One of the things I am trying to draw some conclusions on is what is involved in making a transition to active learning pedagogy and what that actually means for the academic. I will split this post into several parts. Here’s part 1.
I am writing this having spent two full-on days delivering active learning sessions to a group of 15 people. So it is with that in mind, that I am reflecting. It reminds me of what is involved in preparing and orchestrating active provision. It is salient, therefore, for me to look at a shift in my energy usage and the demands I put on the group. And I do mean energy rather than just effort.
Where is the active learning practitioner’s energy used?
First, let’s just note that making any transition requires mental and physical energy – change itself involves a mental shift of re-orientating oneself and establishing new ways of thinking and doing. A change can spark emotions of exhilaration or resistance, but whatever the reactions, change induces what can be a psychological rollercoaster and is undoubtedly challenging. Practical changes coupled with this shift in teaching paradigm point us towards the more obvious concern: redeveloping materials so they are fit for purpose. All of those lectures once delivered and re-used now need to be reconsidered and redeveloped. I think perhaps the energy dimension to this work is often overestimated because it is an unfamiliar process and the fist challenge is to estimate the scale of what it will entail. Equally, reorganising learning spaces, timetable and online presence. But we’ll come back to these transition-specific challenges at another time.
In this post, I want to focus more on the expenditure of teaching energy and the need for the teacher and their students to recover when using active learning pedagogies.
Beyond transition, material preparation is nevertheless part of what needs to be considered in the routine of teaching for active learning. I think an active learning facilitator must continually and actively review what works and, significantly, what will work with a specific group of people given their context on a specific day. This week I led several sessions, almost back-to-back. For each one, I began by asking, “What have I done before and will it fit?” The ‘it’ comes down to that mix of strategy, content and contextualisation. The implications of this are that, while the lecturer may largely develop and come to rely upon the slide pack and some key readings, for example, it is different for the active learning facilitator because the fundamental design challenge involves the intention to shift the attention of the class from that single point of focus at the front of the room, as far as is possible.
Yes, there are some key and favourite activities the academic will deploy, but I think the ability to design and evaluate sessions and then rework them is something that requires the teacher’s continual critical attention, right through to reflecting on how well things worked and registering the implications for future practice. Active learning, I contest, is first and foremost concerned with promoting learner curiosity, and stimulating and generally engaging students individually and collectively in their learning. In other words, the primary focus is not one of delivering knowledge, but of engaging students with it. Of course, this constant monitoring and evaluation of the situation will be draining and already it is obvious the academic’s resilience and skills in pacing themselves and others is needed.
This is about the active learning academic being agile. Agility is not just a seat of the pants or tips of the toes or edge of the seat skill, it is about being prepared and up-to-date, fluent and able to confidently interject and reorientate proceedings – after all, active learning is typically authentic. Maintaining one’s currency and being up-to-date is part of this, and I would suggest you need to be on top of the literature and on top of the news as the real-world application of knowledge and the role of analogies and metaphors in communicating knowledge are useful to engagement and interjections where clarity is needed.
But the word agility also reminds us that the teacher monitors the room and the activity ready to address lulls and celebrate and share highlights that help to make the learning clear. The active learning facilitator works on the tip of her toes looking into the whites of the eyes of the individuals in the classroom constantly checking levels of engagement or disengagement and making decisions about how and when to foster the further involvement of individuals and groups.
I was running a 1 1/2 hour session on Tuesday. It was complicated and I knew I had to be clear. I believed that to do this I would start by setting out the rationale for what we were due to focus on. After all, if the participant doesn’t believe in the purpose of the session why would you engage? This turned out to be quite a dilemma for a few reasons, but including one relating to energy – my own energy to look into the whites of the eyes of each student to continually assess whether I had ‘connected’ individuals. The problem was, Tuesday followed Monday and Monday had been active enough for all of us! We later reflected on how Tuesday had begun and we concluded that we should have started the day with ‘an energiser’ – possibly something quite physical – to make us alert and ready to engage mentally.
Establishing rationales can put the teacher in quite a defensive position and even if I knew the value of the session and had communicated this as learning outcomes, it all counts as nothing if each person is not all to connect with the proceedings. Quite honestly, I think I moved into that zone of defending the rationale, so this teeing up of the session got protracted. Thankfully I had the experience to stand back, take a deep breath and acknowledge with the class that we needed to find another way into exploring the topic in hand. I did this by asking them directly about their own relationship with that topic. And because of my fluency with the topic I was then able to reposition the class on the back of a dialogue with one participant who understood our collective dilemma and was prepared to ping-pong certain questions to establish a collective problem. This, I suppose, is an example of agility. In terms of energy, however, one’s mind is working overtime to monitor the situation, to continue to try to make sense, and devise new strategies on the fly. Somehow, this is what I did – but it was tiring!
This example draws our attention to energy within the classroom as a whole. I believe the participants were always on my side, however on reflection later in the day, it was confirmed that, like me, they felt lost and to some extent anxious about whether we would rescue the situation – and the day ahead of us.
The exchange in class revealed that I had unwittingly put a barrier in their way – I had used a term that, in effect, distracted them and prevented them from cognitively progressing. Even though I introduced the term I had failed to check they were ready to move on. Further, my topic was to be addressed through use of a conceptual framework, and they reported they didn’t understand what such a thing was and why it might be useful to them.
Later, when I brought up my concluding slide, I realised that I could have used that as my opening gambit and simply said, “This is where we’re heading.” With that clarity, I could have even presented a map of how I expected to travel there. I have to do a similar session on this topic – I will review my plan!
This then, is part of my reflection on energy for active learning. Taking this teaching strategy is psychologically challenging and draining, and without the confidence that comes from experience and preparation, it can induce anxiety and confusion. The lesson, at least for me, is to be prepared (I was) but to remember to keep monitoring that all participants are safely locked into taking the journey.
Part 2 will continue this theme of looking at the energy flows associated with delivering active learning by looking more at the physical energies involved in the class.