Tag Archives: active learning

What science knows vs what education does

What is the longest period of time you can focus your attention without your mind beginning to wander and your concentration plummeting off a cliff?

Wikipedia states that the maximum attention span for the average human is 5 minutes.  The longest time for healthy teenagers and adults is 20 minutes.

However, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, at the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the average attention span of a human being has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013. This is one second less than the attention span of a goldfish.

Inspiration 4 Teachers Podcast Show8 seconds to a maximum of 20 minutes is a startling difference, and worrying if you are an educator, but there are two key types of attention.  The 8 second attention span is known as ‘transient attention’ which is a short-term response to a stimulus that temporarily attracts or distracts attention.

Where educators need to focus their energy for learning is on selective sustained attention, also known as ‘focused attention’.  It is the level of attention that produces results on a task over time.  But if we only have a maximum of 20 minutes, why are most school lessons constructed around a 50 – 70 minute lesson structure, four to five times a day?  That means in the average school day there are around 20, twenty minute learning opportunities before breaks are considered.  If that seems like a lot, once you add in classroom transient distractions it’s possible that those opportunities for sustained concentration significantly decrease.

How do educators and schools address these lack of opportune moments for learning?  Shorter school days, more frequent lessons or breaks, the options are vast, but this is where we must focus our thought back on what science knows to be true.

Studies into the investigation of physical activity for learning reveal that:

“… breaks throughout the day can improve both student behaviour and learning (Trost, 2007)” (Reilly, Buskist, and Gross, 2012).


Science also reveals that sustained movement-aided learning significantly improves learning rather than purely mental learning activities:

“Movement is an exterior stimulus, and as long as the learner is engaged in his or her learning task the movement indicates that the learner’s attention is directed toward what is being learned. When attention is purely mental (interior) the activity becomes very difficult to sustain, because the nerve and muscle systems are inactive” (Shoval, 2011).

If frequent breaks and connecting the mind and body for learning have been proven to work, why does our education system not evolve based on what science knows?

On episode 35 of the Inspiration 4 Teachers Podcast Show, Rae Pica, host of Studentcentricity and founder of BAM Radio Network, discusses how connecting the mind and body is crucial for learning.  She reveals the ideal mind and body classroom for learning:

If you enjoyed this article please tweet the knowledge forward and share it with your community! 



Boarding Pass – @FernwoodDT

I saw this idea on Twitter originally and like most of our resources it was amended to our students. The concept is simple the ‘Boarding Pass’ is given to students as they enter the classroom and are instructed to fill in their name and ‘One fact from last lesson’ the teacher then goes through some of the answers with students writing them on the board. G&T students and students that finish early are encouraged to write down a ‘key word’ from last lesson too. Again these are reviewed and shared on the board. This is a great way to link previous learning.

Lesson objectives/todays outcomes are then presented to the class by the teacher. Students are asked to digest this information and fill in an individual ‘target for todays lesson’ and ‘what level I aim to achieve’ these are kept by the student throughout the lesson.

At the end of the lesson students are asked to fill in the ‘Departure Card’ (which is eventually torn off via a perforate edge). Students write ‘One thing they have learnt’ and ‘What level did you achieve’ based on the learning in todays lesson. Students then love tearing off the Departure Card with the perforated edge and handing it to the teacher as they leave the lesson. The ‘Departure Card’ can then be used at the beginning of the next lesson again linking prior learning/showing progression and/or stuck in a work book. Questions can be changed to suit the lesson/subject I imagine it could be used in all subject areas it has worked particularly well in our schools MFL lessons too. This shows fantastic knowledge and understanding of a topic in an engaging yet simple method!

Here is a link to a presentation that shows how the boarding pass is used/presented to the students – Boarding Pass – PowerPoint

Here is a link to the guillotine we use – http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/A4-Paper-Trimmer-4-in-1-Card-Crease-Wavy-Cut-Straight-Cut-Perforation-/281181932948?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_3&hash=item4177bfcd94

See @FernwoodDT and @Me77ors on Twitter https://twitter.com/FernwoodDT for more ideas and resources

Any questions/feedback please email m.mellors@fernwoodschool.org.uk 🙂

Using Hexagon Learning for categorisation, linkage and prioritisation

Hexagon Learning Case Study: The Rise of Stalin

The ability to select, prioritise, categorise and link evidence is a valuable skill that students learn in History. It is also highly transferable to other subjects.

