Over 40 percent of the school districts within Northwest Area Education Agency’s (AEA) territory have implemented, or are currently implementing, a practice called Authentic Intellectual Work, or AIW. This means that 500 teachers and administrators have signed on to take their students’ learning to a higher level through original (authentic) application of knowledge and skills, rather than routine use of facts and procedures.

Katy Evenson, instructional coach at Northwest AEA, is leading the efforts with the assistance of nearly two dozen other AEA employees to improve the quality of teaching to help students learn.

Several research studies regarding Authentic Intellectual Work have been conducted since the 1990s.  The study of this type of student learning has continued over the years and was originally started by Dr. Fred Newman during his tenure as the director of the National Center on Organization and Restructuring Schools at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. These studies indicate that higher levels of authentic instruction translate into higher student achievement, not only on standardized tests, but also on authentic assessments.  

The professional development for AIW aims to enable students to
•    develop higher order thinking;
•    demonstrate complex understanding of significant disciplinary concepts; and
•    engage in work that has meaning and value beyond school.

The Authentic Intellectual Work framework provides a structure for collaborative teacher teams to analyze tasks assigned to students, instruction that students receive and student performance.  The framework sets standards for teaching academic subjects that:
•    maximize expectations of intellectual rigor for all students;
•    increase student interest in academic work;
•    support teachers’ taking time to teach for in-depth understanding rather than superficial coverage of material;
•    provide a common conception of student intellectual work that promotes professional community among teachers of different grade levels and subjects; and
•    most importantly, equip students to address the complex intellectual challenges of work, civic participation, and managing personal affairs in the contemporary world.   (Newmann et al., 2007, p. vii)

According to a Northwest AEA AIW brochure, “Successful implementation of the Iowa Core will rely on effective instruction and assessment practices that lead to deep conceptual understanding through intellectually rigorous and relevant learning opportunities, appropriately differentiated for diverse learners.”

“AIW, with its emphasis on standards of construction of knowledge, in depth understanding through disciplined inquiry, and value beyond school, is an important framework for teachers’ professional development,” Evenson explained. “That will contribute to improvement in instruction and assessment practices to support the Iowa Core. The AIW framework also allows development of a common language and understanding of effective instruction within and between schools.”

What does all of this mean to real teachers in real schools in northwest Iowa?

"AIW gives us the opportunity to collaborate with other teachers,” says Jill Harskamp, a seventh grade language arts teacher. “I have received many new ideas from my team and have used these ideas to be a better teacher."  

Michael De Smit, a fifth grade math teacher, professes that, "AIW helps me make math real-world, which increases student involvement and engagement."

And what does this practice mean for students?

"AIW helps us to push students to think at a deeper level,” stated Joe'l Vander Waal, an eighth grade language arts teacher.

The work of the Northwest AEA AIW team was recently recognized by the Iowa Department of Education as it was named the AIW Center of Excellence. As the AIW Center for Excellence, Northwest AEA will assist other Area Education Agencies as they support AIW and Iowa Core work in their schools.  

Newmann, F.M., King, M.B., & Carmichael, D.L. (2007), Authentic instruction and assessment: Common standards for rigor and relevance in teaching academic subjects. Des Moines: Iowa Department of Education.