Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

How Does Authenticity Grow?

Heather Shaffery, Mariah Warren | Published: September 16th, 2020 by K20 Center


In this interactive session, teachers will participate as learners in a 5E LEARN lesson. Through this experience, they will build formal knowledge of 5E concepts and evaluate the lesson’s alignment with the 5E model and its elements of authenticity. After observing modifications made to the 5E LEARN lesson, participants will identify opportunities for further modifications to make the lesson more authentic or more strongly aligned to 5E principles. These activities serve as a foundation for the subsequent PD activities related to authenticity and 5E.

Essential Question

How can we increase teachers’ understanding of authentic instruction and build their capacity to adapt lessons to more effectively implement authentic instructional practices?

Learning Goals

  • Participants will engage in and analyze an authentic science learning experience and reflect on this to determine the relevant components of authenticity.

  • Participants will be able to identify how their authentic learning experience aligns with a 5E lesson model.

  • Participants will maximize authentic instruction by practicing modifying existing 5E lessons for potential use in their classrooms with their students.

Materials List

  • Activity Slides (attached)

  • Breakout Codes handout (optional; attached; one per participant)

  • Breakout Answer Key (attached)

  • 5E Lesson Roles (attached; one per participant)

  • Authentic Lesson Reflection Tool (attached; one per participant)

  • Lesson Design Proof Rubric (attached; one per participant)

  • How Does Your Garden Grow Explain Phase (attached; one per participant)

  • HDYGG Full Lesson (HS) (optional; attached; one per participant)

  • HDYGG Full Lesson (MS) (optional; attached; one per participant)

  • HDYGG Full Lesson (HS) (optional; attached; one per participant)

  • Window Notes graphic organizer (attached; one per participant)

  • Sticky notes

  • Internet-enabled research devices

  • Soil samples

  • Soil containers

  • Mineral-free water (e.g. DI water)

  • Soil test kit or chemical test strips

  • Gloves

  • Paper towels or disinfectant wipes

  • Google App (Docs, Slides, etc.) (optional)

  • Explore Sources digital copy

  • Posters or chart paper

  • Markers


Use the attached Activity Slides to guide the learning activity. Begin on slide 2. Go over the learning objectives for the session with participants. Then, move to slide 3 and give each participant a sticky note. Ask participants to write a number on the sticky note representing their level of comfort with teaching a lesson in the 5E format—level one represents little to no understanding, while five represents a near-complete understanding. Then, have participants place their notes on the prepared Sticky Bar graph. The finished graph gives a quick visual assessment of where the group is in their comfort teaching a 5E lesson.

Move to slide 4 and introduce participants to the "How Does Your Garden Grow? (Middle School Edition)" lesson on which this activity is based. Next, invite participants to take part in a Photo Deconstruction, using the photos on slide 5. Ask participants to reflect on what they observe in each photo, the differences they notice, potential causes for these differences, and what healthy flora might have that the unhealthy flora does not. After the discussion, move to slide 6. Ask participants to summarize what they know about the images, based on discussion, in one sentence.


Now that the participants have a sense that soil may be important to plant health, move to slide 7. First, provide each group with a copy of the attached Soil Investigation Handout. Next, depending on the specific directions for the soil test kit you have purchased, review the procedure for soil testing with your students. If your kit requires the use of chemicals, be sure to check the SDS sheets in advance for safety and disposal procedures.

Invite participants to test different soil types to determine the levels of nutrients present. Participants should follow the directions on slide seven, using tablets or phone cameras to document their process.

Once participants have finished this part of the activity, move to slide 8 for clean-up.

Moving to slide 9, pass out a copy of the attached Window Notes graphic organizer to each participant. Alternatively, participants can also use Google Apps (e.g., Docs, Slides) to collaboratively fill out the notes in the same manner. Invite them to work in groups and gather information according to the Window Notes strategy about general soil science, soil health, and soil functions. Each participant should record important details in the Window Notes graphic organizer or online, but ask the class to leave the Nutrient Cycle box empty for now. Distribute a digital copy of the attached Explore Sources handout (or distribute this Google Docs link, also listed on slide nine) to participants. Note that several of these sources are YouTube videos, which may require headphones or a separate space for listening in order to avoid disturbing working groups.

Once participants have completed their Window Notes, move to slide 10. Ask for volunteers to help summarize key points and record participants' contributions in the lesson slide itself (or use a whiteboard space) to create an Anchor Chart for each Window Notes box. Incorporate information about soil chemistry into the "Soil Properties" or "Soil Health" boxes. Consider also including pictures or drawings of soil horizons or other helpful images. Consider using the questions below to guide the summary discussion:

  • What is soil?

  • How do we describe it?

  • What criteria factor into soil health?

  • What are the benefits of having healthy soil?

  • What soil management practices or strategies would improve soil health?


Move to slide 11. Invite participants to work together to complete the “How Does Your Garden Grow?” Breakout via the link on the slide. Participants should read the information on the website and click to interact with pictures and other page elements. This way, they can discover hidden clues to the four keys near the bottom of the page. For clues, participants can input an answer into each key field and click "submit"; fields with incorrect answers then produce hints. For best results, participants should have Flash enabled. A Breakout Answer Key is attached for reference.

They may also add to other sections of their Window Notes as necessary. Then, as a group, create a final Anchor Chart for nutrient cycles. Use slide 12 or a whiteboard space to record participants' ideas. Then, ask participants to make connections between the Explore and Explain phases of the lesson.

