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“Wisdom has never lost its association with the proper direction of life. Only in education, never in the life of farmer, sailor, merchant, physician, or laboratory experimenter, does knowledge mean primarily a store of information aloof from doing.” John Dewey

A student falls asleep in class. Perhaps reading on a beanbag, or head-on-desk in the middle of a discussion. What do you do?

To their surprise, I always tell my students that if you’re so tired that you fall asleep, then maybe you just needed to sleep awhile. Obviously, if it’s a recurring pattern, we have a quiet discussion about their health and what I can do to help. But faced with an exhausted child (or teenager, or adult), I think it’s absurd to push a tired brain to learn. I tell this story by way of explaining my curiosity about the idea of active learning. What else could learning be?

I have mostly seen active learning used in opposition to passively listening to lectures or passively rereading a text, and more broadly, in opposition to any kind of sitting still. In Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom (1991), Charles Bonwell and James Eison state that “students must do more than just listen,” and they define active learning as “instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing.”1In an article defending the lecture, Miya Tokumitsu (2017) notes: “Without moving around or speaking, lecture attendees certainly don’t look ...continue

But as Kate Lacey notes, active/passive does not work as a simple binary, but as a fractal distinction, where what counts as ‘active’ shifts with context: listening is active in contrast to hearing, but listening counts as passive in relation to speaking, and both listening and speaking count as passive in relation to movement. In Lydia Plowman’s (1988) criticism of Interactive Video, a precursor to both MOOCs and personalized learning, she worries that “The typical user would be solitary, semi-isolated (perhaps in a store cupboard or quiet corner somewhere), sitting down, and the only physical interaction would be with the touchscreen, trackerball, keyboard or mouse. For a teacher, active learning implies activity not only in the mind but also of the whole person, as the child moves around or beyond the classroom in search of evidence, answers, information, relevant people and objects.”2Following Susan Gal’s (2002) analysis of the public/private divide, Lacey writes that active/passive “should be thought less as a simple binary ...continue

While teachers do and should care about the activity of the whole child, at the same time, Lacey argues that active/passive “tends to be mapped all to easily onto other powerful (and often gendered) binaries,” such as listening/doing, consuming/creating, or caring/making. Thus, anything that gets slated as ‘passive’ is likely to be dismissed and undervalued. Whatever our positions on lectures in universities are, we should all be deeply worried about any attempt to dismiss listening as passive. My sister is a social worker and does a lot of counseling. Trust me, there’s nothing passive about listening.

As a phrase, ‘active learning’ didn’t take off until about ten years after ‘experiential learning’, and has far surpassed ‘learning by doing’ according to google’s n-gram.3In Democracy and Education (1916), Dewey writes: “Recognition of the natural course of development, on the contrary [to scholastic traditions], ...continue  

Yet, even as far back as the Committee of Ten (1892) report (schools haven’t changed in 100 years, right?), Charles Elliot emphasizes the need for students doing things beyond memorizing facts, such reading multiple textbooks to develop a “habit of comparison” and “habit of doubting whether any one book covers the ground” (p.189). The report argues that students need experience “putting things together”, and teachers should help students to apply “lessons of history to current events” and “state their conclusions in their own words” (p. 170). And since since lectures “require elaborate note-taking, – a severe strain if done well,” outside of college they should be limited to a “brief talk to present the substance of the next approaching lessons.” An even better strategy is to “call on pupils to prepare lectures under the direction of the teacher.” (p.188) But jump ahead a century, and we still don’t have enough ‘active’ learning in the classroom.

In Spencer Kagan’s book on cooperative learning (2009), he uses the word ‘active’ 94 times! Kagan brings the active/passive binary back to “the constructivist model” where “students are not the passive recipients of known facts. Instead, they are active participants in constructing their own learning.” While Kagan collates and markets active learning structures for cooperative learning, many of the structures are simply more ‘active’ ways for students to do fairly traditional tasks, such as improving factual recall. Consider the steps for ‘Mix-Pair-Share’:

Step 1. Mix. Students stand and mix in the class.

Step 2. Pair. When the teacher calls, “Pair,” they pair with the nearest student.

Step 3. Share. The teacher asks a question, and gives think time. Partners are given 30 seconds each to respond.