Using hexagons is a particularly simple and effective way of developing these skills, as the following case study seeks to demonstrate.

Historical Context

How Stalin was able to emerge as leader of the USSR against apparently overwhelming odds is one of the most intriguing questions which we study at IB Level. In the years that following the Bolshevik Revolution, due to a series of blunders and miscalculations, Stalin had lost the support of the party leadership: so much so that on his deathbed, Lenin dictated a formal ‘Testament’ describing Stalin as a liability who needed to be removed from his post. He was also hated by Lenin’s closest ally, Leon Trotsky, who was widely expected to step into the leadership position after Lenin’s death. Yet just five years later Stalin was undisputed leader of the USSR and Trotsky was in exile.

The story of how Stalin transformed his fortunes so dramatically is a great story revolving around Stalin’s treachery, cunning and downright charm. But the danger of this is that the essays that are then written become mere narrative, storybook accounts which do little more than provide a step-by-step account of the main events between 1924-1929.

The Hexagon Approach

After a study of the events culminating in Stalin emerging as leader of the party, I made a list of factors which could be used to explain why Stalin became dictator of the USSR. I then put these into my Classtools.net Hexagons Generator to create two single-page documents containing a total of 40 hexagons.

Stage 1: Selection and Categorisation

The class was divided into pairs for the activity. Each pair of students was given a copy of the first sheet of hexagons, which they cut up and started to organise on their desks into categories of their choice. This process, involving the categorisation of 25 hexagons, took about 20 minutes. Students were encouraged to come up with no more than five categories overall. They could also choose to leave some of the hexagons to one side if they were considered less important than the others.

We then spent five minutes comparing the different categories that students had identified. Each pair of students took turns to suggest one idea for a category heading until all the ideas had been shared.

Following this, I gave each students a blank sheet of hexagons. The challenge was to identify other factors which could help to explain Stalin’s rise to power and write these directly into the hexagons. After five minutes, each pair of students took it in turns to suggest an idea. If this was a valid (and fresh) idea, then the other students copied it into their pair’s version of the sheet, and the students who shared the idea were each given a sweet (we had a bag of these left over as a result of our ‘Rise of Stalin through sweet-eating’ lesson which had preceded this lesson!). This process was repeated until the students had run out of ideas.

Each pair of students then cut up this new sheet of factors and used them to develop their existing diagrams. In some instances this involved merely adding fresh evidence into existing categories. Sometimes though it involved adding new categories, or amending earlier categories.

Finally, each pair of students was given the second sheet of hexagons and the process of categorisation continued.

Stage 2: Linkage and Prioritisation

By this stage, the students had decided upon the main factors to explain Stalin’s rise to power, organised into key categories. Each of these categories could form the basis of a paragraph in an essay. However, it was still necessary to decide two things.

Firstly, students would need to decide in which order to deal with the points in each paragraph. It would not be enough to simply introduce the category title, then randomly write about each piece of evidence from the hexagons in that group. This is where the hexagons are particularly useful. The six sides mean that factors can be placed alongside each other in various combinations to highlight connections between batches of factors within categories. After students rearranged their factors in this way, they stuck them down onto sugar paper with a glue stick. They could then write the title of each category over each batch of hexagons, and annotate around each group of hexagons to explain why they were arranged in that particulary way.

Secondly, students had to decide how to connect their main categories together to create an overall thread of argument. They did this by drawing arrows between the factors and explaining their connections over them. For example:

“Economic problems in the country > created > Divisions in the party > exploited by > Stalin’s Cunning”

Stage 3: Essay preparation

The final part of the process was to use the completed diagrams as an essay plan. I photographed each of the diagrams and shared them with the students. Their task was to use the diagrams as the basis of their essay on “Why did Stalin become leader of the USSR?”. Each paragraph was to focus on separate categories of hexagons, and the points made in each paragraph should have some logical order and ‘flow’. Moreover, the order of the paragraphs should be dictated by the arrows linking the categories, with the opening sentence of each paragraph after the first one being based on the explanation over each arrow.

