18 August 2016

What is “active learning?” (in defense of contemplation)

I think it’s fair to say that one of progressive education’s central characteristics is its obsession with so-called “active learning” and its abhorrence of student passivity.

The Center for Research on Teaching and Learning at the University of Michigan defines active learning as “a process whereby students engage in activities, such as reading, writing, discussion, or problem solving that promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of class content,” which seems like a perfectly reasonable pedagogical prescription.

Obviously, one of the primary goals of teaching is to encourage students to engage with the material; it would be difficult for anyone to seriously argue that students should approach material passively.

The problem, however, is that the definition of active learning has become increasingly literal. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the American obsession with sports, “active” has now come to be interpreted as “physically active.” The assumption is that if students are not moving around, or participating in a debate, or sharing their ideas in a small group, then they cannot possibly be learning.

The Stanford Teaching Commons website provides a typical example:

Whether you’re facing a lecture hall filled with 300 students or a seminar table with 15 students, one of your primary goals for the class should be to actively engage students with the material. Students learn more when they participate in the process of learning, whether it’s through discussion, practice, review, or application (Grunert, 1997). This is in stark contrast to traditional styles of teaching, where students are expected to sit for hours, listening and, theoretically, absorbing information presented by the instructor.

For example, encouraging short partner discussions during lectures (i.e., think-pair-share), adding problem- or case-based research projects to the curriculum, and incorporating time for small-group critical analysis exercises during seminars are all great ways to actively engage students in learning.

Let’s consider these two statements. First, in regards to “traditional styles of teaching,” the reality is that most undergraduate lectures last no more than an hour and are also broken up into separate, discussion-based recitation sections consisting of 20 or so students. Furthermore, professors are usually perfectly willing to entertain questions, either during or after their lectures, and to stop and clarify points that a class is clearly having difficult grasping.

The stereotype of the boring old professor droning on certainly does exist, but I would wager that it’s a far less common phenomenon than it’s usually made out to be – especially at places like Stanford.

This description is thus in many ways a caricature, a straw man argument designed to induce distaste for the traditional. When you consider that Stanford is arguably more of an incubator for future Silicon Valley techies than a university, that is hardly surprising; in this case, however, you’re likely to find identical rhetoric espoused at pretty much every other elementary school, middle school, high school, and university in the United States.

Also, to make what should be an obvious point, it is entirely possible for students to be passive while working in groups – they simply sit back and let their more motivated classmates do the work, regardless of whether the teacher assigns roles. 

Partner-based work is no guarantee either. A truly unmotivated student who is assigned to work in pairs may simply spend time distracting his or her partner. (Granted, such students are unlikely to attend Stanford, but still.)

To be very clear about this, I am not arguing for a return to a time when college consisted exclusively of lectures and memorization, nor am I suggesting that professors should not make use of a variety of pedagogical techniques as necessary and appropriate.

Rather, my beef is with current assumptions about just what constitutes passive vs. active learning, and about how those assumptions can cause effective forms of pedagogy to be both misunderstood and dismissed.

Consider, for example, the traditional lecture-note taking model – the version that involves writing notes by hand rather than typing them. Because I attended high school in the pre-ubiquitous laptop days of the 1990s, I have a good deal of experience with that phenomenon. 

Now, taking notes by hand as teacher lectures is typically held up as the epitome of student passivity, but in my experience, it actually demands a type of active engagement that is greatly minimized when students write on a computer.

Because there is no way to write fast enough to transcribe a lecture verbatim, note-taking by hand is an act that requires constant negotiation. It is necessary to decide which points are important enough to be written down and how they should be organized (headers, titles, roman numerals, etc.), and to summarize and condense them clearly while still retaining the essential ideas. These are sophisticated skills, which need to be taught as well, and they require students to consistently and actively apply their individual discretion and judgment.

When I was required to write huge amounts of notes, for example, I developed my own shorthand. I abbreviated constantly, and drew arrows and symbols. Although I thought nothing of these types of shortcuts at the time, having relied on them largely out of necessity, I suspect they are crucial to developing the ability to move easily between concrete and abstract.

A decade later, when I began tutoring SAT reading, I was baffled by the extent to which my students struggled with these skills, as well as by their persistent refusal to write things down. As I compared my own decidedly low-tech high school experience with their technology-flooded one, I slowly began to piece together the reason behind their difficulties. Now, I am increasingly disturbed by the emphasis on rapid group- and technology-based tasks that merely appear sophisticated at the expense of ones that actually build they type of foundation that ultimately allows more for sophisticated work.

Beyond that, it is shortsighted to assume that the note-taking process automatically precludes engagement with the actual content of a lecture. To argue otherwise is effectively to suggest that it impossible to listen and think simultaneously! People are not automatons – assuming they have some level of interest in the subject and are competent note-takers, most of them will spontaneously make connections between what they are hearing to things they have learned before; indicate questions and points of confusion; and mark ideas that are particularly interesting or important. This is in fact a type of dialogue; it just happens to be occurring in writing rather than speaking on one end.

Another feature of this type of learning that is often overlooked is the time scale on which it occurs. Students have weeks or even months to review, absorb, ponder, and formulate responses, in a self-directed way. This stands in sharp contrast to the immediate – and often superficial – responses that typical group work tends to encourage.

