Who’s afraid of active learning?

Low-tech, high impact (and colourful)
Low-tech, high impact (and colourful)

When I talk with colleagues who teach, but who aren’t really into teaching (if you know what I mean), there’s often a sense that the L&T crowd are out to make life difficult for them. Regardless of whether that’s true or not (as discussed last week), the image is one of ‘us’ wanting to make ‘them’ do ever more complicated things, for no good reason.

This is actually a big issue, but for now we’ll focus on some parts of it and see how we go. Within that, one issue is what I will be calling the promotion/representativeness problem*. This is just the tension between us trying to share our work and often picking out the most glamorous or extensive example, rather than the simple thing that might be of more general interest.

To give you an example, for all my work on simulations, I’ve have just as much positive feedback (and adoption, a more useful measure) of my ABC post-it note technique.

The problem is that the things we talk about – the things that we have often put a lot of time and effort into, to be sure – are not the things that colleagues might find most useful. To use a more pertinent example, I’m giving a workshop on active learning later this week and I’d like to recommend a great demonstration of this, but it’s being run by the university down the road and it certainly wouldn’t work in two places so close.

All of this is a more general issue in talking about active learning. It doesn’t have to be huge simulations, or totally re-creating a curriculum; it can be a pile of small activities, bundled in with what already happens.

Of course, the solution to this is to go all jujitsu and use weaknesses as strengths.

If we’re in the game of trying to colleagues that L&T is as important as research – which I’ll suggest is our usual tussle – then why not make the L&T look more like research?

Students-as-Researchers is not only a great handle, it can also be great work. And it doesn’t have to be about working to formal outputs, although you can do that: it can be about getting students to engage with the research process in more explicit ways. And that can start from the first semester: last year, I got my Liberal Arts & Sciences students to present a research proposal for their first piece of assessment and used that as a way to help them get into the mindset of research. The projects might not have got funding in the real world, but as a first step, it was very helpful indeed.

Maybe the way to approach all of this is to treat it as we would a class: first question is – as always – what do we want to achieve?

If we talk to colleagues and get a proper sense of what they look for students to learn, then we can offer something from our range of pedagogies and techniques that might suit them, rather than throwing out idea after idea at them in the vague hope that they spot something they like.

That’s not about jargon, and it’s not about the fanciest thing you’ve ever done, and it’s a slog, but in terms of securing lasting improvement in our collective practice, it’s probably the best way forward.


    • I’m thinking that if I dress it up a bit, then it’ll sound like something that the research-focused might consider**

** – obviously, such dressing-up is also a problem, for general accessibility

3 Replies to “Who’s afraid of active learning?”

  1. This misses the two main concerns about new teaching methods.

    First, and justifiably, teachers are worried about adopting new methods because they are afraid that they will fail and they’ll be blamed for it in their evaluations by administration. Everyone knows that student evaluations are only relevant when they aid the aims of administrators concerning certain teachers or programs. If you adopt new methods on a campus where innovation is rewarded whether it works or not, then the pressure is off and teachers can adopt what they want in an experimental fashion. But we know how that usually works: the experiments that are tried by professors or programs that are supporting administration efforts will be praised and touted whether the data says they actually work or not. As for those who aren’t in favor … well, too bad if your new approach gets a bad student evaluation or two.

    Second, and just as justifiably, most new teaching approaches have never been subjected to any empirical test. And, I might add, if the new approach isn’t one that the administration will favor, good data supporting it will not – I repeat, not – make any difference. Most administration people (and a good proportion of the academy) have no idea of how to evaluate data in the first place. Even methods with good empirical support will find it hard to make progress. Why? See the paragraph above.

    The answer to this is to disconnect new teaching approaches from anything but solid empirical evaluations of how they help students learn. It would also help if there was adequate time to develop new approaches and support for testing them. But, except at a few R1 universities, this is largely absent. Sooo … no wonder pleas for L&T research and experimentation go begging.

  2. Tracy

    Your comments are good ones, although they helpfully illustrate the need for all parties to be involved in the process: administrators need to make space for experimentation, while staff need to demonstrate value-added. As you say, that kind of positive and mutually-supportive environment is more exceptional than normal.

  3. I think your reply encapsulates the difficulty. Administrators make “make space for experimentation” and “staff need to demonstrate value-added”.

    This kind of line-based organizational thinking is the root of the problem. The “staff” you refer to are the professionals who are in charge of the core technology of the organization. They should be the ones deciding how it is used, just like automotive engineers should be designing cars. Further, it is their professional judgment that should be the main evaluative tool for educational innovations. Demonstrating “value-added”, however conceived, would be part of that, but saying that the process should be dependent on administrative decisions is counter-productive and organizationally irrational. Administrators exist in all organizations to deal with environmental inputs in such a way as to protect core technologies, not to direct the technologies. Sometimes events make this impossible and management has to butt in, but for organizations to work effectively, that should be kept to a minimum.

    But how will you insure against faculty becoming set in their ways and “becoming hide-bound”? What about “disruption”? Isn’t that a good thing? First, some personnel in every organization become set in their ways and hide-bound; it’s the nature of the beast. The professional norms in academics make this less likely there then almost anywhere else. There is no more fiercely meritocratic organization in the country. Further, the business of academics is innovation; all you have to do is look around. (At this blog, for instance, and thank you very much for that.) Second, disruption is a good idea in used car lots; it is counterproductive in educational institutions. There’s a reason why we lecture and use lab courses. The methods work for particular educational purposes. Adding active techniques is dictated by research into learning and it is that research that should lead teaching practice, not administrative fiat.

    Well, enough.

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