Reflections and Conclusions

The ‘Hexagon Approach’ worked very well. It steered students away from a narrative approach and into an analytical frame of mind. It helped them frame categories of analyis, build up their command of the material step-by-step. It provided them with the opporunity to easily change their initial assumptions, connect factors together both within and between categories, and give them a very effective basis of an accomplished written piece.

It is also a very simple approach that can be transferred to other topics and other curriculum subjects. All that is needed is an initial list of factors – contributed either by the teacher or the students – which can then be written into a blank hexagons template or turned into hexagons automatically using my Classtools.net Hexagons Generator. Thereafter, all that is needed is a pair of scissors, some sugar paper and a glue stick. And, ideally, a bag of sweets!


Money Man’opoly’ – A board game for a broad gain…

This weeks blog reflects on a lesson I delivered a little earlier in the year as part of an enrichment session to level 3 learners.

At the beginning of the academic year, learners were given autonomy over the topics delivered and this week, the session was based on money management.

In preparing for the session, I considered simply investigating the income and expenditure of learners and helping them to plan how they could save income and prioritise and calculate their spending. However, would this approach really engage 16-20 year olds? Possibly not some of them anyway – despite the consensus that this was an area they wished to look at.

So what did I do?… Well I approached the session with the mindset of a child – by playing a game! My favourite board game, monopoly was surely the perfect way to subtly utilise money management skills?…

Of course, I couldn’t just use the traditional monopoly board and let them play, it would have no meaning like this. So I embarked on creating my own monopoly board with items that would resonate with the learners (see board).

I had to ensure that I had differentiated objectives and this could only be achieved by giving some structure to the game, so I made four characters with different likes, dislikes and incomes (which they received when passing go). This meant that learners could prioritise what they spent based on their characters. The characters with more disposable income were strategically given to the less able learners and vice versa with more able, meaning the learners were challenged according to needs. Of course it goes without saying that learners had to keep a record of all calculations on their task sheet. The aim of the game was to finish with more money (inclusive of the value of items bought).

Prior to the game, learners were asked to identify different money management skills using a post-it note approach and questions were posed to ascertain meaning. Although I encouraged learners to utilise these skills, I was hoping to let the use of them occur naturally based on the restrictions imposed (i.e. character likes/dislikes etc), with the intention that reflection would demonstrate an understanding of skills.

During the game, learners were questioned to check understanding such as “what was your last purchase and why?” This was accompanied by the chance and community chest cards which threw in ‘curve ball’ income/expenditure, which learners had to explain what they would do based on the information provided. To end the lesson, learners were asked to reflect on the money management skills that they had used in the session. Peer assessment was utilised to ensure that they were able to justify where each skill was used in the game.

In summary, the session was highly engaging, fun and certainly ‘enriched’ their studies. It may have had more of an impact in a longer session… All of the above was done in an hour! Quite a lot to cram in really. I will certainly be using the method again and am happy to share resources if anyone would like to try? Tweet me @danwilliams1984 for more info.

To text poll or not to text poll, that is the question?

Although I have come across online text polls in the past, I hadn’t used them myself until last week in one of my lessons and came to the conclusion that they are more time and effort than they are worth – let me explain why…

The group of learners I used this with were Entry Level 3 and in a nutshell the objective of the session was to identify and demonstrate skills, qualities and values required when assisting at a sport and active leisure event.

So after providing learners with their personalised targets for the session I asked them to place their mobile phones on their desks. Out of the 12 learners in attendance, only 10 had a phone…already the task was not going to plan!..so, I paired the learners without phones with somebody with one.

I then provided the text number and opening question…”what skills are needed when helping to lead a sports event?”… Learners were allowed open ended answers and the premise was that the answers that were text to the number would appear on the smart board…what I didn’t realise until the time was that learners who didn’t have phone credit, could not participate…another two learners out of the task and requiring a partner. Those that did have credit began to text their answers and they started to appear on the board – great!

