ran so counter to Prussian militaristic philosophy that Prussia eventually banned Kindergartens in the country. Although the idea was carried to the United States, Kindergartens here were not at all what Froebel had intended. Instead, they were quickly seen as a year of play before the "real work" of school began at age 6.

Today, not only has the "real work" of academic achievement been forced into Kindergarten, but it is now being touted for early childhood education so that children will be "ready" for school. This despite extensive research supporting play-based, self-directed learning, as well as describing the damage being done to children pressured to learn literacy and numeracy before they are developmentally ready.

Leon Tolstoy (1828-1910)

Few are aware that the famous author of War and Peace, and Anna Karenina started a school for peasant children in his own ancestral home. Tolstoy was disgusted with the compulsory education system that was spreading from Prussia and the rest of Europe to Russia.

"[Schools are] an institution in which children are deprived of their chief pleasure and useful need of free motion, where obedience and quiet are the chief condition, where every misdeed is punished with a ruler. …Not only does such a school breed loathing for education, but in these years it inculcates upon its pupils hypocrisy and deceit, arising from the unnatural position in which the pupils are placed."

Tolstoy also insisted that schools should not all be the same, but should suit the needs of the community and the way people live.

"A beautiful school for a Russian village on the Steppes, which satisfies all the wants of its pupils, will be a very poor school for a Parisian; and the best school of the 17th century will be an exceedingly bad school in our time."(7)

What might Tolstoy say if he saw the same control- and obedience-driven schools still operating in many parts of the world in the 21st century?

Tolstoy's school was highly successful, and the children loved it. But it came to an end when the secret police raided it for the second time—"looking for subversive material." Only Tolstoy's position as a member of the ruling class kept him safe, but the parents were concerned by the repeated appearance of the police, so Tolstoy closed the school. (One might be prompted to ask what is "subversive" about educating the whole child in natural ways—unless it is the risk that they might grow into adults who are independent thinkers and might ask difficult questions the government doesn't want to answer.)

Francisco Ferrer (1859-1909)

In an effort to challenge the church-controlled school system that educated only male children of the rich, Ferrer opened a series of coeducational schools in Barcelona for middle- and working-class children.

Ferrer described compulsory public education as a tool by which elite groups in society seek to control the rest of the population.

"The children must learn to obey, to believe, and to think according to the prevailing social dogmas. …There is no question of promoting the spontaneous development of the child's faculties, or encouraging it to seek freely the satisfaction of physical, intellectual, and moral needs. There is question only of imposing ready-made ideas on it, of preventing it from ever thinking otherwise than is required for the maintenance of existing social institutions.…[Education] means, in practice, domination or domestication."(8)

Ferrer believed that violent and restrictive methods of public education arose out of ignorance, and that the "evolution of education will proceed in the direction of greater liberty." That evolution did not occur in Ferrer's time, nor has it occurred to any measurable extent in public education to this day.

Ferrer's ideas formed the beginning of the Modern Schools Movement, but he never lived to see it. In 1909, the Spanish monarchy, upset with his criticism, had him arrested on false charges of inciting a riot, and later executed. The Modern Schools Movement moved to the United States in 1913 and continued until about 1960. Like Ferrer, the founders were anarchists who sought to usher in a new society based on the voluntary cooperation of free individuals.(9)

Maria Montessori (1870-1952)

Maria Montessori was the first woman in Italy to receive a medical degree. She worked in the insane asylums of Rome with what were then called "idiot children," the mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, and the delinquent. Montessori set out to prove that the children's learning deficits were not organic defects, but were the result of environmental deprivation in early childhood.

Montessori demonstrated that, when provided with large quantities of sensory stimulation and a nurturing family-like environment, these children learned at a rate that was, in many cases, comparable to so-called "normal" children. She also found that the prevailing educational models actually suppressed development.

She was then placed in charge of the Case dei Bambini (Children's Houses), which were schools for three- to seven-year-olds in the slums of Rome. Not only were the schools located in the tenements themselves where the teachers also lived, but the specialized learning materials designed by Montessori were made in workshops in the same building. Children went home for naps, and parents were always welcome, giving them a strong sense of ownership.

Similar to parents who complained when Horace Mann made education compulsory in the United States, Montessori opposed the practice of taking children away from the families and isolating them from the rest of society. She also abhorred the educational method of traditional schools.

"In such a school the children, like butterflies mounted on pins, are fastened each to their places, the desks, spreading the useless wings of barren and meaningless knowledge that they have acquired…. The principle of slavery still pervades pedagogy, and therefore, the same principle pervades the school."(10)

Montessori supported Rousseau's "well-regulated freedom" in which adults meticulously structured and curated environments within which children had a great deal of choice and movement. She argued that self-regulation can only occur when learners have the opportunity to see how their choices play out in the real world. And like others committed to educating the whole child, Montessori rejected the common use of external rewards and punishments in favor of the intrinsic rewards that come from authentic, natural learning.

