On "Fauxthenticity"

"Fauxthenticity"* is faux authenticity, specifically within project-based learning.

A fauxthentic project is one that looks profoundly authentic when summarized on a presentation slide at a conference, but which students experienced as being no more authentic than a book report. 

If you are a project-based teacher, you know what I'm talking about: projects that you meticulously designed, that engaged with big questions and issues relevant to students, that expanded their horizons into hitherto-unfamiliar areas of inquiry, but that somehow lost their spark in translation to your actual classroom and turned into a series of tasks that students executed more-or-less dutifully because you were their teacher and you told them to. 

To some extent, this describes every project I've ever done: there is always a point where I think "I'm sure this seemed meaningful when I was designed it - what happened?" and temporarily losing sight of your greater purpose is a natural part of projects for everybody: I'm absolutely certain that at some point during revisions of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson turned to Benjamin Franklin looked at each other and said something along the lines of "I feel like I've totally lost track of the point of this document." In this situation, you need mechanisms to help you get back on track and reconnect with the big reasons for what you're doing.

However, there are other projects that are fauxthentic by design - they contain basic conceptual flaws that guarantee that they won't feel authentic to students. As teachers, we could come up with dozens, if not hundreds, of warning signs of impending fauxthenticity, but I want to jot down a few right now:

1. "Students are going to make and sell..."

The same error that bankrupts entrepreneurs has screwed up many, many projects: starting with a product to sell, rather than with consumer demand. I think there's a tendency in project design to use selling a product as a substitute for finding an authentic audience, because (just like for an entrepreneur) it's possible to imagine a horde of customers fighting to get your product. But you need to start from demand, and create a product that meets it - which means if you can't find demand, there's no product for your project.

The question of demand is the first issue. The second is that it's unlikely that, given the time constraints of most projects, students will be able to develop a product and produce it to a high enough quality to bring it to market (not to mention produce lots and lots of copies to the same standard).

I've seen amazing projects where students have created and sold products, but I think it's very easy to use the idea of selling a product as a substitute for real authenticity, so I always feel nervous when I see the words "Students are going to make and sell"

2. "Students will make recommendations to the City Council..."

There needs to be a whole lot of ground work in order for student recommendations to have any more impact than a letter to Santa Clause. Again, amazing projects have happened with this as an outcome, but it does not, on its own, mean you have found an authentic audience. 

That's a start - I'm really curious to know what other warning signs of "fauxthenticity" you've seen.