However, it soon became apparent that it wasn’t clear who was texting what answers (thus making it difficult to target questions to the learner concerned and also ensuring that all learners answered). Moreover the answers that came through were not just skills, but also qualities and values… Not such a bad thing, but in order to differentiate between the three areas I had to write everything on the white board (almost defeating the purpose of this e learning tool) and ask learners to dissect the information into the relevant categories.

So after almost 20 minutes and the disengagement of those without a phone/credit, I came to the conclusion that I could have provided the learners with a much more effective learning environment had I used ‘post-its’ or any other traditional strategy which allows all to be involved, whilst allowing me to see who answers.

Despite believing that there is room for e-learning in the classroom, I do feel that we need to ensure that whatever is chosen as a strategy is effective and not just used because the school/college has an e-learning agenda.

On the other hand, perhaps I approached text polls in the wrong fashion, so if you have used them with success, please share your comments.

Analogies and metaphors to aid understanding…

Having been introduced to Hattie’s work on ‘effect sizes’ in the learning environment last year (http://www.learningandteaching.info/teaching/what_works.htm), I took it upon myself to investigate advanced organisers in my own practice. This is said to have an average effect size of 0.37, which in comparison to other methods is reasonably small. However, I opted to focus on the use of analogies and metaphors within my teaching practice, as personally I believe comprehension to be greater if a new subject is related to a familiar subject. Of course, many of us will naturally do this without a second thought, but I intended to consciously approach sessions with the intention of overtly using this method.

One example of this practice quite recently was when teaching the flow of blood around the cardiovascular system to a group of level 2 BTEC learners. I introduced the topic by asking the group to share their thoughts on the process of going to the gym – this involved eating food to give you fuel (collecting oxygen from lungs), travelling to the gym and going through the changing rooms (left side of the heart), working out and ‘burning’ the fuel (feeding the muscles with oxygen), travel back through the changing rooms (right side of heart) before travelling home (the lungs) to start the process again. Obviously when doing this, I did illustrate on the white board. I then made reference to the fact that the gym process is similar to the flow of blood…Following this, I gave the learners the opportunity to create their own analogies of the process. Working in groups they created some amazing ideas such as the process of topping up and using a mobile phone, travelling through the petrol station to name a few.

For the learners, this particular process taught alone can be very challenging, yet now they have their own analogies for the process, they are able to demonstrate a far greater understanding.

Any comments would be greatly appreciated!

Education as Inquiry

Mark Priestley wrote a perceptive piece about the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in the Scotsman (link) that rightly attracted some attention among the followers of Pedagoo. He points out that the CfE might not be fit for purpose. Priestley admits to mixed feelings on this. I have mixed feelings also but their cause is less, I think, to do with the philosophy, experiences and outcomes, and CfE documents directly but with the lingering, inappropriate metaphors that are still ‘hanging-in’ from pre-CfE days. There has been discussion here of the harmful effects of the ‘education as a factory system‘ and ‘teacher as technician‘ metaphors on learning and also human dignity. Is there a better metaphor? Returning to an earlier applied metaphor of ‘education as initiation into worthwhile activities’ may, it was suggested, help. That, of course, leaves us with the problem of deciding what are the educationally worthwhile activities we wish to initiate pupils/ students (in line with what seems to becoming international convention, I will use ‘students’ from now) into. For the purposes here, let us assume that the capacities and experiences outlined in the CfE at least form the basis for worthwhile activities. One worthwhile activity strongly suggested in the CfE documents is ‘active learning.’

Active Learning
I confess to having some difficulty with this term as it implies that the opposite, passive learning, occurs more often at present in our classrooms. Indeed many writers refer to passive learning and include rote learning as an example. But rote learning requires activity-the activity of actively memorising. It seems to me that most learning in schools that is to do with what is in the curriculum is ‘active.’ We don’t teach concepts, theories, how to interpret literature, understanding the narratives of history, how to carry out experiments, and so on through methods based on conditioning. Learning through conditioning would be more of a passive process than rote learning. If conditioning occurs in educational contexts, it is for other reasons than teaching for the typical knowledge and understanding found in school subjects. The problem is that some forms of active learning are less productive than others: rote learning is regarded as less useful than learning for understanding, for example. It is also hard to remain actively learning, unless the teacher is a very gifted orator, through a whole hour of dictated notes. The context demands a form of active learning that is difficult to sustain.

