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Moving from Passive to Active Learning: Four Ways to Overcome Student Resistance

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By James Salsich, 8th grade Language Arts Teacher at Plainfield Central School in Plainfield, Connecticut

During my career, I have at times struggled with the effectiveness of active learning in my classroom. But after reflecting and planning over the summer, I have always returned to school convinced more than ever of the dire need for our students to claim ownership of their learning. They deserve it, and with a national dropout rate of 16 percent with even higher numbers of students giving up on school internally, it's a necessity.

Active learning is student-driven, teaches students how to learn in collaboration with their peers, and asks teachers to give some portion of the authority that has traditionally been theirs over to students. Students, on the other hand, take increased ownership for the direction and progress of their learning.

However, when we take a step toward this student-centered approach to teaching, we must first help our students to unlearn some problematic ideas. When we ask our students to adapt to a more complex, self-directed, self-regulated approach, we are often going against their very beliefs about how people learn. It is a process that is most successful when implemented gradually and purposefully.

I offer these solutions to the four most significant barriers to a transition from passive to active learning:

Active learning means there is more than one right answer

Passive learning is based on the belief that there are only two sides to any issue: ideas are either right or wrong, and the teachers know which is which. Students come to class with expectations of the role of their teachers and their role as students.

Creating a class culture where multiple solutions are valued takes time. Socratic seminars and discussions on student-generated topics are highly effective ways to foster an appreciation of many different points of view. Look for talkative student leaders during a Socratic seminar, and for the next session ask them to listen and look for opportunities to pause the discussion and allow others to join in. 

Active learning is too risky

When we ask students to be active learners in a class, we're asking them to take risks. This is uncomfortable for some kids and new to most. You may find that they are very reluctant to jump into discussions and group work, especially if there is no single, obvious answer to be found. You can reduce their risk-aversion by:

  • Assessing the process of learning more than the product, or at least use a 50/50 split. Use a rubric that values problem-solving, planning, and resilience during most activities, especially at first. I use this rubric to measure and to provide feedback on the process of learning.
  • Create a safe environment where failure is just another opportunity to try again and improve. We can convey this in how everyone reacts to responses during active learning. We value their effort over their output. Teach them to listen, accept, process and modify other students' ideas.
  • Model what it means to be an active learner, including taking the risk of making mistakes. This includes changing course mid-class, identifying more effective ways to facilitate learning at the moment, and incorporating new ideas. All of this needs to be made transparent to your students. Explain what you are doing and why.  

Active learning doesn't feel like learning

Active learning is often a deeply satisfying way to learn. Instead of a linear movement through the curriculum, active learning focuses on where the students are in their learning experience, allowing them to grow through self-directed challenges that are difficult, but not overwhelming. It's a sweet spot that's considered fun by many students. However, kids don't often equate fun with real learning, in large part because traditional schooling has explicitly taught them that school must be rigid and monotonous in order to prepare them for the hard work of life. 

So, if your students seem to believe that the active learning in your classroom is less effective than traditional learning, they could lose motivation, and generally, this perception can undermine your chances of successfully moving to active learning.

Have students create and update portfolios to help them to see how much work has been done, and its level of quality. They should keep drafts of letters, research and essays, group work notes, emails sent and received, and they should take pictures of physical work, such as board games, experiments, fundraisers, etc. I have experimented with digital portfolios over many years, and for me, this simple document format is by far the most effective and enjoyable for students.

Active learning requires a different kind of effort

Getting students to shift from sitting and listening to talking to each other, completing multiple iterations of work and finding effective solutions can be a difficult transition. Passive learning asks kids to perform low-level thinking such as defining, duplicating, listing, memorizing, repeating or reproducing. Successfully introducing students to activities such as analysis, synthesis, evaluation, construction, and design requires a plan.

  • Prioritize your standards. This is ambitious work, but the payoff is enormous. I start by prioritizing my state's reading, writing, speaking and listening standards according to the value they offer towards creating an active learning environment. Kids can best learn what a theme is through a discussion, but they need to know how to discuss, listen, and speak to each other first.
  • Reduce the number of assessments given, provide detailed narrative feedback for improvement, and require drafts for everything. If no feedback is provided, eliminate the task. Make it clear to students that your focus is on quality, not quantity.

If you feel that the traditional, passive model of learning isn't working for you or your students, you're not alone. But taking that first step can be intimidating. Start small and focus on one or all of these obstacles bit by bit. Going against the accepted ways of teaching can be formidable, but it is reassuring to know that giving students power over the direction of their learning isn't a new idea. In fact, it goes back to the earliest roots of education in this country. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay "Education": "I believe that our own experience instructs us that the secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. . .he only holds the key to his own secret."

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