Active Learning’s Bad Rap

It’s a refrain I’ve heard from my earliest days as a teacher to my work as an instructional coach:

“Well, yes, her activities are very… creative… but are her students really being challenged?”

“We really need to improve the quality of their writing. We don’t have time to waste on projects.”

“Active learning sounds nice, but my kids need to learn actual content. No time for easy stuff.”

To be fair, these concerns are valid. Kids need to be challenged. Writing effectively is an essential skill. And we can’t pretend that we live in a world where content retention for high-stakes tests doesn’t matter.

But why has active learning become the enemy of those educational goals? How did the term get put in the same bucket with a week spent coloring in the giant block-letter title on a tri-fold poster board for a project? How did it end up with such a bad rap: all fluff and glitter lacking substance… and signifying nothing?

Somehow, active learning has become the most often used yet most misunderstood phrase in education. So, what is it? At its core, active learning means that students are engaging in their learning, not dancing around the edges of it. It confronts us with the reality that students filling in worksheets while teachers move through standards at lightning speed are not learning deeply, or learning anything that will stick around after the test.

Active learning strategies are the antidote to students who aren’t being challenged, to students whose skills aren’t developing (despite endless re-teaching), and to an atmosphere where students only hear about raising test scores, not becoming lifelong learners. So what makes learning active? 

Students are engaged in active learning when they construct knowledge instead of passively receiving it, when they share what they are learning, and when they have the freedom to extend what they’ve learned and apply it to a new context. This kind of student engagement can range from a three-minute activity to a three-week long project. So where do you start? And when should you start?

Here are four times when I used active learning to challenge my students, help them deepen their understanding, or reset the room when learning wasn’t happening:

  1. Students had been researching or writing independently and needed help with brainstorming or fuel for the revision process.
  2. Students were struggling with challenging reading passages and needed to collaborate with other students to work out the “tricky bits.” 
  3. Students were energized by a new topic and were eager to learn more, make connections to their community, or create something new in response.
  4. A lesson raised controversial or complicated issues, and I wanted to provide a safe, structured forum for students to work through difficult or divisive topics.

Some of my go-to strategies required advance planning, but others I kept in my back pocket for the spur of the moment. Here’s a list of just a few, followed by a resource with even more. 

  • Conversation collage: provide students with a topic, quotation, question, image, or scenario for consideration and give them time to process individually or in small groups. Students should approach the whiteboard on their own time and share their initial thoughts, read others’ ideas, then write additional responses or even write a reply to classmates. Once everyone has contributed, guide the class through a discussion.
  • “Golden Line”: students choose a “golden line” from a passage they have read, a video they have watched, research they have done, their own writing, or a problem they are working through (the “line” can take many forms!). Collect the lines and help students lead a discussion about the significance of that golden line.
  • Magic Hat discussions: divide students into small groups or pairs. Have them draw a topic, passage, question, statement, etc. from a hat. After they have time to discuss and plan, students should lead a whole class discussion of the topic they drew from the hat.
  • Student experts: individual students or small groups choose or are assigned a topic to teach to their peers. Students might be passage experts, analyzing a passage or article and leading their peers through a discussion of its significance and key features. Or, they could be experts researching a new concept and teaching it to their peers. Or, they could even be experts on a controversial issue, which they research, evaluate, and present to their classmates for debate and discussion.
  • Reinterpretation of text: students take a resource and change its media. The possibilities for this are broad and can encompass everything from long term projects to short, spur of the moment activities. For example, students take primary sources, such as several letters, and write short stories retelling the experiences of the writer. Or students could watch a video explaining mitosis and meiosis then create poems explaining the processes of cell replication.
  • Tableau vivant: students create a “living picture” in response to a concept they have learned or a resource they are studying. For example, you could direct small groups to create a tableau of different moments from a historical period or event; the rest of the class must identify and discuss the moment they are recreating. Or, after reading a section of a novel together, ask for a small group of students to create a tableau of a key conflict from what you’ve just read.

These ideas are just a start, and there are plenty more that you can adapt and make your own. Check out our Active Learning: Strategies and Examples resource, and find the ones that work for you.

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