Playing with Teaching Words, Part 3: Active Learning

16 Jul

When I learned to teach…

(Yeah, I know, insert eye rolling, if you must – but realizing I’ve wrapped 35 years of teaching, I should be able to use that phrasing at least once in a post, so…)

When I learned to teach as part of my “masters degree school” teaching assistantship in the company of 10 new colleagues, we talked about learning and teaching as twinned endeavors, about learning as the joint responsibility of students and teachers, and about learning to learn as a central tenet of lifelong constructivist learning theories.

For me, speaking about learning – not active learning vs. passive learning, or the parallel student-centered teaching vs. lecture-based teaching – remains the big gift of those years learning about learning and teaching in the company of compositionists, rhetoricians, and feminist pedagogues who introduced me to long histories of learning movements and experiential philosophies.

(We’ve commented on other research that advocates for attention to learning over debates about active vs. passive – see “PNAS on Active Learning – Rather than debating routes, time for walking along & talking about “new roads” and “Active Learning Will Not, in itself, Lead to SUCCESS in Teaching.”)

Within that early professional development, putting the two words active learning together would have seemed a redundancy as anything related to learning would require that students and teachers each to be doing something, drawing somehow on previous experience, locating the learning work in contexts of present use and/or future application.  Learning was by definition active, requiring actions of involved agents.

As you might expect, passive learning also wasn’t something we discussed.  No active-passive learning / good-bad badly teaching dichotomization at that point.  We did discuss the downsides of “throwing in a discussion or two,” of thinking all learners needed the same supports for “new” learning, and of defaulting to lecturing – or anything else – as the single mode of instruction.

When we did add a modifier in front of learning, it was to talk about multiple modes of learning that would inform our course design as we answered these sorts of questions:

  • What would be our course goals for student learning?
  • What sorts of interactions in the class would support a broad range of students meet learning goals – and sustain them in learning beyond the classroom?
  • How would we see learners based on our understanding of them as agents?
  • What would we and students need to learn for each class session?
  • How would we learn what worked and what didn’t in the classroom?
  • How would students show their learning through high stakes assignments coupled with low stakes tests?

It always came back to learning. And it still does

Learning as a dynamic interaction – not dueling active/passive dichotomy

For the past dozen or so years, my touchstone for defining learning has been Frank Coffield linking of learning to change in multiple capacities and across multiple contexts:

Learning refers only to significant changes in capability, understanding, knowledge, practices, attitudes or values by individuals, groups, organisations or society.

Two qualifications.  It excludes the acquisition of factual information when it does not contribute to such changes; it also excludes immoral learning as when prisoners learn from other inmates in custody how to extend their repertoire of criminal activities.

Generated in his work with colleagues on a research inquiry focusing on the learning society, Coffield’s analysis of learning does map onto two branches:

Coffield Learning

However, in reminding readers that teaching and learning are twinned action linked to a shared aim – change in “capability, understanding, knowledge, practices, attitudes or values,” Coffield sets out a way for teachers to make choices about which of the multiple learning and teaching practices to select in meeting the learning outcomes of specific courses and class sessions.

If learning is about this sort of change – again, in “capability, understanding, knowledge, practices, attitudes or values,” then is that ipsative drill you’ve designed via a Moodle quiz or Jeopardy-like online game going to help students review, grow and master understanding of disciplinary keywords during Week 2 of your course?  Might this be a rich way to prepare students for moving into Week 3 interactive presentations coupled with collaborative discussion that will engage students in exploring and expanding their understandings of the key concepts the keywords signal?

Yes.  Yes.  This pairing makes use of both acquisition- and participation-based learning activities to change students’ understanding of keywords and concepts.  Perhaps even their attitudes about the concepts will have changed as an additional outcome of the perspective taking and broader range of information assessment that comes in talking with others as part of constructing learning.

In reviewing Coffield’s “Just Suppose Teaching and Learning Became the First Priority” alongside my own learning experiences – as student, as teacher, as education researcher, as teacher of teachers in higher education – I have come to say aloud that I will not be part conversations and educational theorizing and faculty development workshops and classroom teaching that revolves around the dueling dichotomy of “passive teacher – bad, active teacher – good.”

I’m aiming for the dynamic dancing that comes with…

Making Decisions about Learning and Teaching Practices

Sometimes being successful on the dance floor, as in a dance performance, comes from first following those mapped footsteps to learn particular dances – the 1, 2, 3 and sometimes 4 of foot placement – and determining who is to be the leader in this particular series of movements.  At other times, the dance comes together by shifting perspectives and activities – moving to the wings to see supports necessary to a dance performance, moving to the balcony for studying the parts and the whole of the choreography.

In this, active attaches to the decisions I make in selecting practices that align with teaching principles.  I actively review – study, test, experience, rule out, renew, create – particular practices in light of learning and teaching principles such as the ones below.


In reflecting on Principles of Effective Teaching and Learning, my aims are to:

1.  To become actively aware of what works well for the particular courses, learners and outcomes – and to shift into student, peer and design perspectives to decide whether I’ve used some practices too little and others too often, whether I’ve made room for appropriate multiple modes of teaching and assessment, traveling along both the acquisition and participation branches.

2.  To be active in making learning a social practice, a public conversation, a societal goal, and a big, robust outcome for learners – whatever their contexts.

Yes, and I’m back to my starting out notes for this post:

Learning≠ only Active Learning

Learning ≅ Change “in capability, understanding, knowledge, practices, attitudes or values by individuals, groups, organisations or society.”

Stop using Active vs Passive Learning dichotomy since you see it as a false construct.

Carry forward using Learning to make a small dent in the dichotomizing and to be part of the bigger push ahead, the one looking at ways that multiple modes of teaching make possible ‘more learning for more students.'”

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Recap of “Playing with Teaching Words – Necessary Work,”  Parts 1 & 2

This question informs this third in a series of summer posts reflecting on learning and teaching words common to theorising about course design & delivery as linked to a few words commonly embedded in our conversations about teaching & learning, instructors and students.

In that first “banning (my own) words” post, I acknowledge removing Homework and Bucket List from my written and spoken teaching vocabulary.  Rather than fight with connotations attached to homework – busy work, proof of having read the textbook, something for the teacher – I’ve opted to use the phrase preparing for class assignments.  I mean this to signal what needs being done (mostly by learners but sometimes by the course teacher) beyond the classroom (whatever the online or F2F location), and ahead of a next class session.  In reference to another sort of future-looking preparation, I now encourage students to store those “for use in the future” exciting ideas in digital- or paper-based playlists that can be at hand “any ordinary day” rather relinquished to the “someday I’ll get to this” bucket list.

In the second minding of my own words, I address letting loose of scaffolding as an analogy for talking about course and assignment design, and about untethering learning as the modifier attached to outcomes.  In their places?  Sequencing, supporting and sustaining in the first instance.  Outcomes as the only signaling word in the second instance – and, in this, a stark reminder that cognitive, affective and psychomotor outcomes are interlinked components of learning.

Referenced Resources

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