If we looked in through a window, this classroom would certainly appear to be ‘active’, and getting up and moving provides students with a real and needed break from sitting. But even though each student gets to share their answer, the overall pedagogy remains fairly traditional: teachers ask a question which can be answered in a short amount of time, and students answer. Structured activities can also demand that we be ‘passive’ in the sense of compliant and unquestioning: listen to the instructions, watch the clock, don’t go over the time limit. As many of us know, being ‘passive’ and bottling our dissent requires active effort.

Unfortunately, much of the cognitive science that favors active learning presupposes traditional assessments, such as tests of memory and comprehension. As teachers have always known, building memory and comprehension takes real work on the part of the learner.4As John Dewey (1916) notes, “The importance of language in gaining knowledge is doubtless the chief cause of the common notion that knowledge may ...continue According to the cognitive scientist Jeffrey Karpicke, research reveals that “passive repetitive reading produces little or no benefit for learning.”5Or Henry Roediger: “The finding that retrieval practice yields substantial mnemonic benefits validates the quote from William James at the ...continue While that’s true, the cognitive science literature carries on in ignorance of the active reading strategies and formative assessments that teachers routinely use to help students comprehend texts and form their opinions. Passive rereading is a canard.

Should we be excited by the ‘active’ strategies that cognitive scientists offer to help students better memorize textbooks or TED talks and succeed on exams? In an article about ‘pedagogies of dissent’ that breaks from this tired path, Cathy Davidson situates active learning as part of an undoing of past pedagogical malpractice. Davidson argues for an education that’s both transformative and transgressive. However, she notes that some students will resist ‘active learning’ because they think “you [the teacher] are trying to get out of work or pulling a fast one by having them do the thinking and taking responsibility for their own learning.” When we encounter that resistance, we should “Remember: they have had at least twelve years of practice/indoctrination in mastering the formal education methods where hierarchy and control displace all the complex, experience-based, interactive learning methods.”

I find Davidson’s characterization of K12 education out of sync with the reality that universities are often pedagogically behind what many K12 teachers have been doing for a long time. The wave of ‘constructivism’ that swept K12 in the 1980s brought many interactive teaching strategies to the fore, though these strategies are not necessarily ‘pedagogies of dissent’. Among the strategies that Davidson favors, K12 teachers will recognize exit tickets and ‘think-pair-share’. There’s a long history of the pedagogically curious in higher education seeking out methods that are common in primary schools. Over twenty years ago, Beth Panitz (1996) recommended think-pair-share as a way to get out of the ‘lecture rut’.6As another example, Lorna I. Morrow and Niamh Friel (2015), a professor and undergraduate student at the University of Glasgow, offer several ...continue

Several sources, including Wikipedia, credit Frank Lyman with originating think-pair-share. Lyman’s article, The Responsive Classroom Discussion: The Inclusion of All Students (1981), was published in a monograph about mainstream inclusion and the “growing concern that ‘regular’ teachers needed additional skills and knowledge that they were not getting in their teacher preparation programs.”7Lyman cites several unpublished manuscripts and gives credit to public school teachers and student teachers. “In the Howard County, Maryland public ...continue

So, perhaps it’s fitting that Davidson lists think-pair-share as a pedagogy of dissent since Lyman hoped the strategy would overcome the reluctance of special education students to speak up in the mainstream classroom. Indeed, he found that “The most easily observed and commonly reported result is that many more students raise their hands to speak after ‘rehearsing’ in pairs and some normally non-participating students are among these.” As part of his broader vision, Lyman argues that “all students require a responsive classroom, a cooperative design in which response is asked of everyone. What neither ‘mainstreamed’ students nor others need is a classroom in which one person talks at a time or no one talks, a classroom in which thinking is discouraged for fear it cannot be controlled, and in which competition is the chief motivator.”

 

The part where I talk about how I’ve struggled as a teacher

 

I want to let you into the Making a Difference class that I teach. An experiment in its second year, I start by having students think through how they could create a project using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to address a real issue on a local scale (this idea comes from Jennifer Corriero & Michael Furdyk). Active learning at it’s best, right?

As you can imagine, it’s not so easy. While this kind of active learning gave my students the agency to think through global problems, we have made the most concrete difference by assisting a local agency already engaged in serving the community. To raise money for a local charity, we have used our class time to cook healthy snacks which we sell at school, which has allowed us the opportunity to work with the students in our intensive learning support class. We’ve also organized a clothing drive.

