The Time Has Come to Acknowledge Authentic Learning

Insights   06 May 2020
By Lindsy Ogawa, Education Reimagined


We cannot allow the learning that’s happening right now to be lost and forgotten.

Lindsy Ogawa
Director of Practice and Field Advancement

Education Reimagined is hosting an on-going series of Lab Forums for learner-centered leaders in The Learning Lab and SparkHouse communities. Each week, we will be highlighting the insights that emerge from those conversations. The first forum touched on why they were uniquely prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. The second focused on the power of trusting relationships. The third showcased how learner-centered leaders are strengthening their communities. The fourth challenged us to take full advantage of the new flexibilities the current moment is providing. And, the fifth and final for this series invites us to expand the what and where of learning.

School buildings are closed and conventional state-wide assessments have been waived—but rest assured, learning is happening in every zip code, household, and experience. In fact, it is always happening all around us; but in these trying times, we can easily overlook authentic learning because the education system has instilled in us the assumption that learning equals school time, when we are in our seats with a teacher at the front of the room.

However, we know the child caring for their younger siblings or grandparents is learning about patience, responsibility, cooking, and household management, to name a few things. The teen at work at the grocery store to help support their family is developing their interpersonal skills as they interact with nervous customers. And, the young person playing video games is building their reflexes—both in hand-eye coordination and in their capacity to collaborate with their virtual team members from all over the world.

So, what does it look like to acknowledge and value this kind of authentic learning, as an educator, parent, or young person? In learner-centered sites across the country, this is and has been happening long before COVID-19 hit. And, it is frequently driven by young people themselves in organic and unexpected ways.


Rather than writing off their work as “not learning,” she rescheduled their check-ins based on the learners’ availability and captured what skills and dispositions they were gaining from working and taking care of their families.

Lindsy Ogawa
Director of Practice and Field Advancement

During our fifth Lab Forum, we heard a series of powerful examples of what it looks like to incorporate this authentic learning as being core to a learner’s journey. One parent shared that her nine-year-old son sparked up a conversation about what he could do with his free time. He started off by listing some of his interests, and for that particular day, chose to focus on basketball.

He then went outside to play basketball for an hour. Without any prompting, he came back inside and documented how many free throws he made and missed. Then, he began researching the stats of his favorite basketball players and reading about their unique journeys to being drafted into the NBA. This evolved into a broader conversation about statistics, predictive analysis, and leadership skills, like collaboration and integrity.

Another educator posed a general question to her middle schoolers: “What does Earth Day mean to you?” Encouraged to answer in ways that felt most aligned to their interests, the learners quickly began submitting their responses. The answers were as wide-ranging as the mediums through which they were expressed.

One learner submitted a research paper with calculations of the methane produced from cows. Others submitted original poems and songs about ways to protect our environment. And, others submitted photos and videos of garden beds they built and tended to with their families.

In yet another example, one educator noticed her young people were repeatedly missing their virtual check-ins. She discovered many of her learners were working full-time on farms and in markets to help financially support their families. Rather than writing off their work as “not learning,” she rescheduled their check-ins based on the learners’ availability and captured what skills and dispositions they were gaining from working and taking care of their families.


Let’s use this moment to ask: What are the opportunities to make authentic learning visible right now and continue making it visible for ourselves, our learners, our parents, and our policy makers?

Lindsy Ogawa
Director of Practice and Field Advancement

The current education system was not designed to acknowledge, credential, or honor authentic learning. And, learner-centered leaders are aware that learning is (and always has been) happening everywhere our young people are—in their living rooms, at their jobs, in the parks, with grandparents and siblings, and online.

While states have waived more conventional forms of assessments for this academic school year, we should not automatically expect they will continue to be waived when schools reopen.

So, let’s use this moment to ask: What are the opportunities to make authentic learning visible right now and continue making it visible for ourselves, our learners, our parents, and our policy makers? All with an eye to demonstrating why waiving our standardized assessment regime could be the key to unlocking some of the most powerful learning there is.

As you read through each section, we invite you to see these takeaways as an opportunity to pause and think about your own work and how you might move forward with your transformation efforts. And, make the learning that is happening visible for an education system that was not designed for learning to happen.

If current conventional measures don’t capture what our young people are capable of, what might young people be able to do in a system designed to support learning?

Our current education system is built on the idea that “knowledge” is the foundation for success. Yet, adults have known, not known, forgotten, ignored, skewed, and skimmed over all kinds of knowledge (including content knowledge from grade school)—and many still managed to live successful and fulfilling lives.

So, at a systems-level, what new accountability and assessment systems could we create? How can what we assess for and hold our learning environments accountable to actually empower and recognize the unique potential and capabilities of all learners, regardless of their race, brain wiring, socioeconomic standing, or gender?

It all starts with rethinking what we mean by learner success; asking ourselves what the purpose of education is. So, could it be that a good education must develop every young person’s ability to lead a uniquely meaningful and fulfilling life now and into the future?

If that is the case, we could think about education as developing a young person’s self-knowledge and identity; agency; love of learning; and sense of belonging. And, rather than looking at “academic development” as a set of facts to be memorized or even skills to be learned out of context, it could be thought of as supporting a young person’s capacity to engage with, understand, and employ essential “human literacies”—such as communication and collaboration, creativity, cultural and historical contexts, scientific methods, quantitative reasoning.

If we saw these capabilities as what will support young people to thrive now and in the future, we might begin to organically see where they are and are not already showing up (and being valued) in the lives of our learners. This may also spark new ideas about the kinds of learning evidence you—whether you’re an educator, parent or grandparent, young person, or community member—might begin acknowledging and collecting.