Move to slide 13. Invite participants to use the Three Post-It Notes strategy in small groups or individually. Participants should write a single word and then a short phrase summarizing what they learned in the breakout (have participants complete only the Word and Phrase notes at this time). Allow one set of two Post-It notes per group, if working in groups. If participants cannot narrow their ideas down to a single example, ask that they limit their responses to one sticky per person (that is, a group of three could have up to three words and up to three phrases).

Create the Nutrient Cycles chart and complete the above process to update the previous anchor charts as necessary. Then, ask participants to synthesize their knowledge in order to complete the last Post-It note.

Rather than continuing through the Extend and Evaluate phases of the “How Does Your Garden Grow?” lesson, move to slide 14 to give participants a chance to look over what Extend and Evaluate activities would follow for their grade levels. Note that, since NGSS (which our OAS-S are based on) treats all MS standards the same, each track could be taught in any of the three grades. Answer any questions participants have.

Now, move to slide 15. Ask each participant to draw a 3–5 panel comic to illustrate a general overview of how they would divide up a science lesson, from beginning to end. Once participants have finished, Ask for volunteers to share their panels. Use volunteers' ideas to help form a broad idea of the group’s classroom structures.

Move to slide 16 and draw participants' attention to the 5Es posted around the room. Using the Magnetic Statements strategy, invite them to stand next to the E they feel is the least important. Once groups have formed, ask participants to discuss their rationales with their group members. Then, have each group share their reasoning with the full group. After this brief discussion, ask participants to reflect on whether a lesson would be effective if an E were missing.

Move to slide 20 and ask volunteers to share how their comic panels are aligned, or not aligned, with the 5E model. Then, pass out a copy of the attached 5E Lesson Roles. Move to slide 21 and ask participants to evaluate how the Engage, Explore, and Explain phases of the “How Does Your Garden Grow?” lesson align with the model.

After a brief discussion, move to slide 22 to revisit the Sticky Bars activity from the Engage phase. Hand each participant a new sticky note and invite them to write a number from one to five that illustrates their comfort level with teaching lessons in a 5E format. Have them place their sticky notes on the same bar graph from before (or create a new space) for a quick visual assessment of the group's progress.


Move to slide 23. Introduce the attached Authentic Lesson Reflection Tool and Lesson Design Proof Rubric and pass out a copy of each handout to each participant.

Then, go to slide 24 and distribute a copy of the attached How Does Your Garden Grow? Explain Phase. Ask teachers to use these tools to assess the authenticity of the Explain phase of both “How Does Your Garden Grow?” lessons.

Ask participants to assess the middle school version of this lesson by following the Bitly link on slide 25. Allow time for participants to brainstorm other ways they could increase the lesson's authenticity. Ask how they might use a digital breakout in their classrooms. Additionally, ask which of their own lessons they could modify for authenticity. To scaffold, discuss with the class the Breakout activity as an example of a chance meant to increase the authenticity of the lesson. The original lesson's order of activities was also changed to better align with the 5E model. Have participants share their ideas with the Flipgrid link you created.


Hand out the attached Instructional Strategy Note Sheet. Using the Strategy Harvest instructional strategy, ask participants to fill out each row, detailing how each strategy was used and how participants might use the strategies in their own classrooms.

Research Rationale

Authentic lessons allow opportunities for collaboration, which leads to the exploration of multiple perspectives and various points of view to be heard during a lesson. "Authentic learning environments need to provide collaborative learning where, for example, more able partners can assist with scaffolding and coaching, and where teachers provide appropriate learning support" (Herrington, J., 2014; e.g., Collins et al., 1989; Greenfield, 1984). Herrington, J. et al., describe the four components in an authentic lesson as follows: 1) students should seek to solve a real-life problem to which they would attach emotional commitment as well as a cognitive interest; 2) the problem should be sufficiently open-ended so that there are a variety of strategies for its solution; 3) the problem-solving strategies and "solutions" developed should encourage students to change their actions, beliefs, or attitudes; and 4) the problem should have a real audience beyond the classroom. Authentic tasks are more worthy of the investment of time and effort in higher education than de-contextualized exercises and tasks (Herrington & Herrington, 2006).It is unreasonable to expect students to develop necessary 21st-century skills in a traditional classroom because, typically, lessons designed in these environments do not create opportunities for students to practice high levels of critical thinking, collaboration, or problem-solving, nor do they allow practice in connecting new information to experiences outside the classroom setting. By using instructional strategies that promote authentic and inquiry-based teaching, students can gain more autonomy and meet high expectations for learning. When comparing traditional teaching approaches, such as note-taking with lectures or book work, to more active learning, such as the use of LEARN instructional strategies within a 5E lesson, the lessons that promote active learning have been shown to increase student achievement on assessments as much as 55% (Freeman et al., 2014). The 5E instructional model provides a research-based learning cycle lesson format in five phases (Engagement, Exploration, Explanation, Extension, and Evaluation). These phases allow students to engage in learning new content through meaningful learning experiences. These meaningful learning experiences provide opportunities for students to construct knowledge through exploration and they support higher-order thinking through discourse, discussion, and explanations, deepening understanding through extension, and elaboration of learning and assessing understanding through relevant and meaningful evaluations.