Wednesday, October 8, 2008

On Active Learning

I'm really tired of hearing about active learning as if the phrase had meaning.

One way to deconstruct a statement is to consider its obverse. If there's such a thing as active learning, then there surely must be something called inactive learning. Let us try to construct what that might be.

The literature around active learning rarely addresses this matter directly (there's a huge literature--just Google it). Instead, advocates of so-called active learning set up dichotomies in which the "inactive" learning is cast as lecturing, usually associated with "old" or "traditional" and, very often, with "not using technology." Let us set aside for the moment the obvious fact that the dichotomy is asserted but not proved, and look at the bogeyman of "modern" teaching: the lecture.

Inactive learning entails (we must assume here, since the picture is rarely painted in detail) students sitting passively, just listening. They cannot be taking notes, for that would be an activity. They cannot be thinking or reflecting, as that is also an activity. Still less can they be raising a hand and asking a question. All those are activities. Active learning.

I will grant to the advocates: if the student is sitting like a lump on a log, devoid of thought, then that would be unfortunate. I will assert, however, that this is not inactive learning but is not learning at all.

If learning occurs, it's the result of an activity--no action on the part of the student, no learning. Period.

"Active learning" is therefore a phrase with a useless adjective. There is no distinction between active learning and inactive learning, for the latter doesn't exist. Adding "active" adds no meaning.

Stripped of the rhetorical device, what then do the advocates of "active learning" actually advocate? Two things, above all. First, collaboration (=group work). Second, use of technology and especially whatever is hot in the computer world this year.

Those who know me will know that I'm indifferent to the former and that I'm keenly interested in the latter. I love to explore the interstices between technology and pedagogy. But I do try not to confuse the two.

I'll take up collaboration in another post. For this one, I only want to urge clarity on this business of active learning. Remove the adjective and go from there. Seriously. Having students click through a Flash tutorial is no more active than is reading a book. I could make the argument that the latter actually requires a deeper and more sustained level of engagement.

There's a topic related to "active learning" that talks about "student-centered" learning. This language also prefers the word "learning" to the word "teaching" -- indeed, that literature tends to disparage teaching. I'll get to that one too.

Later, later....

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