 

 

I try to give my students as much agency as I can while constantly rethinking the ways that I fall short and times when putting agency in the hands of students doesn’t work as well as I expected. At one end of active learning, we struggled to come up with ideas that would make an important impact. At another end of active learning, we have found engaging work in supporting others who already have projects up and running. I plan to keep both of these paths open for my students.

As far as the idea ‘active’ learning goes, I’m not sure that it helps us to more clearly see the best ways to move education forward. Students need to be allowed to make meaningful choices every day. They deserve pedagogies that respect their intellectual, emotional, and physical needs. Schools need to respect where students are coming from, where they are at, and where they hope to be.

Tony Wagner is fond of telling us that we’ve entered a new era: “The world no longer cares about what you know; the world only cares about what you can do with what you know.” Outside of Jeopardy, it’s hard to think of any jobs where people were ever paid for listing off facts. Outside of bad epistemology, it’s hard to think of anyone who has separated knowing from doing. John Dewey (1916) tells us that “there is no such thing as genuine knowledge and fruitful understanding except as the offspring of doing.”8Dewey (1916) continues, “The analysis and rearrangement of facts which is indispensable to the growth of knowledge and power of explanation and ...continue

Dewey goes on to say that “Wisdom has never lost its association with the proper direction of life.” I’m interested to know more about how we can bring different kinds of wisdom into education, into schools, and into our classrooms.

 

 

Images of Finland by Vincent Guth. The photos of students are my own, and while my school encourages us to share images of students learning, please do not reproduce them without permission.

 

Benjamin Doxtdator

Benjamin Doxtdator

English Teacher, Personal Learning Coordinator at The International School of Brussels

Thank you for taking the time to read. Comments always welcome.

References   [ + ]

1. In an article defending the lecture, Miya Tokumitsu (2017) notes: “Without moving around or speaking, lecture attendees certainly don’t look busy, and so their activity gets maligned as passive.” She makes the argument that we’re too obsessed with the ‘just in time’ logic of neoliberalism. Yet she notes that “Audiences outside academia clearly understand the benefits of collective listening. If public lectures did not draw sizable crowds, then museums, universities, bookstores, and community centers would have abandoned them long ago. The public knows that, far from being outdated, lectures can be rousing, profound, and even fun.”
2. Following Susan Gal’s (2002) analysis of the public/private divide, Lacey writes that active/passive “should be thought less as a simple binary opposition that as a series of fractal distinctions, a recursive division that can be projected into different social objects and in broader or narrower contexts, often with contradictory outcomes.”
3. In Democracy and Education (1916), Dewey writes: “Recognition of the natural course of development, on the contrary [to scholastic traditions], always sets out with situations which involve learning by doing.
4. As John Dewey (1916) notes, “The importance of language in gaining knowledge is doubtless the chief cause of the common notion that knowledge may be passed directly from one to another. It almost seems as if all we have to do to convey an idea into the mind of another is to convey a sound into his ear. Thus imparting knowledge gets assimilated to a purely physical process.”
5. Or Henry Roediger: “The finding that retrieval practice yields substantial mnemonic benefits validates the quote from William James at the outset: Students’ ‘active repetition’ via attempts to ‘recollect by an effort from within’ provides a much greater boost to retention than does ‘passive repetition’ from an outside source.”
6. As another example, Lorna I. Morrow and Niamh Friel (2015), a professor and undergraduate student at the University of Glasgow, offer several strategies, including think-pair-share, to make lectures more interactive.  In STUCK IN THE LECTURE RUT? (1996), Panitz writes “The problem, say experts in educational methods, is that students learn best when they are actively engaged, and lectures all too often don’t do the trick. “Traditional lecturing suffers from a major defect: it is one-way communication in which the student is a passive participant—merely a listener,” says Barbara Davis, vice-chancellor of educational development at the University of California at Berkeley, in her book Tools for Teaching. “Students learn best when they take an active role: when they discuss what they are reading, practice what they are learning, and apply concepts and ideas.”
7. Lyman cites several unpublished manuscripts and gives credit to public school teachers and student teachers. “In the Howard County, Maryland public schools, student teachers and classroom teachers are developing and using a four-phase discussion strategy called “Listen-Think-Pair-Share.” With this strategy, students are taught to listen to the question, think about the question, to discuss the question in pairs, and finally to raise hands and share with the total group.”
8. Dewey (1916) continues, “The analysis and rearrangement of facts which is indispensable to the growth of knowledge and power of explanation and right classification cannot be attained purely mentally—just inside the head.
I footnotes