The mistake is to equate physical passivity (sitting still) with mental or cognitive passivity (not trying to listen or process what is being said). We all have experienced students (perhaps only a few) who actively focus on everything we say, process it for real understanding, and easily get ‘A’ grades in the national exams. For them active learning in ‘traditional teaching’ is easy. They are always cognitively active in our classes, however, we teach. For the rest of us, in the same conditions, it requires more concentration than we are always able to muster. It is not that passive learning takes over when taught through what are generally called transmission methods. We may hardly learn at all as we switch off and think about other things. Then we have to revise harder for the exams and resort again to rote learning- that experience of, “I don’t remember doing this!” That is, if we bother at all. Not all our students appear to. Nevertheless, those students that are learning anything at all are being active somewhere and somehow. To repeat, I am arguing that they do not learn anything in the way of conceptual knowledge and understanding, even in rote forms, through being passive.

So, what form of active learning might be more widely useful in supporting the learning of more of our pupils/students in ways that we value (supporting ‘real’ understanding, for example)? One candidate is inquiry.

The European Union is concerned about the supply of scientists generally and levels of scientific literacy in the wider population. As part of the solution, it sees the wider use of inquiry- based learning and teaching as being desirable. This, they believe, would foster greater engagement in, and enthusiasm for, science. Accordingly, the EU has funded international projects which aim to support science teachers, and also those in STEM subjects generally, to use more inquiry-based methods (the word ‘more’ is important, as we shall see below). One project is S-TEAM (Science Teacher Education Advanced Methods). The reflections below arise from the author’s participation in that project but do not necessarily represent any consensus within it.

First, if the EU is correct in thinking that inquiry is supportive of greater engagement in STEM subjects, then that is likely to be the case across the whole curriculum. Unfortunately, ‘inquiry’ is also a contested concept- it is surprisingly difficult to get an agreed definition. The difficulty in my view is that, from an observer’s perspective, there are many forms of activity that make up many different ways of inquiring. That does not prevent academics attempting to define what inquiry teaching would be so that we can categorise activities as being inquiry or not. There is an alternative to this academic game that teachers from East Lothian adopted in an S-TEAM sponsored professional learning module (PISCES). They used the strategy of thinking what inquiry would be from the learner’s (not the teachers’ or academics’) perspective.

Any lesson is an investigation from the pupils’ point of view if, during it, they are exploring their own questions or having their own questions answered. (PPK Journal Paper Page 14, see also, PISCES Book Chapter)

From this perspective, inquiry is not a teaching method as such, but a mental orientation that we try to encourage and support in pupils. Our exceptional pupils referred to above already adopt this orientation most, if not at all, times. From this simple point there follows a set of conditions that education needs to adopt and strive for to support inquiry. These conditions apply not only to teachers, but also to policy makers, curriculum developers, academic researchers, inspectors – all of us. They add up to seeing education itself as a shared process of inquiry.

Supporting the inquiry orientation in students: education as inquiry:

1. Adopt the pupils’ perspective.
If we take as a first step, the same one as above and think of inquiry as a learning orientation in which the students think of all lessons as being contexts in which they have questions in mind and are seeking answers to those questions (whether through listening, group work, discussions, independent research activities, or whatever), then encouraging that orientation and making it possible is our first step in supporting inquiry. We need to find ways to support our students in consistently taking this learning orientation. To do so, makes all our practice ‘more‘ inquiry-based.

Not necessarily easy though. However, that it can be achieved in various ways by teachers carrying out experiments in their on practice is illustrated by the work of the above mentioned teachers (see the above links). Given the right support (which may include conceptual tools to help in analysing the problem in its local forms) and encouragement, teachers do not need direction or prescription from above to solve such problems. In the points below, we take this as an aim of our educational system and suggest what it can do to support it. However, note we already have identified two points, towards justifying the title of this post – ‘education as inquiry.’

