The value of surprise in active learning

Last week I was out and about, doing various out-reach events for my School. One of those was going to a school in Oxford, to run a simulation game with them (this one in fact).

As the students played I noticed that one of them was making a decision tree. As I noted in my feedback, the only other group I’ve ever seen do that was the German group (post-docs and a professor) I’d visited earlier in the year. My surprise was matched only by my excitement, because this was something totally unexpected and – for me – intellectually stimulating.

I mention all this precisely to underline the value of active learning methods such as simulations: it draws knowledge and practice out of students, rather than just trying to push them in.

Non-decision trees, with metaphorical blossoming

In this case, I would have never thought to discuss decision trees with this group, and even if I had, it would have been hard to demonstrate their value in such an efficient manner. And because it comes from the student, I can show that they are capable of being active contributors to their learning, rather than it all relying on me as the teacher.

If we as teachers can become comfortable with the idea that we don’t know what’s going to happen and with the notion that we have to be shaped by our students as much as we shape them, then the embrace of active learning can be an immensely positive development. Particularly in a university setting, the flexibility of curriculum and pedagogy that we are afforded means we have great scope to explore such ideas.

Naturally, students still have to learn from somewhere, but active learning opens up the channels through which that learning can take place, in turn creating opportunities to generate innovative and creative clashes of approaches within individual students, to stimulate them to a new level of reflection and self-development.

If all this sounds rather high-order/pretentious, then think of it like this. The best way to get students to think for themselves – which I’d argue we’re all striving for – is to put them in situations where they think for themselves, with support from us. From that simple premise we can all get to experience more of those moments of surprise and learning that we all love to see.