Not another simulation…

Amanda’s post last week was, as ever, bang on the nose.

All too often, ‘active learning’ becomes a synonym for ‘a negotiation exercise’: just this week I’ve stumbled across at least three more people running mock Security Councils or European Councils in their classes, all portrayed as the embodiment of connecting with the students.

At one level it makes sense: what could be a better demonstration of big, chunky active learning than a role playing exercise? But that’s also a very reductive way of looking at it.

So, rather than rehash Amanda’s points, I thought I’d try to pull together a list of other kinds of active learning that I’ve used, just to get you to think about all the kinds that you use, and that could use. Which might be useful to us all.

And with that, off we go, in not particular order:

1 – Flipping your class. Yes, you did it last year because of the You Know What, but it’s also active learning, so long as you used the space freed up by pre-recording lectures to do something interactive with the students.

2 – Any discussion format that got the students talking to each other. Technically, talking with you is also included, but let’s not dwell on that for now. If you did some snowballing, fishbowls, producing joint presentations or reports: all of that fits with the idea of making students the centre of the process, making active use of their skills and knowledge.

3 – Generating feedback from students. Yes, this is basically the previous point’s aside – students talking to you is part of this, because you’re stimulating them to participate in the creation of their learning space. Me, I use post-its or a Google Form, but building a joint enterprise where they can see how they shape what happens is perhaps the most engaging process we can mobilise.

4 – Getting out of the classroom. I’ve run fieldtrips within my two-hour teaching block, visiting town or sending students out to collect data. I’ve had them stand on the playing field, sometimes in blindfolds. I’ve sat in the corridor while they work out what’s going on. Much of it could have been done within the space of the class, but breaking out of the walls is a very easy route to disrupting the passive transmission model.

5 – Letting students fail. Not in grades particularly, but in tasks. Setting them a task that’s potentially impossible can be a stimulus to reflection and a motivation to address that, but so too is there value in setting a reasonable task but giving them ownership. Not infrequently, they do not make the most of it – especially if it’s something long-term – but that’s still a means to generate their critical reflection on their own actions.

6 – Not filling in all the gaps. Over the years, I’ve spent much time teaching about simulations and saying that you should try to scope any possible failures of gameplay beforehand, just so you’re covered. But it would be more correct to say that this doesn’t mean you have to make something that covers all the bases: indeed, by keeping your instructions as parsimonious as possible, you empower students to develop from there and create something they have more ownership of. And that’s true for all these activities, not just your model UN.

7 – Listen. Ultimately, all of the above is about engaging with your students and responding to them. Too often we treat them as passive units to be managed, rather than individuals with agency and ideas. So if you don’t do any of the rest, do at least listen to, and hear, what your students say and take it on board. From that, all the rest of active learning follows.

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