Learning in the classroom is constantly changing as new technologies are released, new teachers graduate university, and new learning styles arise. Active learning is a hot topic in today’s middle schools but many teachers have a hard time getting onboard.
When people hear, or read, the word “classroom”, different images pop into their minds, but most people picture rows of desks facing a chalkboard in a square room. Most people have experienced this type of learning environment where the teacher writes on the board and lectures the class about a topic.
Looking at a typical intermediate classroom, this is how time is spent:
Looking at this graph, over half of the time in the classroom is spent lecturing students. This method has been used for generations: teacher lectures class, followed by a short group discussion, then independent work, and potentially some short activities thrown in there.
This method may have been effective in the past, at least for some students who are able to learn by listening, but is it still working? Is this really how students learn?
Looking at a typical student, this is how they learn content:
There is an incredible discrepancy around how we are told to learn versus how we actually learn. It is obvious that teaching by lecturing is not as effective as discussion, experiences and peer teaching. Effectiveness in learning can be maximized when students are put at the centre of the learning process and are actively engaged in it.
If we characterize “lecturing” as students listening and watching their teacher, they will only learn about 50% of the content – and this is in an ideal world. More likely, students are only going to learn a fraction of that due to distractions and different levels of interest in the subject. Yet, our teaching styles are so heavily based on this method of “talking at” students!
Many educators are realizing that there needs to be a change in the way content is taught to prepare students for the world. If young people do not have necessary skills like, critical thinking, collaboration, research ability, and innovation, their education career will be much harder, not to mention life after school.
Recent research shows that it is not possible to transmit information just simply by telling students what they need to know. Teachers are responsible for challenging their students’ thinking. Active learning is an education technique that puts students at the centre of the learning process, it helps them build knowledge and understanding based on the opportunities that teachers provide. This technique focuses on how students learn rather than what they learn.
The idea of active learning is based on the theory of constructivism which emphasizes the fact that learners need to build their own understanding of content – they make the information mean something to them. When students can connect with a piece of information in a way that is meaningful to them, they are not only more likely to remember it, but there is the increased possibility that the student can synthesize it with other information as they learn more.
Why do we need active learning?
Our world is changing exponentially from new technologies, climate change, population dynamics and other influences. Young people need to be prepared to be lifelong learners and to be flexible and adaptable. Teaching in the traditional lecture style isn’t consistent with the world around us. We live in an active and fast-paced environment, and our education should reflect that.
We are living in the 21st century, and with that comes specific skills necessary to live. We live in the age of information at our fingertips which is incredibly useful, but at the same time it can sometimes make learning difficult. It is easy to become overwhelmed with the amount of information we can receive with just one google search.
Further, with so much information available, no one can learn everything, and it can be hard to differentiate what information is credible and which information is not credible. Young people need to have the confidence to ask questions, to interpret information, and to form logical conclusions based on their knowledge. They rely on their teachers to prepare them for the world.
The term “21st Century Skills” encompasses the skills vital to our success in the world. The following list provides the basic skills, habits, and traits that should be promoted in all educational environments:
- Critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning, analysis, synthesizing information
- Research skills
- Creativity, artistry, curiosity, imagination, innovation, personal expression
- Perseverance, self-direction, planning, self-discipline, adaptability, initiative
- Oral and written communication, public speaking and presenting, listening
- Leadership, teamwork, collaboration, cooperation, facility in using virtual workspaces
- Information and communication technology (ICT) literacy, media and internet literacy, data interpretation and analysis, computer programming
- Civic, ethical, and social-justice literacy
- Economic and financial literacy, entrepreneurialism
- Global awareness, multicultural literacy, humanitarianism
- Scientific literacy and reasoning, the scientific method
- Environmental and conservation literacy, ecosystems understanding
- Health and wellness literacy
The purpose of school should be to prepare people for success after graduation. Preparing students to do well on an exam or test is no longer sufficient. Teaching facts without information on how to use them is useless. Active learning helps students learn the process of learning and helps them be successful in the long-term, not just until the exam season is over. This technique helps students become critical thinkers and teaches them how to synthesize information in the best way for themselves.
Active learning embraces all learning styles in a way that traditional classroom lectures never could. Some students learn better by listening, some by reading, but almost all students learn by doing. Experiencing something is one of the best ways to retain information, and active learning supplements this “learning by doing” with other styles using discussions, or video watching for example. Activities such as Lab Stations promote active learning in the middle school classroom are the future.
What are some of the benefits of active learning?
1. Students are in control of their learning abilities
- Active learning is not about the content but about the process. This technique helps students build their ability to learn rather than simply receiving information.
- This also prepares students for a life of learning after school and college/university.
2. Success is encouraged
- This technique does not test a students’ ability to simply recall information but their complete understanding and ability to evaluate and connect ideas.
- This also encourages analytical skills which are extremely important for college/university and the workplace.
3. It is engaging and exciting
- This style of teaching keeps students focused on their learning and can potentially foster enjoyment and enthusiasm for learning.
- This technique also promotes questions and further understanding. In a passive learning environment, students might not ask questions because they are afraid to seem “dumb”, but when students are engaged together they are more likely to understand that more often than not, someone else also has a similar question.
The best way to engage and excite your students is to let them explore ideas and concepts that matter to them. Genius Hour does both very well.
New research supports the idea that active learning not only increases understanding of a topic, but it can increase a student’s grade by half a letter (B- to B+).
When using active learning in middle school science classrooms, it is clear that students better understand the concepts taught.
How to start using active learning in your classroom
Active learning is not as simple as adding activity to your daily classroom environment; the type of activity is crucially important in students’ success. Here are 4 ways to introduce active learning in your classroom:
1. Class Discussions
Most effective in smaller groups, students are encouraged to think critically about the information and use logic to evaluate their conclusions.
2. Learning cells
Developed by Marcel Goldschmid, learning cells are a technique where two students learn together by asking and answering questions about the information.
3. Class games
An informal way to learn a concept, playing a game to review a topic often helps students remember the information because they can connect to the experience of the game.
One game I’ve used in my own classroom to review topics in a game manner is my Digital Scavenger Hunts. Nothing is more exciting than racing against the clock and your classmates!
4. Collaborative Learning
Students working together in small groups to achieve a goal. This promotes teamwork and discussion that fosters collective learning.
One of the most important aspects of active learning is fostering a safe environment. Traditional lecture styles are “safe” for students because when you passively learn information by listening to the teacher, students aren’t made fun of for doing something wrong, or being different. In an active learning classroom, the teacher is responsible for helping students understand that making mistakes is an incredibly important part of the learning process and everyone learns differently.
Our world is modern and ever-changing, yet our education doesn’t reflect it. The educational institutions where we spend most of our days from age 4-18 are falling behind. With active learning in our middle schools, we will better prepare our future leaders for the world they’ll face once they leave school.