What do we mean by Active Learning?

This question was posed as a way of ‘advertising’ a CPD session. The shortest answer given was simply a department’s name, the inference being that the department in question was ‘active learning’ – can this be true?

Building the Curriculum 2 (2007) provides the following definition: “Active learning is learning which engages and challenges children’s thinking using real-life and imaginary situations. It takes full advantage of the opportunities for learning presented by:

    • spontaneous play
    • planned, purposeful play
    • investigating and exploring” …. p (5) and so it goes on.

Here’s the problem I have with this definition; it’s far to woolly, indeed that accusation might be levelled at CfE as a whole – but that’s for another day! What seems to be the case from conversations had or overheard is that some have taken the bulleted points, put them in a High School context and now believe that active learning is having pupils moving about, making stuff or acting! Educationally, they could not be more wrong.

The phrase ‘active learning’ in this context is essentially to do with meta-cognition: the understanding and awareness of one’s own thought processes. From an educational (pupil) point of view it can be defined as:

  • any instructional method that engages a pupil in their learning
  • requiring pupils to think about what they are doing
  • pupils learn by engaging in a process of sense-making
  • pupils actively constructing new meaning (being cognitively involved) and in a social sense actively collaborating with others

I know from bitter experience that some pupils put no thought into what they are doing. But, If we accept this definition then we can say that active learning requires more of a pupil than simply doing stuff. It involves pupils actively involved in planning and evaluating their own learning, initiating learning experiences and planning what they hope to achieve. It involves creating an environment in which pupils can think; use their imaginations; test out their ideas and try to solve problems whilst learning from their mistakes. At its very best it should encourage pupils to undertake a range of activities for their own satisfaction and enjoyment, rather than having pre-set outcomes ‘forced’ on them – challenging in our current set-up I admit.

There are many ways to achieve these aspirations, here are some suggestions (not an exhaustive list) that I’ve used in my own classroom:

  • Introduce co-operative learning groups
  • Collective problem-solving; groups come up with solutions and insights that may not come about individually.
  • Providing collaborative work skills; pupils learn to work together rather than just dividing the workload.
  • Peer reviewing; pupils review each others work and suggest corrections or improvements
  • Self-mark/evaluate work; pupils assess own work against agreed criteria (or a marking script)

    S4 GC pupil self-marking

  • Remove all the erasers for the class and have pupils correct their work using colour pencils

    Self correction - no eraser

  • Pupils review the learning experience and make judgements about how well they have learned and what they need to do next

    S3 pupil self-assessment

I’m trying very hard to not just include active learning as an ‘add on’ in my lessons but to make it central to my pedagogy, it has not been easy. Resistance comes from many quarters the most surprising (for me) was from pupils; one pleading “…why can you not just tell me what I need to know” and “…why can’t you just teach the normal way”. Herein lies the problem, if pupils are being taught ‘the normal way’ in most of the rest of the school this way does appear very different to them and puts them out of their comfort zone. That said  I’ve had very positive comments from most pupils on the changes I’m making.

To date the most successful of the suggestions I’ve made and tried have been peer reviewing and self marking. Removing the erasers is starting to work but it’s a pupil ‘goto’ response to a mistake so will take time. And that’s the point here, anything we do different in class will take time to imbed and make a difference, but if you believe in it you need to persevere.

The evidence I’ve looked at suggests that passive pupils sitting listening to the teacher or doing without thinking/reflecting do not retain enough knowledge to instil deep understanding and that for this to happen they need to be actively involved in reviewing and assessing their learning and adapting it to make sense to them. So if you make one change to your pedagogy this year, make it this one.

Readings that helped me:

Grabinger, R. S., and Dunlap, J. C., (1996), Rich environments for active learning: a definitionin Wilson, B. G., (1996) Constructivist Learning Environments. New Jersey, Education Publications Inc.

Prince, M. (2004) Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research, Journal for Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231

Watkins, C., Carnell, E. & Lodge, C. (2007). Effective Learning in Classrooms.London, Sage.

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About Gareth

Educator of children and teacher of Technology Interested in Engineering, Science and the Digital Media
This entry was posted in Learning & Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What do we mean by Active Learning?

  1. martin hutson says:

    As a former engineer who also retrained as a teacher I fully understand your observation about the value of open discussion with trusted colleagues. I think in education there is a reluctance to discuss issues openly because we feel that the management in the school might take offence and feel threatened when teachers start taking the initative. I think we need to behave more like engineers who only want to get to the
    Real cause of the problem.

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