A) We aim to support our students in consistently adopting this learning orientation of having questions in mind and exploring possible answers to them
B) Teachers are inquiring also. They are inquiring into how to provide support for student inquiry as defined here. Teachers, from this perspective, are inquirers into solving problems of supporting student inquiry in their own classrooms for (or with) their own particular groups of students.

2. Get our thinking in step with the above aim.
There are several aspects to this. First, we (all of us, not just teachers) have to actively ditch the factory and teacher as technician metaphors referred to above. Apart from the demeaning aspects on both teacher and students discussed elsewhere, (link) they are incompatible with students as inquirers. Taking the students’ perspective also implies some autonomy for the students as they plan for and research, discuss and share their solutions to questions and problems. It also implies autonomy for them in deciding when to ask an expert (the teacher, for example) and when to sit and listen to her. To facilitate and support these activities, metaphors that reduce students to objects to be manipulated are, to say the least, unsatisfactory – they do not facilitate thinking about how to support our students in self-direction and in working towards developing their strengths and reaching their aspirations. The prevalence of these metaphors through our current assessment models un!
dermines any rhetoric about students taking responsibility for their learning. Students who do this, and teachers who support it, do so despite the system, not because of it.

And this brings us to the next point. Thinking that is appropriately applied to students – to support them in achieving a learning orientation in which they consistently formulate and seek answers to questions) is also appropriate to apply to teachers. Externally applied quality indicators and standards of competence undermine any rhetoric about teachers taking responsibility for their learning and practice. Indicators and competencies are touted as ‘tools for self-evaluation’ and may have a role in this respect. However, as we all know, in practice they are used as tools of direction and control. So, achieving education as inquiry means loosening up on heavy, top-down managerialism and thinking more in terms of supporting teacher inquiry into solving, and developing conceptual frameworks or theories of practice around this, the problems of supporting student inquiry that they face in their own contexts. One size does not fit all, if we accept this argument. Teachers are ‘the professionals in situ’.

Finally, we have to be consistent in our thinking and the language we use. The factory and technician metaphors have been with us for some time now and have shaped our thinking, even when we have tried to resist them – probably, because we have no choice but to live by them in our teaching lives, as we fill in reports, plan lessons, engage in improvement planning, and so on. So even though teachers probably do not a really think of their students as objects and education in terms of ‘throughput’, it is not always easy to act or talk accordingly. Our language often does not match our thinking. Here are a couple of things that I have caught myself doing that is inconsistent with the thinking advocated here. You can reflect on your own.

A) Thinking in terms of delivering a module. This should be thinking in terms of supporting learning (my own, as well as those persuaded to participate) through joint engagement in a module.
B) Using language such as, “Developing my students’ thinking”, instead of, “Supporting my students in developing their thinking”.

I am sure there would be many more examples, if I was aware of them.

3. Make sure our language is in line with the direction we want our thinking to go.
Although this has already arisen in the above, it seems worth stating it as a point on its own. If we do not achieve this, we can undermine our best efforts and it is not always as easy as we imagine.

4. Align all our roles
We have already seen that if students are to adopt consistently the mental orientation we are here referring to as inquiry from their perspective, teachers become inquirers into how consistently to support the students in achieving and maintaining that orientation. Teacher and student roles align in this way. But teachers and students do not act alone. There are others who need to align their roles- at least, the following.

A) School management need to inquire into how best to support the teachers in the school in their inquiries into how best to support their students’ inquires.

B) Local Authority education personnel need to inquire into how best to support school management in inquiring into supporting their teachers’ inquiries.

C) Politicians and national educational bodies (including inspectors) need to inquire into how best to provide the conditions that allow all the above inquiries, and educational research below, to flourish.

D) Educational researchers need to inquire into how to support all the above in their various forms of inquiry. For teachers, I and colleagues have argued this does not involve prescriptions but tools and insights that support them in inquiring into solving problems in their own contexts. It is assumed that this would apply to the rest.

Innovations would happen at all levels. However, the innovations by the teachers would be those that supported student inquiry directly. The others’ value would lie in more indirect support for this

5. Understand that these inquiries are life-long or, at least, working-life long.
Is there room in education for anyone who thinks they have all the answers and can impose them on others?

