Powerful Learning is Authentic and Challenging - Digital Promise

Powerful Learning is Authentic and Challenging

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January 18, 2019 | By and

Powerful Learning is a set of principles to guide educators designing learning experiences that engage the hearts and minds of learners, and incorporate technology in ways that contribute to closing the Digital Learning Gap.

Powerful learning must be authentic and challenging. When students are engaged in work that has an audience and impact outside of their classrooms, they are more motivated to persist in overcoming learning challenges. Authentic and challenging lessons develop the habits of mind that students need to be empathetic global citizens and engaged members of their communities.

Learning experiences that challenge students to perform at the highest reaches of their abilities while tackling authentic and meaningful goals can drive students toward achieving their most ambitious learning goals.

Culture and learning are inextricably connected1

Cultural background influences the way students learn and communicate, which may be different from their teachers. When teachers develop culturally responsive teaching practices, they are better equipped to create authentic learning experiences. Culturally responsive teaching is summarized by Jenny Muñiz at New America as “an approach that challenges educators to recognize that, rather than deficits, students bring strengths into the classroom that should be leveraged to make learning experiences more relevant to and effective for them […]Educators who practice culturally responsive teaching set rigorous learning objectives for all of their students and they continually build helpful bridges between what students need to learn and their heritage, lived realities, and the issues they care about.” When educators use culturally responsive practices, they provide opportunities for students to meet high standards and engage in relevant learning experiences as they develop and sustain their cultural identities.

Educators begin practicing culturally responsive teaching when they develop awareness of their own cultural context and the cultural lens they bring to the classroom. This enables educators to recognize and confront their own biases that impact how they see and interact with students, Black and Brown students in particular. Additional culturally responsive teaching practices include learning within the context of culture, reshaping the curriculum so that students are engaged with authentic issues related to diverse cultures, and more.

Students need an authentic purpose for learning2

Research shows that student engagement increases when relevance, value, and authenticity are maximized. Students are more invested in learning when they know why they’re learning something—and it’s important to note that not all learners will be motivated by the same purpose.

Specifically, when students learn with compassionate or altruistic intentions and can connect their learning to their ability to help others, they view their work as more meaningful and beneficial. Cultivating these intentions has been shown to enhance students’ persistence.

Technology can afford students and teachers new opportunities to connect with real problems and real audiences. Educators can use frameworks and pedagogical approaches such as Challenge Based Learning, maker learning, and computational thinking to develop projects with students that serve their communities and prepare them to become the next generation of leaders and change-makers.

As one student in Hayward, California, explained, “I hope to change the community by setting an example and inspiring others to take a risk or challenge in life.”

High expectations and active support enable productive struggle3

Having high expectations for all learners is a core value in education. Learning that isn’t mentally challenging will never achieve the goal of feeling personal and authentic to students. Research shows that communicating high expectations and pushing learners to perform at the top of their abilities helps motivate students to reach their potential and keep them engaged in learning. Achieving a desirable level of difficulty pushes learners past their current abilities, engages the brain deeply, and lays the foundation for powerful learning. Adjusting to feedback from ongoing formative assessment during learning allows educators to offer the help students need so they continue to feel the right level of productive struggle.

This point reinforces the importance of asset-based approaches, a practice within culturally responsive teaching. When educators take an asset-based approach, they view and interact with students based on their strengths rather than perceived deficits. Taking an asset-based teaching approach is especially important for white educators, who often have lower expectations of Black and Brown students.

Educators can help students develop the habits of mind for productive struggle by guiding their development of stronger executive function skills to support success and resilience in challenging learning environments. When students see failure as an opportunity to find out what they do not know and to adjust their learning strategies rather than as an indication of self-worth, they’re more likely to persevere. Educators can practice these five strategies for cultivating a growth mindset to help them translate high expectations into student success

What you can do to cultivate authenticity and challenge in the classroom

Educators who focus on creating an authentic and challenging learning environment help learners understand that the biggest challenges they will be called on to solve go beyond and across all academic disciplines. They cultivate empowered learners who are purposeful, motivated, resourceful, and strategic.

