The Importance of Active Learning
'Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I learn.' Benjamin Franklin
What do we mean by 'active learning?' It is the process that has students at the centre. It focuses on how students learn, not just what they learn. Students are encouraged to do the thinking rather than simply be given information, regurgitate the information, and passively receive information. Active learning places the focus on how students learn not just on what they learn.
There are two types of learning - passive learning and active learning. Active learning is a term for the learning and teaching methods that put the student in charge of their own learning through meaningful activities. They think about and apply what they are learning, in deliberate contrast to passive learning. Research shows that learning is promoted when students are actively processing information. This is not only important for short term memory but essential for long term memory, and especially retrieval and use of information from the long term memory. To promote higher-level thinking, develop engaged learners and secure information to the long term memory, active learning needs to be at the heart of teaching pedagogical practice. Simply put, active learning is the process of learning by engaging with the content. It means students are interacting with information in a way that can promote active thought. Students need to be more than simply listening; the aim is skills development rather than just conveying information.
Passive listening to information or working through a worksheet can be useful at promoting learning at the lower end of the taxonomy of learning such as 'remember' and 'understand' - this style will not achieve higher-order thinking skills including 'apply,' 'analyse' and 'evaluate.' While all types of learning are important and build on one another, higher-level critical thinking skills are integral to supporting children to become higher-level thinkers. Skilled teachers make these deeper levels of understanding more possible by providing learning environments, opportunities, interactions, tasks, and instructions that foster deep learning.
Childhood development experts generally say that a reasonable attention span to expect of a child is two to three minutes per year of their age. Therefore, a 6-year-old has, on average, the ability to maintain focus on one given task for 12-18 minutes. Researchers have found a strong relationship between attention and active learning, or 'student-centered' pedagogies. Therefore, to ensure students remain engaged and focused, active learning needs to be a prominent feature of the activity. Research also demonstrates students moving on to higher education who have been exposed to more active learning experiences throughout their school life have higher levels of critical thinking skills and are more independent learners.
Active learning is a core part of the curriculum for excellence in early years with continuous provision, free-flow space, the understood importance of play, sensory and hands-on activities at the heart of the early years' curriculum. This model of learning, although needing to be adapted for older year groups, should never be lost.
'The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, it is a wood that needs igniting.' Plutarch
As a practitioner and senior leader, I have had the privilege of visiting hundreds of lessons being taught for a range of age groups and a range of subjects. There are universal elements to a lesson that makes it so evident the moment you step into someone's classroom, to initially see if meaningful learning is taking place. Regardless of age group, subject, setting, my top 3 tell tale signs that help me get a feel for the level of engaged and active learning taking place in a classroom are;
1. The teacher is hard to spot - if the teacher is actively moving around the classroom, engaging with students, and absorbed in the learning going on then I know there is likely to be an element of active learning going on.
2. The children don't notice you come in - a great indication the children are absorbed in their learning.
3. Children can explain to you what they are doing or learning.
Key strategies to develop an 'active' classroom
1. Effective collaboration - Careful groupings, carefully planned timings and careful monitoring can provide opportunities for wonderful effective collaboration. Some activities lend themselves to differentiated ability groups, other times groupings may need to be around outcomes and sometimes around children who will work well together. Groups can be continually changed and should be carefully thought about. There can be a huge value to collaborative work if it is carefully and thoughtfully planned. Asking children to move into groups themselves or completing all styles of activities with the same group of peers (perhaps those on their table) is not always 'effective collaboration.' Children can be a resource to one another and to carefully plan these groups is paramount. It is important to note that a real ethos of high expectations and communication skills need to be embedded to really help secure effective collaboration. Some teachers shy away from collaborative work often due to concerns around behaviour management. It is important to build up slowly to collaborative ways of working in your classroom. Start small with a vision to building to larger group extended activities is key.
2. Creating an active learning space - Yes often classrooms are small and space can be limited but grouping tables for group activities, stacking chairs to the side of the room for an afternoon, moving the learning outside and children moving to different tables or 'stations' for activities can all be great simple ways to provide a more effective learning space. Remember the teacher is a resource in the classroom, the teacher's role if activities are planned carefully enough can be to facilitate the learning in the classroom. The classroom needs to shift from teacher-centered to student-centered. The work of the teacher needs to happen before the lesson or activity. This creates a teacher paradox because by removing yourself from front and centre you become less important in that classroom but paradoxically you become more important because you are freed up to move around to individuals and groups to question, show passion for what they are doing, extend learning where needed and support further where needed.
3. Children not knowing when they will be called upon! - Saying a child's name and then the question you want to be answered immediately switches a switch in the rest of the class to turn off and not fully listen as they know it won't be them having to answer. Posing a question to the class or small group, giving thinking time, paired discussion time, and then asking individuals is a far more effective way of ensuring your whole class has considered the careful questions you have posed to them. Handing children a playing card, coloured craft stick, a number, etc as they come into your classroom and then randomly (or secretly carefully planned) picking cards or numbers or colours to call upon children to demonstrate, explain or answer can be a fun way of keeping them on their toes!
4. Thinking - Get the children to do the thinking. Plan activities where children have to find mistakes, where they have to change information to a different format, where they have to find out for themselves, investigate and form their own opinions.
5. Questioning - Have you used blooms to plan your questions? Planning questions and planning which children you will ask specific questions to is invaluable. There is no reason you can't have them printed out on your desk so you can refer back to them throughout the day. Questions that are well planned and carefully considered can be a huge tool for developing active thinkers in your classroom. Do your questions all start with a will, when, what? Are they closed questions? Or have you planned open-ended questions that help children to analyse, explain, and evaluate?
6. Choice - Creating choice as a characteristic of the classroom is important. This can be a challenge as it does take time to plan and prepare. It is important to have many learning activities available to the students, designed to meet the many diverse learning styles that they have. Within this, it is important to ensure the outcome of each activity, no matter which the child chooses, still meets the main overarching objective.
7. Teaching others - getting students to be the experts and teach others is a great strategy. This can take on many forms including problem-solving, creating their own questions, presenting information, becoming an envoy (expert) in a specific area, and moving around the room to teach this to other children and enquiry based learning activities.
8. Investigating and exploring - activities centred around investigative and explorative methods. Where children need to find the answers for themselves. This may well include lots of trail and error and require resilience but is a widely effective tool to support students in discovering on their own.
9. Try 3 before me - encourage children to find out for themselves. Instead of coming straight to the teacher, are there other ways a child can find out information and have you provided a learning environment to enable them to find out using other methods and resources available to them?
10. Thinking time - Often children are asked to think of an example or to think-pair -share. However, rarely is enough time actually given to this thinking time. For deep thinking and discussion to take place more time must be given to each part of this activity in order for it to hold its true value.
'Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.' Albert Einstein