An Assessment of Active Learning

What is active learning?  As I scroll through the various definitions on the internet, the one that catches my eye is Active learning is an approach to instruction in which students engage the material they study through reading, writing, talking, listening, and reflecting. Active learning stands in contrast to “standard” modes of instruction in which teachers do most of the talking and students are passive. For me, this translates into students engaging in reflections on the material, individual writings, group work which promotes collaboration, further exploration, and research and interactive discussions. In an active learning process, the teacher or the facilitator is also actively involved by continuously assessing the students’ level of understanding through the fore-mentioned activities and providing feedback which suggests room for further growth or corrections where needed.

Active learning differs from passive learning in the sense that it keeps the students engaged throughout a particular topic whereas the main focus of the latter is lecture time, where the teacher delivers the lecture and the student passively listens to it. Bonwell (1991) states that in active learning, students participate in the process and students participate when they are doing something besides passively listening.

As I scroll through the website, I am a little shocked to see that students might actually show resistance to this technique. I always thought that this is the ideal way –which it probably is. But then why would students show resistance? Is it because they are so used to passively receiving information, that they might feel a bit lazy when the teacher suggests a class activity to try to engage them with the topic? How do I feel when a class activity / field work or research work is suggested by the teacher? I have to admit that it sometimes feels like a burden, even though it provides a deeper understanding of the topic at hand as well as enhancement of a number of other skills.

To get a better understanding of why active learning is important, I go through a variety of resources to understand how children learn. I come to the conclusion that all children develop and learn at their own rate. Their learning is supported by interesting activities, opportunities for exploration and pedagogical facilitation.

Active Learning

Children love to experiment and create, so they must be provided with the right stimulations at the right age. For example, during the pre-school age, children learn by involving their senses and play. Therefore, the learning environments must provide children with the right stimuli indoors and devote a lot of time to outdoor un-structured play.

According to John Holt, learning comes naturally to children. They want to learn.  Relating one of his observations, he writes “We try to solve the problem by giving Lisa toys of her own, and telling her to leave other things alone. This doesn’t work very well. For one thing, the toys aren’t interesting enough. For another, she can’t remember, even if she wants to, what she is free to touch, and what not. Most important, it is the fact that older and bigger people use various objects around the house that makes these objects so interesting. Like all little children, Lisa wants to be like the big people, and do what they do. When dishes are being washed, she demands to be allowed to help.” He further writes “It is hard not to feel that there must be something very wrong with much of what we do in school if we feel the need to worry so much about what many people call “motivation.” A child has no stronger desire than to make sense of the world, to move freely in it, to do the things that he sees bigger people doing. Why can’t we make more use of this great drive for understanding and competence? Surely we can find more ways to let children see people using some of the skills we want them to acquire-though this will be difficult when in fact those skills, like many of the “essential” skills of arithmetic, are not really used to do anything. Who, in real life, divides one fraction by another?

Well, there you go. His observations above just answered my questions. Firstly, he speaks about the innate motivation to learn. The child he was observing wanted to learn in her own way, by exploration, but adults handed her some toys which she wasn’t interested in at all. This diminished her motivation to learn. I guess this is why when students are introduced to active learning, after spending a considerable time as passive learners, they find the transition difficult. This is because the current structure of the school system took away their natural motivation to learn, by making them sit in teacher-centered classrooms and just passively listen to lectures and fill out some boring worksheets. In the above observation, Lisa could have made sense of things had she been facilitated with objects that piqued her interest rather than being provided with toys which were meaningless to her. Secondly, John Holt speaks about how important it is to relate to real-life problems. For this, as he points out, students need to see the skills they are learning is applied. This is the essence of active learning and the passive learning format surely does not support that intrinsic motivation to learn.

Being a victim of the Pakistani school system through to the university level, I do find the transition to active learning difficult. We are at a stage, where educationists around the world are debating how active learning can be introduced in schools and how school work can be related to real life problems. However, the majority of the schools in Pakistan are still trapped in the past century and even a century old system is not perfectly in place. I must admit that I have not been able to relate 70% of the material I learned in school to practical life, which made learning a passive activity for me.

What are the strategies that can make the transition from passive to active learning easier, for students and teachers? Teachers will have to adjust their teaching styles to accommodate active learning and different learning styles. Planning activities will take the deeper understanding of the content matter and pedagogical techniques. Therefore, professional development training for teachers would be the first step to making the transition towards active learning. Teachers can be made to observe demonstrations (live or videos) regarding how active learning takes place. They should be encouraged to refine their lesson plans accordingly, making sure to include elements of interactive discussions, group activities whilst providing opportunities for exploration, research, and innovation. The teachers should always make sure to relate the content matter to real-life problems so that students feel that the skill they are learning will contribute to something essential. If technology is incorporated, the teachers should be able to gauge which app/activity would support learning and will provide opportunities for growth outside the classroom. Transforming the classroom learning environment (if possible), to a more student-centric outlook (3-4 students at one roundtable), would also encourage collaboration.

The transition to active learning for the students can be done in bits and pieces. Initially, the duration of a class activity can be 10 minutes. It can be slowly increased from there. Technology does provide an element of engagement. Therefore, the activity can involve the use of technology (if funds allow) in a way that it provides effective engagement and enhancement of concepts. Students can be paired up for the activities to encourage collaboration. Most importantly, students must always feel that this activity relates to real-world problems. This is the essence of active learning.

Lastly, how would the dynamics of an active learning classroom environment work? An active learning classroom will be successful only when all students participate. One way this might work is if the teacher evaluates the quality and consistency of participation and can help students realize that student participation is an important course goal. In addition to this, teachers will have to monitor their system of evaluation constantly and consistently. See here.

If we evaluate the current system in place in Finland, we see that there is no compulsory education till the age of 7. Children are exposed to a natural environment, where they learn to explore and collaborate during the crucial years of their lives. As a result of this when they shift to a structured active learning environment they don’t face difficulties. Rather, they adjust to it naturally. Even though this is probably not even an option in the Pakistani landscape, but there are a lot of benefits associated with it. It is actually the least costly intervention. It doesn’t require much effort on the part of the teacher and children actively and naturally learn skills. This way their transition into an active classroom environment will require little to no effort.

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