21st Century education highlights the importance of active learning over passive learning. An active approach to learning involves learning by doing rather than sitting, listening and repeating. It highlights the importance of social interaction, discovery, play and trial-and-error for learning and development.
Examples of active learning include:
- Learning through Play
- Role Play
- Group Projects
- Peer Teaching
- A Kinesthetic Approach
- Grab Bags
- Phenomenon Based Learning
- Inquiry Based Learning
- Discovery Learning
- Challenge Based Learning
- Game Based Learning
- Guided Practice
What is Active Learning?
Active learning is an approach to education that encourages children to learn through hands-on physical scenarios. It encourages children to learn through trial, error and discovery rather than rote memorization. It has its basis in Piaget’s constructivist theory of learning which emphasizes ‘constructing’ knowledge rather than ‘absorbing’ information.
Examples of Active Learning
1. Learning through Play
Play-based learning is a popular pedagogy for early years educators. It involves using hands-on, fun, and interactive experiences to stimulate cognitive development. When children learn through play, they can be engaged more willingly and in a more sustained way than if they learn passively. A play-based approach is embraced by theories such as Montessori, Steiner-Waldorf, Reggio Emilia and Froebel’s theory.
2. Role Play
Role play involves taking on different personas during a lesson in order to view things from various perspectives. It encourages critical and non-egotistical thinking, which may lead to increased empathy and seeing issues from a more holistic angle. Children engage in role play during the ‘symbolic’ stage of play, but it remains an active approach that teachers employ in all levels of education.
3. Science Experiments
Science experiments help students to actually see the theoretical ideas we talk about like gravity, magnetism and cell structure.
Consider an experiment like using iron filings to visually show the traces of magnetic fields (see this great magnetic experiments kit on Amazon), using microscopes to examine cells, or setting off a rocket to explore stored potential energy.
Debates help students see things from multiple perspectives, use logic to defend their positions, and improve their public speaking skills. Teachers can split their class into two groups and ask them to take one perspective each, or get small groups to debate various different topics while the rest of the class observes and judges the winners.
5. Collaborative Learning
Group projects get students working together to solve problems. They force students to discuss issues, consider each others’ perspectives, and construct knowledge together to come to share agreements on how to go about projects. In particular, in the collaborative learning approach, students must take on an ‘active’ rather than ‘passive’ orientation to learning as students are responsible for developing shared knowledge.
Think-Pair-Share is a teaching strategy that asks students to start thinking about something alone. Then, students turn to the person next to them and discuss the issue as a pair. The pairs can change their minds or learn from each other to refine their thoughts. Then, students get into larger groups (or a whole class group) to ‘share’ their ideas with the whole class to stimulate further thinking.
7. A Kinesthetic Approach
Many theories of learning modalities hold that some students are kinesthetic learners. A kinesthetic learner will learn best through using their body in the learning process. This can include learning through gross motor movements (sports, for example), tactile experiences (e.g. touching something and feeling its features), or by ensuring they are exerting excess energy whenever possible.
8. Grab Bags
A grab bag is a great way to get students thinking and learning actively. Students are required to put their hands into an opaque bag (such as a canvas bag) and feel the item within the bag. They need to describe the item and guess what it is simply based on what they feel. It stimulated learning through tactile methods and encourages thinking skills to try to solve the mystery. Invite each student one at a time to come up and feel the item, then encourage them to share their thoughts on what it is that’s in the bag.
9. Phenomenon Based Learning
Phenomenon based learning is a 21st Century teaching method that originated in Finland. The approach emphasizes choosing a phenomenon to study rather than a ‘subject’ (such as mathematics, literacy, science, history, etc.). When students choose a phenomenon they are required to study it from multiple different disciplines and perspectives by conducting research into it in groups and reporting their findings to the class.
10. Inquiry Based Learning
An inquiry based learning approach involves conducting scientific or systematic investigations into a topic under analysis. Students don’t sit-listen-observe, but rather go about following procedures to generate data about a topic. I like to use IBL with phenomenon based learning, where my students choose a phenomenon and we work in small groups to conduct inquiries into the chosen phenomenon.
