The importance of semi-authenticity

When we talk about education today, we also often talk about authenticity: having students learn and do in the same way that people outside the classroom learn and do. Foreign language education, which is what my background is in, has a particular love for this concept. The lone foreign language pedagogy textbook to survive my post-graduation purge talks about the importance of authentic texts (e.g., using recent newspaper articles) and authentic assessment (e.g., testing students’ ability to order food in French by, well, going to a French restaurant and having them order food in French).

Yet, despite the adoration that language education professes for authentic resources and activities, it is also (as far as I know) the only field to discuss the possibility that pure authenticity may not always be the way to go. Not every town has a French restaurant and very few French I students are going to be able to tackle one of the articles « à la une » of today’s Le Monde. So, what do we do? We look for the next best thing: semi-authenticity. Richard Robin defines semi-authenticity as materials (and activities) that “[feel] authentic…, but [are] created for pedagogical purposes.” In other words, if you don’t have a local French restaurant, you can at least pattern your oral exams after what a conversation with the garçon would be like. If authentic newspaper articles are above your students’ level, you can write a simplified article that still follows the conventions of the French press.

While foreign language education is the only field that I know of to use the term “semi-authentic,” I’ve started applying it to any material or task in any content area that meets or approaches the criteria that Robin sets out. While authenticity should still be a main focus for many classrooms, semi-authenticity isn’t half-bad; in fact, sometimes it’s the best approach for that particular context. Some of my most valuable learning experiences as an undergrad at Brigham Young University were semi-authentic ones, and I’d like to use three of them to further explore the advantages of semi-authenticity.

Semi-authenticity can be a lot more practical

I changed majors and career paths a couple of times in college, leaving me with a few redundant classes on my transcript. While it turns out that I didn’t need The Icarus Project to fulfill my social sciences credit, I will never regret taking the course. The entire class was a thought experiment in which the class was “stranded” on an uncharted island à la Cast Away and asked to take the necessary steps to build an airplane from scratch to get back home. While the point of the class was to get us to better appreciate and understand the technology we use every day, we also spent time talking about law, order, society, and family and how these things would change in this new context.

It should be pretty clear that this semi-authentic thought experiment holds a number of advantages over a more authentic semester on an uncharted island in the middle of the ocean. Adding a semi-authentic layer to this class made it a lot more valuable than simply a series of readings and essays on technology and society, but adding a full authentic layer would probably have actually distracted from the learning goals of the class.

Semi-authenticity can be more active

For the final project of my History of the French Language class, the professor asked us to write a Romance language from scratch. We’d spent two or three weeks getting a crash course in Latin at the beginning of the semester, and we’d also discussed all of the different ways in which Latin changed into French. Dr. Unlandt felt that the best (and most fun) way to test our understanding of these concepts would be to guide us as we took Latin and changed it into a language of our own design. My group and I brainstormed some general rules for how our language would change and then put together a dictionary, a basic grammar, and a translation of Genesis 1.

We used authentic texts throughout this course to see the way that Latin had transformed into French over the course of centuries, but there was something special about this semi-authentic project. It required active effort on our part, so while I’ve forgotten the vast majority of the details that emerged from our lectures, I have very distinct memories of reading up on Latin and wrestling with the itty-bitty parts of grammar that you don’t think about except when you have to come up with them on your own. A semi-authentic activity made that experience more active than any authentic activity could have, even if we weren’t quite learning the same thing.

Semi-authenticity can be safer

At the end of my summer course on the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Dr. Gubler assigned each of us an Israeli role and a Palestinian role and had us role-play three rounds of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. I played a nationalist Israeli foreign minister for the internal Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian rounds as well as an obscure but deadly terrorist (complete with Nerf gun) in the internal Palestinian round. We knew that we weren’t quite as invested as the real players, but a couple of out-of-character moments allowed us to secure peace.

I’m not entirely happy with how easy it was for us to solve the conflict in the Middle East over one or two class periods. To me, that suggests that this activity could have been a little less “semi-” and a little more “authentic.” It was, however, a valuable experience to put myself in these people’s shoes and one that I will not soon forget. Despite semi-authenticity not quite living up to the real deal, though, the real deal was clearly off limits for our class. Even if Israeli and Palestinian representatives had been willing to turn over negotiations to the 8 or 10 of us, our lack of expertise probably would have done more harm than good. Semi-authentic activities also give us a certain amount of safety: Students can make mistakes without “real world” consequences.

References

Robin, R. (2011). Listening comprehension in the age of Web 2.0. In Arnold, N., and Ducate, L. (eds.), Present and future promises of CALL: From theory and research to new directions in language teaching, 93-130. San Marcos, TX: CALICO

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