Active Learning

Issue 9: 18/11/2022 Deputy Head of School (I. Clayton)

In my first article in this series I mentioned that there were a set of skills and competencies that would be successful in the future. One of those was active learning. What is meant by this amorphous phrase?

Firstly, there is less emphasis on a teacher dominated by ‘chalk and talk’ lesson format. This is where the teacher lectures a series of ‘truths’ that the student should memorize or learn by rote. This model promotes the idea that the teacher is the sole authority for providing the right answers or ideas. The kind of questions asked are, ‘guess my mind’ type questions. In contrast an active approach would include more of an emphasis on practical activities, which might include group work or collaborative activities. There would be more of developing student understanding through reasoning and analytical skills and making learning meaningful for students. Students would be encouraged to speculate about answers and solutions and pursue ideas.

Secondly, in a more passive model of learning, there is the tendency to treat concepts and skills as distinct and isolated to individual subjects. It would also tend to take knowledge and examples from beyond the students’ frame of reference and experience. The learning would emphasize the ‘one method, one answer, one interpretation’ paradigm. On the other hand, an active approach would attempt to connect concepts and skills across and between subjects. It would also encourage students to investigate real life problems in which the context is relevant to them. Teachers would postulate a variety of strategies for possible multiple solutions, ideas and interpretations. Together teachers and learners would co-construct knowledge and learning.

Thirdly, a less active approach would put a lot of emphasis on a textbook driven curriculum. The idea that there is one source of knowledge that should be learnt and trusted. From that grows the use of a set of activities and exercises, usually contained at the end of chapters or within the textbook. The corollary of this is that there would be huge stress put on the end of year tests or final examinations which leads to the idea of simply teaching to the test. Contrary to that paradigm, an active methodology would include supporting students to utilize multiple sources and resources for learning. An active approach would want students investigating, questioning, interpreting, discussing and justifying or proving. Finally, assessment would be ongoing and an integral part of teaching and learning, called ‘formative assessment’ or ‘assessment for learning.’ There would be a broad range of assessment and feedback strategies. In order to better deliver all of the above, teachers would not work in isolation but be encouraged to work in teams with colleagues from their own and other subject areas and disciplines.

In conclusion, the points made above are not exhaustive. We could talk about the use of technology, metacognition and neuroscience. However, if I could sum it up in one phrase, it would be active learning is education done with students not to them.

Ian Clayton
Deputy Head of School / Head of International Stream