Montessori believed that love of order, love of work, spontaneous concentration, attachment to reality, love of silence and of working alone, sublimation of the possessive instinct, power to act from real choice, obedience, independence and initiative, spontaneous self-discipline, and joy were the truly "normal" characteristics of childhood, which emerge when children's developmental needs are met.(11)

Unlike earlier authentic learning proponents, Montessori's philosophy caught on with the mainstream. Today, there are about 4,500 Montessori schools in the U.S. and about 20,000 around the world.(12) No longer limited to early childhood, Montessori schools based on her understanding of children's natural learning tendencies as they unfold in "prepared environments" have expanded to include multi-age groups (0-3, 3-6, 6-9, 9-12, and 12-14).

Although Montessori's methods have become mainstream, and schools based on her philosophy are filled with children whose parents can afford the tuition, this focus on authentic learning has made few inroads into public education. Therefore, it is out of reach for the 51% of children in public schools today who are in the low-income or poverty-level socioeconomic groups.

John Dewey (1859-1952)

John Dewey was a philosopher, social reformer, and educator, whose ideas were central to the Progressive Movement in schooling. Like many earlier theorists who supported natural human development, Dewey's theories were so at odds with traditional education that they remained poorly understood and were often distorted.

Dewey's concept of education stressed meaningful activity in learning and participation in classroom democracy. Unlike traditional models of teaching, which relied on authoritarianism and rote learning, progressive education insists that students must be personally involved in what they were learning, and that curriculum should be relevant to students' lives. Dewey saw learning-by-doing and development of practical life skills as crucial to children's education. Some critics assumed that, under Dewey's system, students would fail to acquire basic academic skills and knowledge. Others believed that classroom order and the teacher's authority would disappear. They mistook "progressive" education for "permissive" education.

Now that "academic achievement" has become the Holy Grail of public education, it is even more difficult to convince people that holistic and self-directed learning not only doesn't diminish the acquisition of basic academic skills and knowledge, but rather enhances it! When students see a purpose in what they are learning, they are intrinsically motivated to delve more deeply into a concept. This automatically leads to the development of more sophisticated levels of literacy and numeracy consistent with the task. The key difference is that not all children learn the same things at the same age and in the same way. Here's a comment about one of the early progressive schools.

"Some people were bothered by the obvious differences between our school and conventional ones. We spent 'too much time walking around outdoors.' We called teachers by their first names. There isn't any respect. We were too permissive. The children aren't learning anything. The children can't wait to get to school. There must be something wrong."(13)

(Note: One might think that, when children can't wait to get to school, there must be something RIGHT, not wrong! Of course traditional education assumes that anything that is enjoyable can't possibly be educational.)

Dewey challenged the rigidity found in many American classrooms. He argued that both teachers and children needed to be free to devise the best forms of learning for each child. Dewey believed that schools must give students the experience of democracy, not simply define the term as part of a study of government. In The School and Society, he stated that school must become

"…an embryonic community life, active with types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society and permeated throughout with the spirit of art, history and science. When the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely and harmonious."(14)

Dewey founded the University of Chicago Lab School in 1896. According to their website, their efforts have been guided by learning-by-doing since Dewey began testing his educational theories. The Lab School stresses the following characteristics of education.

Was the concern that progressive education would fail to provide students with essential skills and knowledge justified? One need only look at the list of distinguished graduates from the University of Chicago Lab School to conclude otherwise. In fact, in a particularly ironic twist, the former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, not only graduated from the Lab School, but sends his own children there.

There is no question that each parent has the right to send his or her children to the schools that they believe will be in the best interest of their children. But if Duncan and others who can afford the $28,000 to $32,000 a year tuition (per child) choose this as the best learning environment for their own children, how can they, in good conscience, support a public education system that is the antithesis of what their own children are experiencing?

Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist known for his theories about different stages in the development of children's intelligence. While helping to develop standardized reasoning tests (IQ tests) in the Binet Laboratory, he found that tests that expressed a person's intelligence with a number (quantitative tests) were too limiting. He saw that children's incorrect answers were a better indicator of the quality of their thinking at various stages of their development. Piaget then spent the rest of his life studying how children learn.

Piaget didn't want to measure how well children could count, spell or solve problems as a way of grading their I.Q. He focused on the way in which fundamental concepts like the very idea of "number", "time" "quantity", "causality", "justice" and so on emerged.

