Why Active Learning Works – and Why Instructors Might Not Use It

Two years ago, Wakayama University asked me to come to Japan to provide a four-day professional development workshop for their professors, who taught both in English and in Japanese. The topic request? Active learning.

I wasn’t surprised: in many Asian countries, teachers at all levels often still expect students to sit quietly in their desks, listening to lectures. That’s beginning to shift as they turn towards Western teaching practices to update their own. But how to capture the essence of active learning and convince Japanese professors of its value in just four days?

I wish that I’d had access to the first four videos in MOMA’s Art and Activity online course when I was preparing that workshop. They would have saved me a lot of time. The museum educators in the videos do a fantastic job of succinctly and convincingly explaining why they use active learning in their art programs and why it can work for any subject area, at any level:

  1. When teachers ask students to do something more with the content than just listen to a lecture- draw, write, role play, talk to each other – they multiply the ways in which students can learn. Yes, our brains have a major role in processing information but so do our bodies, all five senses, and our emotions. And when we learn with others, gaining their perspectives and having our own ideas added to or challenged, we can learn even more.
  2. Active learning gives students an opportunity to relate new information to what they already know or have experienced. This allows them to see the new information as personally meaningful and more memorable than lecture-delivered facts. A powerful quote from the videos: “Meaning imposed externally will never be as meaningful, powerful, or effective as the meaning learners construct on their own.”
  3. Active learning has all kinds of important and long-lasting outcomes for students that extend beyond the classroom: “looking; wondering; being curious; asking questions; making interpretations and hypotheses based on evidence; making connections to things they already know or have experienced; considering multiple perspectives or viewpoints; delving below the surface; and forming their own conclusions.”

Pretty impressive arguments for using active learning, right? But how could I relay these powerful messages to the Japanese professors, without resorting to lectures?

I decided to make the first day of the inservice a lesson in opposites. In the morning, I facilitated active learning experiences about active learning. The professors wrote, drew, talked, and played a game. They built on what they already knew and had experienced about active learning, as students and professors. The energy in the room was charged with ideas, questions, discussion, and laughter.

In the afternoon, I took over the front of the room, lecturing from PowerPoint slides about how their existing teaching philosophies could either help or hinder their use of active learning. As my voice consumed all the available time and space, the professors began checking their phones, yawning, gazing out the window, looking at their watches. After I’d been talking for about an hour, I “allowed” them to take an online inventory about their teaching philosophies, but they had to do it individually where they were sitting, and not discuss it with their colleagues.

In our debrief of the day, I asked them how they had felt during the afternoon compared to the morning. Tired, bored, restless, inattentive, they said. Yes, the morning had passed far more quickly than the afternoon because they’d felt engaged. So, I said, considering your own students might feel the same way, could you use active learning more often in your own classrooms?

Maybe, they said. Some had already used active learning successfully. But they also mentioned stumbling blocks:

  1. Some struggled with shifting their perspectives on how students learn, from getting the facts through direct transmission to making meaning of content through activities. As students, the professors had learned by sitting and listening, and they’d rarely, if ever, experienced an instructor using active learning.
  2. They worried that active learning would mean they couldn’t get through all of their course content. Lecturing saved time, both in preparing and delivering a lesson.
  3. Some said that their students didn’t want to participate in the activities, preferring to sit and listen.
  4. FInally, and possibly at the root of the other issues, some just didn’t know how to design learning activities that would work with their content and their students.

Thankfully, I had three more days with them to address these issues. We went off to dinner that night not only with new ideas and questions, but also a more cohesive group, one of the other major benefits of an active learning approach.

1 Comment

  1. Wow! What an incredible way to really bring home the differences between active learning and the Talking head at the front of the classroom. Bravo!


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