A simple way to make learning authentic is by identifying connections between your curriculum and your local community. With this information, design a learning experience that allows students to learn (literally and figuratively) outside the walls of the school.

You can find inspiration for designing these types of experiences in this story from Charlottesville, Virginia. Students went beyond the textbook and used their community as a resource for learning about the Civil War. In the culminating event, students chose an “untold story” from their community and designed a memorial monument, which was then showcased to the community.

Ready for more? Use these resources to support your design of authentic and challenging learning experiences:

Receive recognition for your efforts

If you are an educator creating powerful learning experiences for your students that are authentic and challenging, consider earning some of these educator micro-credentials to be recognized for and share your accomplishments:

Follow us for the latest updates on this series on Powerful Learning and use our resources to implement Powerful Learning in your teaching and learning practice.

Blog updated in September 2020. 


  1. Aceves, T. C., & Orosco, M. J. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching (Document No.
    IC-2). Retrieved from University of Florida, Collaboration for Effective Educator,
    Development, Accountability, and Reform Center website: http://ceedar.education.ufl.edu/tools/innovation-configurations/
  2. Yeager, D. S., & Bundick, M. J. (2009). The role of purposeful work goals in promoting meaning in life and in schoolwork during adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Research, 24, 423– 452. doi:10.1177/0743558409336749
  3. Chaiklin, S. (2003). The zone of proximal development in Vygotsky’s analysis of learning and instruction. In A. Kozulin, B. Gindis, V. S. Ageyev, & S. M. Miller (Eds.), Learning in (pp. 39-64). New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press.


  • Melinda Schlosser says:

    All students will benefit from authentic, relevant learning experiences. The more educators are able to connect students and their communities, the more likely they are to engage in what is planned for their learning. Teachers need to also ensure that students understand why they are learning what they are being taught. Admin and district staff need to support teachers by ensuring they have they skill set to create relevant, connected learning experiences.

  • Tamika Taylor-Ivory says:

    Providing students opportunities to express themselves and content learned through real world application opens endless possibilities. Students can build relationships within/out of their school walls which impacts society. Digital learning provides students with purposeful learning with multiple resources and endless audience capacity. This allows students to build confidence, friendships, and future employment.

  • Tricia Finn says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with what Melissa and Tamika have said and would also add that a focus on cultural relevance is key!! Often times students are being asked to connect with and process information that is not relevant to them. Without new information being relevant, students struggle to make those connections and lose interest.


    It is very important that students understand the “why” of learning so that students buy in to the information being given. If we are preparing students to become life long learners, we must allow students to use their creativity within the learning process. The use of technology has enhanced the educational experience. Students are learning at their own pace and in their own way.

  • Fred H. Stewart says:

    I enjoyed reading this article. The one main area that was covered in the article that was very meaningful was authentic learning. This provides students with a level of interest in their own level to explore their level of learning.

  • Tunicha Briggs Allen says:

    I agree that powerful learning must be authentic and challenging. All students benefit from having the opportunity to express themselves in their own way. It helps to build confidence and develops the habits of mind that students need to be emphatic global citizens and engaged participants of their communities.

  • Yolanda Barnett says:

    Authentic, Student-Centered, and Engaging are refrains we tend to use daily in describing the type of learning environment we want to have in our classrooms, schools, and districts. However, to see actual how-to guides and in one case a tool-kit on how to achieve all of the above is phenomenal.

  • Suellen Helm-Torres says:

    This article inspired me to have a discussion with my teachers about how to develop a unit of study to connect to the community to find relevant learning opportunities for our students. Finding meaningful ways to problem solve within the community will then lead to our students thinking globally. A win win for everyone!

  • Suellen Helm-Torres says:

    The videos showed students taking charge of their own learning utilizing real life problems or applications and technology. How exciting to hear a student say “I feel like I’m doing my part.” as he was referring to an environmental issue in his community. Again, connecting to other students and collaborating on projects is powerful and meaningful learning for all students.

  • Bianca Calzadilla says:

    I enjoyed reading this article as it provides an in depth look at how students need to take ownership of their learning. Allowing students to participate in blended learning activities, is one manner in which students can internalize what they are being presented with

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