It seems to me also there is a performative aspect to the whole idea of “active learning,” one that I find vaguely disturbing. Students are expected to demonstrate – to make a show of – the fact that they are learning, in a very obvious visual way. The overt expression of excitement and happiness is taken as evidence that true learning is occurring. The underlying assumption seems to be that learning only exists if it can be directly and easily observed, and if it corresponds to the correct emotions. I suspect that this is related to the current obsession with measuring and quantifying, and to the value placed on instant feedback; processes that do not provide immediate results are inherently suspect. I also suspect it reflects the relentless American focus on happiness. People, even children, who do not convey outward positivity are suspect. 

A student who is merely sitting and thinking is assumed not be doing much of anything at all. In contrast, one who weighs in vociferously on a subject about which he or she is largely ignorant is more likely than not to draw praise.

Learning, of course, does not always take place a showy way. Rather, it can be a bumpy, unpredictable, idiosyncratic process. It occurs in fits and starts, sometimes in the company of others and other times in solitude. A student may struggle with a concept for months, then suddenly find that it mysterious “clicks” months later for no apparent reason. A system built around instant feedback completely ignores that fact.

The result of all this emphasis on constantly “proving” that one is learning is a system that prizes superficiality over substance, quantity over quality, and confidence over humility. (Indeed, studies have found that although American students are middling academically compared to their peers internationally, they are consistently tops in confidence.)

There is also a striking obliviousness to the motivations of more reticent students. I recently came across an article on the NPR website that captures this phenomenon in a manner so pitch-perfect it almost lapses into parody. It cites one expert who suggests that to accommodate quieter members of a class, teachers should allow students to “walk around the room, writing ideas on tacked-up pieces of paper. They can respond to each other’s ideas — like a sort of silent dialogue.”

This is active learning reduced to its most absurd extreme. The notion that some students might simply be more interested in listening to a knowledgeable adult explain things, or in puzzling things out on their own, is not even entertained. It is as if any physical activity, no matter how ridiculous, must be posited as an alternative preferable to having teachers talk and students listen.

And then there’s this. Discussing why some students are quiet, Erica Corbin, Director of Community Life and Diversity at Manhattan’s über-elite Chapin School has this to say:

Personality might be some of it,” she explains, “and we also might have kids who are quiet because they have been shut down. We might have kids that are quiet because they anticipate being shut down whether they have been or not.

Shutting down for all kinds of reasons, she adds. Stereotypes. Biases. Trouble at home: “When we’re thinking about students who are quiet, how does that also connect with their race … their gender … their sexuality?”

Newsflash: students who do not feel compelled to constantly voice their opinions in class might remain quiet for intellectual rather than emotional reasons. They might, for example, want to sit back and gather the facts before passing judgment. But that possibility is not even acknowledged.

Also overlooked in this oh-so-trendy discussion of victimhood is the possibility that students who are genuinely traumatized, or who come from chaotic home environments, are likely to benefit from having a stable, competent adult present information in a clear and structured manner. The last thing a student in that situation needs is a classroom resembling a three-ring circus. As the product of a not-quite-stable home, I can state that it was a profound relief to be able to just sit in a chair and write, knowing that an adult was in charge and that it was ok to let someone know more than me.

Although it may surprise readers of this blog who are accustomed to hearing my unrestrained opinions, I tend to refrain from commenting on a topic until I’ve gathered enough information to weigh in. Before then, I’m more likely to spend some time hanging out in the background, reading and observing, familiarizing myself with the major arguments and players, and parsing the rhetoric of the standard talking points. Only after doing these things do I begin to figure out just where I stand.

I’ve been this way for much of my life. I was not terribly talkative in class during high school, not because I was shy (something I’ve never been) but because I recognized that I didn’t really know enough to say anything particularly insightful. I realize that many people would nowadays interpret this as a sign of low self esteem, but it was a deliberate decision on my part: I was fully aware that there was a lot I didn’t know, and I wasn’t going to run my mouth off just for the sake of a participation grade. And the truth is that when I was 16, my thoughts were not notably interesting or original.

All the while, though, I was listening intently and absorbing and contemplating. The things I learned have remained in my head for years; I still regularly think about some of the questions my teachers posed (is it better to do a good thing for a bad reason, or a bad thing for a good reason? why are some people compelled to consciously act against their own self-interest?). And when I did finally begin to voice my opinions publicly – after college (where I did start to speak in class); after living in two foreign countries and attending school in one; after working with dozens of students ranging from Florida homeschoolers to Park Avenue penthouse dwellers – I really and truly had something to say.

1 Response

  1. Kim

    A close friend of mine used to put her baby down when she was fussy and say, “I’ll let you be with your own thoughts for a bit.” I was a more anxious mother and had a hard time letting my daughter fuss. But somehow the idea of letting her be with her own “thoughts” seemed reasonable and healthy to me and allowed me to put her down to settle herself at the end of a long day. I soon learned she was able to settle herself down better and faster than any walking or holding or rocking by me. It seems my generation of parents (my daughter goes off to college this fall) are just as enthusiastic about “active parenting” as schools are about “active learning.” We seem to be afraid to allow our kids to be with their own thoughts and ideas, or to allow them to struggle, to sooth themselves, sort things out for themselves, or just think. And if we rob them of this, how will they ever learn about themselves? Will everyone need a psychiatrist to “actively” teach them who they are? Contemplation is a fundamental and spiritual human necessity. Progressive education should acknowledge and respect it as the foundation of a productive and happy life.

Leave a Reply