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Filling the group space with active learning tasks

By Sam Di Sano on 1 August 2019PedagogyNSWstaffroomInnovation

If we are serious about providing a 21st-century curriculum, we also need to provide a 21st-century learning experience for our students, which among other priorities:

  • Promotes flexible learning that is focused on growth;
  • Identifies and meets the needs of all students regardless of their achievement level; and
  • Concentrates on active learning strategies rather than passive ones.

Ask yourself

An interesting self-evaluation technique is to consider how you teach compared to how you were taught. Consider these four questions to ascertain just how much has changed:

  • How did you learn at school?
  • How did you first begin to teach?
  • How do you teach now?
  • How do your students learn?

The best question a teacher can actually ask in evaluating his or her effectiveness is ‘what is the most effective and efficient use of my face-to-face teaching time?’

Moving from a passive paradigm to engage the learner in higher-order skills of creating, collaborating and instructing others should be one of our highest priorities as educators. Sadly, we often get caught in a content-heavy vortex, pressed by time and standardised examination and assessment expectations, leaving precious little time to develop a deeper appreciation of what it is we are passing on to our students. If only we had time to add exploration and the development of key learning skills like critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

Of course, there are other priorities but these are often the most desired and at the same time most challenging to deliver because of external factors imposed on our classroom.

What exactly is active learning?

I mentioned moving from a passive to an active learning paradigm. Let me explain that a little more. Active learning has emerged as the foundation of all good instruction methods used by teachers to make learning come alive. Caring and responsive teachers inspire students to focus on classroom activities and methodologies like the flipped and blended style learning phenomena, and the simplest paths to follow in order to reach that nirvana.

Through passive strategies, students learn how to ‘repeat and do’. That may be enough in some contexts. Repetition is an important and useful educational tool in order to reinforce formula or theory. Used well and used sparingly, it has wonderful results for the learner. Active learning strategies however, allow the student to control his or her own learning, deepen their understanding and transfer their knowledge beyond the classroom.

Key benefits of active learning for students

Students can engage more readily with their learning by controlling the path, place, space and pace of their learning through a variety of activities which are:

  • Focused on optimising in-class time for group-based activities; and
  • Allow for improved meaningful feedback based on ongoing observation and performance.

While these outcomes are not exclusive to active learning strategies, nonetheless, when the focus is on activating thinking skills by engaging in problem, research or inquiry-based activities, the following benefits are sure to follow:

  • A heightened sense of student engagement in tasks;
  • Emphasis on skill development, particularly more complex, higher order skills;
  • Exploration of attitudes and values;
  • Opportunity for continual feedback.

Where does flipped learning fit in?

Whether or not you wish to embrace the delivery of content offline as the fully flipped model dictates is not the issue. I take the stance that if you are prepared to embrace a pedagogical shift in your teaching where the classroom is transformed into a dynamic and interactive learning environment where you the teacher guides the students as they apply concepts and creatively engage with their subject matter, then there are bound to be winners all around.


Active learning can also be messy. It is not just about replacing the content with activities. It still requires structure and a sound scaffold. Provide for your students a balanced continuum between activity and process and, like me, use these three touchstones in your planning:

  1. Guided practice: Centred around you, the teacher, in order to balance traditional delivery with technology-rich experiences and online resources;
  2. Peer tutoring: Collaborative experiences that encourage instruction and guidance;
  3. Group activities: Collaborative experiences which provide growth in social and emotional skill development.

Active learning is about leveraging a more engaged interaction for your students. It requires educators to be as engaged as we want our students to be. That in itself is a wonderful way to challenge ourselves in order to grow.

What works for you?

As always, I would love to hear back from you about what works well in your classroom? What have you tried and how have you varied your delivery to engage your students? Feel free to send me an email and we can chat!

Liked what you read? Check out more great articles:

Teaching your students how to watch a video.

Is failure a recipe for success?

Flip your classroom with your eyes wide open.

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