Education as inquiry
Achieve the above and Education has become a process of shared inquiry. Is that the metaphor we are looking for? I invite you to discuss. Or should I say, ‘ I invite you to share in inquiring’?

What do we mean by Active Learning?

Cross-posted from Not Just Any Brick In The Wall

This question was posed as a way of ‘advertising’ a CPD session. The shortest answer given was simply a department’s name, the inference being that the department in question was ‘active learning’ – can this be true?

Building the Curriculum 2 (2007) provides the following definition: “Active learning is learning which engages and challenges children’s thinking using real-life and imaginary situations. It takes full advantage of the opportunities for learning presented by:

    • spontaneous play
    • planned, purposeful play
    • investigating and exploring” …. p (5) and so it goes on.

Here’s the problem I have with this definition; it’s far to woolly, indeed that accusation might be levelled at CfE as a whole – but that’s for another day! What seems to be the case from conversations had or overheard is that some have taken the bulleted points, put them in a High School context and now believe that active learning is having pupils moving about, making stuff or acting! Educationally, they could not be more wrong.

The phrase ‘active learning’ in this context is essentially to do with meta-cognition: the understanding and awareness of one’s own thought processes. From an educational (pupil) point of view it can be defined as:

  • any instructional method that engages a pupil in their learning
  • requiring pupils to think about what they are doing
  • pupils learn by engaging in a process of sense-making
  • pupils actively constructing new meaning (being cognitively involved) and in a social sense actively collaborating with others

I know from bitter experience that some pupils put no thought into what they are doing. But, If we accept this definition then we can say that active learning requires more of a pupil than simply doing stuff. It involves pupils actively involved in planning and evaluating their own learning, initiating learning experiences and planning what they hope to achieve. It involves creating an environment in which pupils can think; use their imaginations; test out their ideas and try to solve problems whilst learning from their mistakes. At its very best it should encourage pupils to undertake a range of activities for their own satisfaction and enjoyment, rather than having pre-set outcomes ‘forced’ on them – challenging in our current set-up I admit.

There are many ways to achieve these aspirations, here are some suggestions (not an exhaustive list) that I’ve used in my own classroom:

  • Introduce co-operative learning groups
  • Collective problem-solving; groups come up with solutions and insights that may not come about individually.
  • Providing collaborative work skills; pupils learn to work together rather than just dividing the workload.
  • Peer reviewing; pupils review each others work and suggest corrections or improvements
  • Self-mark/evaluate work; pupils assess own work against agreed criteria (or a marking script)

    S4 GC pupil self-marking

  • Remove all the erasers for the class and have pupils correct their work using colour pencils

    Self correction – no eraser

  • Pupils review the learning experience and make judgements about how well they have learned and what they need to do next

    S3 pupil self-assessment

I’m trying very hard to not just include active learning as an ‘add on’ in my lessons but to make it central to my pedagogy, it has not been easy. Resistance comes from many quarters the most surprising (for me) was from pupils; one pleading “…why can you not just tell me what I need to know” and “…why can’t you just teach the normal way”. Herein lies the problem, if pupils are being taught ‘the normal way’ in most of the rest of the school this way does appear very different to them and puts them out of their comfort zone. That said I’ve had very positive comments from most pupils on the changes I’m making.

To date the most successful of the suggestions I’ve made and tried have been peer reviewing and self marking. Removing the erasers is starting to work but it’s a pupil ‘goto’ response to a mistake so will take time. And that’s the point here, anything we do different in class will take time to embed and make a difference, but if you believe in it you need to persevere.

The evidence I’ve looked at suggests that passive pupils sitting listening to the teacher or doing without thinking/reflecting do not retain enough knowledge to instil deep understanding and that for this to happen they need to be actively involved in reviewing and assessing their learning and adapting it to make sense to them. So if you make one change to your pedagogy this year, make it this one.

Readings that helped me:

Grabinger, R. S., and Dunlap, J. C., (1996), Rich environments for active learning: a definitionin Wilson, B. G., (1996) Constructivist Learning Environments. New Jersey, Education Publications Inc.

Prince, M. (2004) Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research, Journal for Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231

Watkins, C., Carnell, E. & Lodge, C. (2007). Effective Learning in Classrooms.London, Sage.