Before Piaget, people assumed that children are simply less competent thinkers than adults. Thus, the focus on "teaching them to think" and giving them information we believe they need to think more effectively. What is beyond comprehension is why Piaget's work showing that children don't develop the mental capacity for formal operations until much later has been totally ignored in the public school push to "teach" literacy and numeracy to children in Kindergarten and even earlier.

These stages represent the age at which the majority of children have achieved the listed abilities.

These stages represent the age at which the majority of children have achieved the listed abilities. While some children may reach that stage at an earlier age, expecting children to achieve a specific task at an age earlier than the norm is inconsistent with a child's capabilities. For example, conservation of number isn't achieved until age 6. This means that, while children may be able to count on their fingers, a mature understanding of number and counting, such as the concept of "unit" requires a lot of refinement through practice and experience.(16) Providing children with those experiences and allowing them to process it at their current developmental level facilitates authentic learning. Setting a "standard" for a specific skill at a specific age is not only developmentally inappropriate, but psychologically stressful! Is it any wonder that, rather than learning to love learning, many children form negative associations to the whole concept of learning and "school"?

Of perhaps greater importance when considering a potential "gap" in academic achievement is that many children from lower socioeconomic do not have the same opportunities to practice or experience the skills that lead to understanding. There is a substantial body of evidence(17) demonstrating that lack of good nutrition and/or exposure to mental stimuli early in life limits, or at the very least, delays learning capacity by limiting the growth of areas in the brain most necessary for "academic" learning. Rather than expecting them to perform the same tasks as children who have already reached those stages, these children first need to be exposed to enriched environments that allow them to develop experience and understanding.

Piaget believed that children's understanding through at least the first three stages differ from those of adults, and are based on actively exploring the environment (surroundings) rather than on language understanding. During these stages children learn naturally without punishment or reward. Piaget saw nature and nurture as related and equally as important, with neither being the final answer. Children learn in stages in an upward spiral of understanding, with the same problems attacked and solved more completely at each higher level.(18)

During the 1970s, Piaget's theories led to many new and exciting curriculum programs that were subsequently adopted in public schools. These programs, based on inquiry rather than pre-packaged knowledge, should have been a huge step forward in active learning. However, the programs were often adopted by superintendents who announced that teachers should use them…with little or no training in the very different philosophical basis of inquiry. Traditional teachers, accustomed to giving children information, did not understand that inquiry turned the learning over to students. Test questions continued to focus on facts, rather than focusing on the more in-depth process of learning. Within a decade, teachers had decided that Piaget's ideas "didn't work" and the programs were abandoned. The assumption that any program that "worked" had to result in higher test scores on the same tests they had used before was never questioned.

In 1979, the U.S. Department of Education became a cabinet-level position, followed quickly by the next big thing—standards. Any hope of education based on authentic learning disappeared in the obsession with one-size-fits-all academic achievement.

The Reggio Emilia Approach

The Reggio Emilia Approach is an educational philosophy focused on preschool and primary education. It was developed after World War II by a teacher, Loris Malaguzzi, and parents in the Reggio Emilia area in Italy. Malaguzzi and the parents believed that people form their own personality during early years of development. They also believed that children express their ideas in "a hundred languages" and should be facilitated in learning these symbolic languages (eg., painting, sculpting, music, drama) in everyday life. The program is based on principles of respect, responsibility, and community through exploration and discovery in a supportive and enriching environment. This environment is driven by the interests of the children through a self-guided curriculum.

There are no "Reggio Emilia Schools" other than the original. Unlike Montessori, they have no training program for teachers. Schools that use the Reggio Emilia principles are called "Reggio-inspired" schools. Still, the approach has found its way into a number of schools in the U.S.