So, if teachers aren’t focused on “teaching content,” what might the role of learner-centered educators be?

This learner-centered shift in how we support and credential learning inherently requires a shift in how we view the role of educators. Frequently, we hear that learner-centered educators see themselves as mentors, advisors, facilitators, and coaches rather than the “sage on stage.” So, let’s dig into that a bit more—what does it mean to be a learner-centered educator?

The most basic requirement is that learner-centered educators see themselves as one of several, interconnected (school, community, and family) partners responsible for nurturing and developing the full humanity in young people. They aim to provide a safe and supportive “learning family” that gives each learner full access to exploring their unique curiosities, capabilities, and aspirations. And, they are responsive to each young person’s unique needs, circumstances, challenges, and wants.

While this may sound different than the current job requirements laid out in a teacher’s contract, it’s likely not a philosophical shift from why most educators join the profession in the first place—to develop whole human beings who have the tools they need to live fulfilling lives now and as adults. However, that purpose gets muddied when the task of educators becomes narrowed to increasing content knowledge and ensuring performance on standardized tests—both of which are at odds with learning built on human connection, agency, and the exploration of our unique curiosities.

Taking the five elements of learner-centered learning, we can start reimagining what the role of the educator might be if the limiting requirements of the standardized system are replaced with ones that enable and prize authentic learning, empower our children and their multifaceted identities, and have a lens towards noticing whether there are opportunity gaps across race and socioeconomic standing.

Learner Agency and Socially Embedded

An educator’s role could mean they are “connection strategists.” In addition to intentionally fostering their learners’ sense of belonging, they might also be responsible for developing learners’ capacity to foster belonging themselves. They might create the conditions and develop skills that enable each person to authentically listen for what the group is learning about themselves and the world, and listen for what’s needed to support each other (or identify who else can be of support) to ensure their needs are met.

Educators might also be responsible for connecting and empowering young people with local, virtual, and national communities and partners to advance and contribute in meaningful ways, based on each other’s gifts, interests, and needs.

Personalized, Relevant, & Contextualized, Open-Walled, and Competency-Based

An educator’s role might also mean they are “community liaisons and learner advocates.” Rather than being the holders of knowledge and sole creators of learning experiences, they might build and tap into their social capital to connect learners with relevant and interest-based learning opportunities and mentors. In-person and virtual partnerships with businesses, government agencies, art and cultural centers, community colleges, retirees, community leaders and advocates, and nonprofits would be available to young people—the community and world become a new playground for learning.

Educators might check-in with other educators and community partners to ensure learning disparities are not happening across lines of race or socioeconomic standings. If disparities are noticed, work would quickly be done to analyze what and why that is happening, and to make adjustments to ensure those opportunity gaps are closed.

Educators, young people, and community partners would co-create goals, regularly provide feedback, and together create new norms for what “high quality” learning looks like based on life and career standards. Educators and learners could regularly reflect on their own learning when it’s happening, and update their individualized learning plans to capture evolving interests, aspirations, accomplishments, and needs.


By starting to redefine and capture the dynamic roles of learner-centered educators, we could begin rebuilding the trust and appreciation educators deserve as professionals.

Lindsy Ogawa
Director of Practice and Field Advancement

This isn’t about adding more to an educator’s plate; rather, it is about fundamentally rethinking how to organize and support learning in ways that honor the unique skills and talents of our educators, and situate them in the context of a broader learning community of adults and youth, together supporting each child’s journey.

As we rethink, it is also imperative we consider and build into the foundation of this reimagined, learner-centered system the support, tools, and capacities educators and other adults need to effectively serve our most marginalized youth, including those of color, from low-income backgrounds, and with learning differences.

And, by starting to redefine and capture the dynamic roles of learner-centered educators, we could begin rebuilding the trust and appreciation educators deserve as professionals. It would enable our society to see the numerous ways educators are (and could be even more so) leaders within entire communities—showcasing their pivotal role as the glue of supportive learning networks positively impacting each child and community’s unique gifts, needs, and learnings.

We know learning is happening. What are ways to make that learning visible right now?

If we look at our “distance learning” reality through these new lenses, in what ways might we consider making the evidence of authentic learning visible to and shareable with a broader audience right now? 

Educators and young people might share their learning on a class website, share artifacts on Twitter or Youtube, upload written and recorded reflections into a shared drive, or even submit particularly impactful learning to news outlets. Young people who know that their learning can contribute to their community, and even ask for community input along the way, could be an opportunity to demonstrate to the world, in real ways, the learning that is happening at home. 

Additionally, we could engage and equip parents and guardians to begin recognizing what learning looks like when it isn’t happening in a classroom or guided by a rigid lesson plan. We could have check-ins with family and see what they’ve been up to during the week, pointing out the knowledge and skills we see they and their learners are building in the context of day-to-day life. When the entire family is equipped with this new lens for learning and aware of the myriad skills being developed on a daily basis, making learning visible will take on a whole new meaning.

Ultimately, we need new agreed upon outcomes for education—whether it’s at a community, state, or national level—that will ensure we are building a system with those outcomes front and center. These must be systems flexible enough to acknowledge the full range of cultures, brain wiring, interests, and needs. And, that are based on skills and dispositions people need to be able to navigate the world and be expressed. 

We cannot allow the learning that’s happening right now to be lost and forgotten. In fact, the experiences these young people are having now may be what they remember for the years to come. When school facilities reopen, how will we ensure this new lens for learning remains visible? What will you do in the upcoming weeks and months to acknowledge and help others see all the learning that is happening?

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