Criteria for
Authentic
Intellectual Work
Instruction
(Lessons Taught)
Tasks
(Assignments,
Assessments)
Student Performance
(Student Work)
Construction of
Knowledge
Higher Order
Thinking
Construction of
Knowledge
Construction of
Knowledge
Disciplined
Inquiry
Deep Knowledge
and Student
Understanding
Elaborated
Communication
Conceptual
Understanding
Substantive
Conversation
Elaborated
Communication
Value Beyond
School
Value Beyond
School
Value Beyond
School
(Student Performance
is not scored on this
standard)

Construction of knowledge

Skilled adults in diverse occupations and participating in civic life face the challenge of applying basic skills and knowledge to complex problems that are often novel or unique. To reach an adequate solution to new problems, the competent adult has to “construct” knowledge because these problems cannot be solved by routine use of information or skills previously learned. Such construction of knowledge involves organizing, interpreting, evaluating, or synthesizing prior knowledge to solve new problems. Teachers often think of these operations as higher order thinking skills. We contend, however, that successful construction of knowledge is best learned through a variety of experiences that call for this kind of cognitive work, not by explicitly teaching a set of discrete “thinking skills.”

Disciplined inquiry

Constructing knowledge alone is not enough. The mere fact that someone has constructed, rather than reproduced, a solution to a problem is no guarantee that the solution is adequate or valid. Authentic adult intellectual accomplishments require that construction of knowledge be guided by disciplined inquiry. By this we mean that they (1) use a prior knowledge base; (2) strive for in-depth understanding rather than superficial awareness; and (3) develop and express their ideas and findings through elaborated communication.

Prior knowledge base

Significant intellectual accomplishments build on prior knowledge accumulated in an academic or applied discipline. Students must acquire a knowledge base of facts, vocabularies, concepts, theories, algorithms, and other conventions necessary to conduct rigorous inquiry. Transmitting a knowledge base, along with basic skills, is usually the central focus of direct instruction in content areas.

In-depth understanding

A knowledge base of value to students involves more than being familiar with a broad survey of topics. To be most powerful, students must have a complex understanding of that knowledge that helps them gain deeper understanding of specific problems. Such understanding develops as one looks for, imagines, proposes, and tests relationships among key facts, events, concepts, rules, and claims in order to clarify a specific problem or issue.

Elaborated communication

Accomplished adults in a range of fields rely upon complex forms of communication both to conduct their work and to present its results. The tools they use—verbal, symbolic, graphic, and visual—provide qualifications, nuances, elaborations, details, and analogies woven into extended narratives, explanations, justifications, and dialogue. Elaborated communication may be most often evident in essays or research papers, but a math proof, CAD drawing, complex display board, or musical score could also involve elaborated communication.

Value beyond school

Finally, meaningful intellectual accomplishments have utilitarian, aesthetic, or personal value. When adults write letters, news articles, organizational memos, or technical reports; when they speak a foreign language; when they design a house, negotiate an agreement, or devise a budget; when they create a painting or a piece of music—they try to communicate ideas that have an impact on others. In contrast, most school assignments, such as spelling quizzes, laboratory exercises, or typical final exams are designed only to document the competence of the learner, and lack meaning or significance beyond the certification of success in school.

The call for “relevant” or “student-centered” curriculum is, in many cases, a less precise expression of the view that student intellectual accomplishments should have value beyond simply indicating school success. While some people may regard the term “authentic” as equivalent to education that is “relevant,” “student-centered,” or “hands-on,” we do not. Value beyond school is only one component of authentic intellectual work. Further, for this criterion we deliberately do not use any of the three adjectives just mentioned. We use it to emphasize not simply activity or topics that may be interesting to students, but those involving particular intellectual challenges that when successfully met would have meaning to students beyond complying with teachers’ requirements. Intellectual challenges raised in the world beyond the classroom are often more meaningful to students than those contrived only for the purpose of teaching students in school.
The three criteria—construction of knowledge, through disciplined inquiry, to produce discourse, products, and performances that have meaning beyond success in school—provide a foundation of standards for the more complex intellectual work necessary for success in contemporary society. All three criteria are important. For example, students might confront a complex calculus problem demanding much analytic thought (construction of knowledge and disciplined inquiry), but if its solution has no interest or value beyond proving competence to pass a course, students are less likely be able to use the knowledge in their lives beyond school. Or a student might be asked to write a letter to the editor about a proposed social welfare policy. She might say she vigorously opposes the policy but offer no arguments indicating that she understands relevant economic and moral issues. This activity may meet the criteria of constructing knowledge to produce discourse with value beyond school, but it would fall short on the criterion of disciplined inquiry, and thereby represent only superficial awareness, not deep understanding, of the issue. As a final example, students might be asked to interview family members about experiences during wartime, or to conduct a survey of peer opinion on job conditions or musical preferences. These activities would connect schoolwork to students’ lives beyond school, but if students only reported what the interviewees said, without summary or analysis or drawing connections to disciplinary content, there would be virtually no construction of knowledge or disciplined inquiry. Judgments about the extent to which intellectual work is “authentic” should be made on a continuum, from less to more, depending on how fully all three criteria are met.

 

-Adapted from: Authentic Instruction and Assessment: Common Standards for Rigor and Relevance in Teaching Academic Subjects, by Fred M. Newmann, M. Bruce King, and Dana L. Carmichael, 2007