At Macquarie University, we have several active learning spaces. They are brightly coloured, have easily moving furniture, and are equipped with a range of technology that can help to facilitate a range of teaching approaches, including group work, team-based learning, and reflective exercises. They are incredible resources at the university for those looking to teach in a way different than content-based lecture delivery. There is, however, one problem: there are only four of them. They are quickly booked and there are many more people who want to use the rooms than space and timetabling can accommodate. There is a silver lining, though.
Active learning can occur anywhere. It doesn’t need a special space or fancy equipment. The opposite of passive learning, it is about engagement, ownership, participation, and authenticity and it should be at the heart of our learning and teaching.
Why? Here are a few reasons:
1. It’s based in the principles of constructivism.
Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, and Jean Piaget are just a few theorists and educators who have researched and discussed the power and importance of knowledge construction. Students who are not only more active and participatory in class but who engage in activities that require them to think about their own learning have a better shot at developing the meta-cognition around that content, thus synthesizing and integrating it more effectively.
2. It gets the students involved, invested, and directly accountable for their learning.
In addition to getting more than just the “usual suspects” involved in the classroom activity, active learning calls upon everyone to engage. This approach calls upon higher order thinking rather than simple call-and-response or remembering material. Students must themselves develop their own “relationship” with the material, calling upon their prior knowledge as well as integrating it as new knowledge and understanding develops.
3. It contextualises content and shows that any subject is potentially dynamic and responsive.
This one is also pretty important. Active learning requires both the teacher and the student to consider and put into practice, in one form or another, the application of knowledge. The aforementioned employ of higher order thinking means that the learning is meant to go beyond recall and move into making connections between and among knowledge and understanding applications of that learning.
What does it look like?
Active learning can occur in a range of ways in learning and teaching. From small, single activities to entire lessons and units built around it, active learning provides agency for students, turning learning from teacher-centred (as with lectures) to student-centred. As demonstrated by the spectrum of activities presented by the University of Michigan (below), the commitment to this approach can be tailored by the instructor (or entire class) and can fit into any context. They can have little to no technological enhancement or can be centred around a learning technology tool or platform. The beauty of active learning lies in this agility, the mutability, this wide spectrum of use and application.
This brief discussion really only touches upon the potential of active learning – and highlights the independence of the approach from the spaces. The spaces – just as with teaching tools and learning technologies – provide an opportunity for enhancing the practice of active learning but do not define it.
Anderson, L. W. and Krathwohl, D. R., et al (Eds..) (2001) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Allyn & Bacon. Boston, MA (Pearson Education Group).
Bloom, B.S. and Krathwohl, D. R. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals, by a committee of college and university examiners. Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. NY, NY: Longmans, Green.
Bruner, J. (1977). The Process of Education. Harvard University Press: Boston, MA.
Piaget, J. (1951). The Psychology of Intelligence. Routledge and Kegan Paul: London.
Vygotsky, L. S. and Cole, M. (1978). Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard University Press: Boston, MA.