Fundamental Principles of the Reggio Emilia Approach

  1. Children are capable of constructing their own learning. They are driven by their interests to understand and know more.
  2. Children form an understanding of themselves and their place in the world through their interactions with others. In Reggio Emilia, there is a strong focus on social collaboration, working in groups where each child is an equal participant, and having their thoughts and questions valued. The adult is not the giver of knowledge. Children search out the knowledge through their own investigations.
  3. Children are communicators. Communication is a process, a way of discovering things, asking questions, using language as play. Playing with sounds and rhythm and rhyme; delighting in the process of communicating. Children are encouraged to use language to investigate and explore, to reflect on their experiences. They are listened to with respect, believing that their questions and observations are an opportunity to learn and search together. It is a continual collaborative process. Rather than the child asking a question and the adult offering the answers, the search is undertaken together.
  4. The environment is the third teacher. The environment is recognized for its potential to inspire children. An environment filled with natural light, order and beauty. Open spaces free from clutter, where every material is considered for its purpose, every corner is ever-evolving to encourage children to delve deeper and deeper into their interests. The space encourages collaboration, communication and exploration. The space respects children as capable by providing them with authentic materials & tools, and is cared for by the children and the adults.
  5. The adult is a mentor and guide.The role of adults is to observe (our) children, listen to their questions and their stories, find what interests them and then provide them with opportunities to explore these interests further. The Reggio Emilia Approach takes a child-led project approach. The projects aren't planned in advanced, they emerge based on the child's interests.
  6. An emphasis on documenting children's thoughts. In Reggio and Reggio-inspired settings, there is an emphasis on carefully displaying and documenting children's thoughts and progression of thinking; making their thoughts visible in many different ways: photographs, transcripts of children's thoughts and explanations, visual representations (drawings, sculptures etc.), all designed to show the child's learning process. This is the basis of authentic assessment.
  7. The Hundred Languages of Children Probably the most well-known aspect of the Reggio Emilia Approach is the belief that children use many different ways to show their understanding and express their thoughts and creativity. A hundred different ways of thinking, of discovering, of learning. Through drawing and sculpting, through dance and movement, through painting and pretend play, through modelling and music, each one of these Hundred Languages must be valued and nurtured. These languages, or ways of learning, are all a part of the child. Learning and play are not separated. The Reggio Emilia Approach emphasizes hands-on discovery learning that allows the child to use all their senses and all their languages to learn.(19)
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The Hundred Languages of Children

Many of today's alternative learner-centered schools blend aspects of Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Dewey, Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences, and other child-centered, inquiry-based educational philosophies consistent with natural human development. Perhaps the best summation of Reggio Emilia approach was offered by founding teacher Loris Malaguzzi who said, "Nothing without joy!"

Authentic Learning Today

Since the 1960s, research in neurophysiology has definitively linked increased development of neurons and connections between brain cells to exposure to enriched environments. Hundreds of books and articles by experts in child development and authentic learning have pointed to dangerous and inappropriate practices in public education. Yet, the growing obsession with one-size-fits-all standardized education turns its back on research and moves ever farther from natural and developmentally appropriate school environments.

In February, 2017, several thousand neuroscientists and educators attended the annual Learning and the Brain Conference. Using new tools, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging and eye-tracking, researchers can watch what happens in the brain as students engage in "learning activities" of various types. The finding of this research can be summarized in a single sentence. The greater the amount of self-direction and active involvement in the learning process, the greater the students’ motivation, engagement, understanding, retention, and ability to transfer learning from one context to another. In other words, current leading-edge research fully supports the theories of authentic learning described in this article.

Beginning with No Child Left Behind, the Department of Education has demanded that only "scientifically-based practices" be used in schools. Yet most mandated educational policies are shockingly inconsistent with what research has shown about how real children learn. Where is the "carefully obtained, reliable evidence" that mandated programs work? Where is the research showing that "standards for what a child should know and be able to do" at a given age even exists given the variability of the human mind?

Shouldn't the policy makers who demand accountability be held to the same scientific scrutiny they demand of programs used to teach children? In fact, shouldn't policies that impact every child in every public school be held to an even higher burden of proof?

The methods of authentic learning are limited only by imagination. But the Principles of the Reggio Emilia approach do a good job of providing a place to begin. One feature is mandatory, and that is a trusting, respectful, and nurturing relationship between and among adult and student learners.

To learn more about how what a learner-centered school might look like, see the articles on Woodland Park Cooperative Pre-School, Renaissance School of Arts and Sciences, and Rainbow Community School

  1. Mercogliano, Chris. (2006) How to Grow a School; Starting and Sustaining Schools That Work. The Oxford Village Press, Oxford, NY. p 21
  2. Ibid. p 22
  3. Ibid.
  4. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1979. Emile; Basic Books, NY.
  5. Pestalozzi, Heinrich (2007) The Education of Man; Philosophical Library, NY
  6. Mercogliano, p 26
  7. Ibid. pp 30-31
  8. Ferrer, Francisco (1913) The Origin and Ideals of the Modern School; Putnam, NY
  9. http://friendsofthemodernschool.org/
  10. Montessori, Maria. (1965) The Montessori Method. Robert Bentley
  11. http://www.montessori-namta.org/The-Process-of-Normalization
  12. http://www.montessori-namta.org/FAQ/Montessori-Education/How-many-Montessori-schools-are-there
  13. http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/progressive-schools-children-deserve/
  14. http://www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/john.html
  15. http://www.ucls.uchicago.edu/
  16. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/poverty-disturbs-children-s-brain-development-and-academic-performance and http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/poverty-shrinks-brains-from-birth1/
  17. http://web.media.mit.edu/~stefanm/society/som_final.html
  18. http://www.notablebiographies.com/Pe-Pu/Piaget-Jean.html#ixzz3zym4kFQD
  19. http://www.aneverydaystory.com/beginners-guide-to-reggio-emilia/main-principles/

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