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Three cheers for inactive learning!

When I talk to students about the types of lessons they enjoy, they invariably mention lessons where they are ‘active’. For them, active means playing sport in P/E, or acting in Drama, or doing an experiment in Science, or making something in D&T, etc. Dig further, and what they mean by active learning is that they are physically active. Not sitting down. Not writing. Doing something. Anything, so long as it’s not sitting down. And, in fairness, I can see why this is – after all, teachers choose to spend much of their day on their feet, moving around, supporting, encouraging, nudging, intervening (and interfering!) with learning. While students get to spend much of their time sitting down on chairs that were not really designed to be comfortable. Compare, for one moment, the teacher’s chair with the student’s chair – the former relatively comfortable but usually empty, the latter hard and invariably full! Go figure!!

It is a short step for students to enjoy subjects just because they offer physical activity, while coming to dislike subjects that do not – because P/E usually involves physical activity, it must be active and, therefore, enjoyable. To equate being physically active with active learning is a dangerous line of thinking, as it leads to unfortunate conclusions. Conclusions like ‘if I am active I must be learning’, and its corollary ‘if I am not active, I am not learning’. This is a narrow view of active learning. Boys doing play fighting in drama (it is a recurring theme in my lesson observations in drama!) may be active, but are they really learning? Put another way, active may not necessarily imply learning, and inactive may not necessarily imply not learning!

It comes down to the distinction between inactive and passive, where inactive is more about not being physically active, whereas passive is about not being cognitively active. Listening to an expert (the teacher), or watching a video (seeing and listening to another expert), or taking down notes (copying the thoughts of experts) are examples of passive learning. No need to think critically, just take it in and try to memorise it. On a good day, downhill, with a following wind, the lucky recipient of such passive learning will be perfectly positioned to remember and repeat this information. On a bad day, they won’t even be able to do that. But in either case, they will not have engaged in any meaningful way, with the subject at hand. I guess it is like being a spectator of teaching rather than a participant in learning.

So, what is active learning when it is not physically active? Or, as I call it, inactive learning. Such learning requires that students:

  • Do something
  • Review how well they have done it
  • Extract meaning from what they have done
  • Apply what they have found out

For example, in English it could be ‘draft a paragraph, try it out on someone else, consider their feedback, redraft and publish’. In Maths it could be ‘solve a problem, review strategies used, compare effectiveness, apply a refined strategy to next problem’. In the humanities, ‘interrogate source material, identify differing points of view, synthesise what has been discovered, consider what this might mean in another context’.

In other words, active learning does not necessarily require students to be physically active, but it does require them to be cognitively active. It requires students to be actively engaged with the materials, concepts, ideas, and to make sense of them for themselves. It is a first-hand experience that nobody else, not even the most talented teacher, can do for the learner!

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