11. Citizenship Education
Proponents of children’s citizenship argue that children should be considered full, active participants in society. This approach highlights that students of all ages need the right to have their voices and perspectives heard and respected by teachers and the school. It encourages speaking up, acting to contribute to school improvement, and taking votes on important matters affecting their lives.
12. Place Based Education
Place Based Education is an approach to environmental education that reinforces the importance of taking action in the local community to learn. Students find an area of need in their local community and work to improve that aspect of the community. It could involve volunteering, helping regenerate a natural environment, preserving heritage, and beautifying the city. It emphasizes the importance of learning that has tangible benefits for people in your life.
Gamification involves turning regular lessons into games by incorporating elements of gameplay. This can include turning a boring lesson into a competition, winning points for answering questions correctly, ‘levelling up’ such as gaining a new rank or privilege after achieving a skill, or creating a ‘crack the code’ lesson. These examples of gamification make students more active and engaged learners by inserting fun and activity into lessons.
14. Game Based Learning
Game based learning involves using games to learn. Gamification involves incorporating ‘elements of games’ while game based learning brings whole games like dominoes (for math), Sim City (for city planning), Monopoly (for money management) and so on into a lesson. The game’s premise needs to overlap with your intended lesson outcomes.
15. Guided Practice
Guided practice involves the teacher gradually releasing responsibility to students. It starts with the teacher modelling a task, then having the students do the task with the teacher, then finally has the students doing the task independently. In this approach, the lesson starts with a traditional passive learning approach, and concludes with active learning after the students have built foundation knowledge and confidence.
16. Education for Sustainable Development
Education for Sustainable Development involves teaching about environmental sustainability through getting students to take action in their own lives. Students are asked to assess their own consumer behaviors and take action to become more environmentally responsible. This can include conducting ‘biodiversity audits’ and regenerating local ecosystems for flora and fauna, or auditing their own consumption and trying to reduce it week-on-week.
17. Situated Learning
Situated learning theory believes that students learn best while participating as apprentice in workforce-like environments. Students are placed within the environment and start as peripheral participants, observing and asking questions. As they develop confidence and competence, they gradually become more and more integrated into the setting until they are integral participants in the workforce.
18. Peer Teaching
Peer teaching is an approach to education where a student who is more advanced on a topic mentors a less advanced student. This approach is beneficial for both the advanced and apprentice learner. The advanced learner needs to refine their knowledge and structure it in a presentable way, while the apprentice learner gets to learn from a ‘more knowledgeable other’ in the classroom.
Active learning is increasingly understood to be the best approach to education. Since the rise of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory and Piaget’s constructivist theory, education theorists have argued it as a way to help students develop deep knowledge, learn in contextually appropriate ways, and apply their learning in ways that are meaningful to their lives.
There is also an argument to be made for the ‘enjoyment’ factor of active lessons which may engage and motivate students for longer (Hyun, Ediger & Lee, 2017), giving them more engaged learning time than ‘boring’ passive approaches.
References and Further Reading
Bartholomew, J. B., Jowers, E. M., Roberts, G., Fall, A. M., Errisuriz, V. L., & Vaughn, S. (2018). AL increases children’s physical activity across demographic subgroups. Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, 3(1): 1.
Hyun, J., Ediger, R., & Lee, D. (2017). Students’ Satisfaction on Their Learning Process in AL and Traditional Classrooms. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 29(1), 108-118.
Johnson, R. T., & Johnson, D. W. (2008). AL: Cooperation in the classroom. The annual report of educational psychology in Japan, 47, 29-30.
Ramirez-Loaiza, M. E., Sharma, M., Kumar, G., & Bilgic, M. (2017). AL: an empirical study of common baselines. Data mining and knowledge discovery, 31(2): 287-313.
Settles, B. (2009). Active learning literature survey. University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Computer Sciences. Retrieved from: https://minds.wisconsin.edu/bitstream/handle/1793/60660/TR1648.pdf?sequence=1