Deeper Thinking about Active Learning

active learning techniques

I keep worrying that we’re missing the boat with active learning. Here’s why. First, active learning isn’t about activity for the sake of activity. I fear we’ve gotten too fixated on the activity and aren’t as focused as we should be on the learning. We’re still obsessed with collecting teaching techniques—all those strategies, gimmicks, approaches, and things we can do to get students engaged. But what kind of engagement does the activity promote? Does it pique student interest, make them think, result in learning, and cultivate a desire to know more? Or is it more about keeping basically bored students busy?

Teaching Professor Blog I’ve been reading Substitute by Nicholson Baker, an account of 28 days of substitute teaching undertaken by the author who “sought out the teaching job because I wanted to know what life in classrooms was really like.” He taught classes from kindergarten through the 12th grade. Each chapter describes one day of teaching and most aren’t all that impressive. Oh, there’s lots of active learning. Students in every grade are doing activities—worksheets, checklists, they make things, they work in groups, look things up and read what they’ve written to each other. But even with all the activity and careful planning that goes into keeping students busy, learning seems accidental, incidental, or something that maybe happens along the way. Baker never criticizes the lesson plans or what happens on any of the 28 days, but when the book ends you realize it’s a damning critique of education.

And then I’m concerned about the techniques themselves. Please don’t put me down as being against venerable classics like think-pair-share, minute papers, exit slips, or the many other well-known and widely used active learning approaches. Teaching techniques are an essential part of any active learning endeavor. But they aren’t the center or the most important part of student learning experiences. Techniques provide the framework, the structure, the context. What really matters is what we put in the structure—what students are thinking about and sharing when they’re pairing.

I’ve been helping my colleague and good friend Larry with his book. In the chapter we’ve been working on, Larry writes, “Learning starts with things—things in all their details and ambiguities are the stuff of reality—they incite curiosity.” That’s another way of saying that techniques are secondary, maybe not even needed if we start with real (tangible or intangible) things. “The difference between a scholarly essay and a performance of Shakespeare is like the difference between a menu and a meal.”

Larry recommends selecting things that confront students with their ignorance—so they see clearly what they don’t know, can’t understand, don’t see the reason for, or can’t make work. When you’ve got an artifact in front of you, there’s motivation to deal with it. Think for a moment of what happens when you give most any of those millennial students a new electronic device. Usually, without the instructions and no attention to technique, they start playing with it to see how it works. Do they mess up and make mistakes? Do they give up or worry about looking stupid? Does active learning in our courses look anything like this?

The activity that matters most in learning involves deliberate practice. That’s the kind of practice that focuses on what you can’t do or what you need to know, and it’s the kind of practice research repeatedly shows improves performance. It’s that desire to find out that pushes the learning forward. When students are engaged in this discovery process, the last thing they need is a teacher who does it for them. It’s coaching not teaching that makes active learning powerful.

But this is not how we think about active learning. We haven’t gotten past the techniques. Collecting, selecting, and implementing techniques concern us more than these deeper understandings of how student discovery drives learning and the role teachers need to play in the process. Most of us have firsthand knowledge—we know that active learning techniques hold the key to overcoming student passivity. They open the door. But that’s not enough. We’ve got to get ourselves and our students inside—that’s where the learning lives.