Energy and active learning Part 2


Photo by Husna Miskandar on Unsplash

In the previous post, I discussed the emotional energy involved in teaching in an active learning paradigm. Here, I will reflect on physical exertion entailed in teaching this way.

Clearly, a lot of this comes down to the type of activity we are talking about. This also allows us to reflect on strategies we might deploy for pacing ourselves to manage our personal energies and those of our students.

Talk the talk

The first strategy I will reflect on, then, is the conversational approach I use a lot. This essentially involves positing a good question, dilemma, conundrum or situation and asking the participants to respond by sharing their knowledge, experiences or opinion. For example, this may be presented as a think, pair, share activity. I often think of this teaching role as being similar to that of the daytime television host whose job it is to stir up an audience by seeking opinion and managing a degree of turmoil! Through conversation, the aim is to think critically together and to arrive at positions of consensus or difference, but at least clarity, as a precursor to self- or group-directed learning. We could stay with the psychological dimension of this performance type role, but I want to talk about the physicality of the role.

Teaching could stay in the defensive position that involves occupying the front of the classroom. However, in my view, one of the points of taking an active learning approach is to be collaborative and make use of the collective energy and wisdom. It seems disingenuous to the stated intention of wanting to show respect for the participants as equal contributors, therefore; active learning is essentially a collaborative idea of peer learning in which participants work through thinking together in a process of knowledge co-construction. Therefore, whatever the size of the space, the active learning teacher must be positioned in and amongst the other participants. This is not simply to be close enough to have a respectful exchange, it is also symbolic of the democratisation of the active classroom. One is physically representing the notion of parity and inclusion as far as is possible.

Walk the talk

At the same time, you don’t want to linger in any one space, physically or in terms of your eye contact. Further, there is something about the teacher’s movement as representing intentionality, commitment and an expectation of exertion within the learning space; modelling and normalising interaction.

As an aside, there is an important point here for learning space design in that more floor space is needed in active classrooms for several reasons, but importantly to allow the facilitator’s easy movement around and through the room.

Physically, then, we have a picture of the teacher as being in a state of constant flux ready to move from one group to another whilst turning to establish contact with other groups checking their engagement and reticence for picking up the batten.


There is something to note here about where exactly the academic should stand as the authority figure in the room – the person with the ultimate responsibility for establishing action and keeping students on task. Being alert to one’s proximity to students is important as the teacher neither wants to intimidate them or appear to be removed from what they are saying. The host’s movement can help to manage the perception of presence.

I have discussed body language before in this blog and it is relevant to mention it again here. Part of the duty of the teacher in the space is to communicate interest and respect, and to set and model expectations for engagement. I find this need to model physical presence quite difficult and I can become hyperaware of my posture and what I am doing with my hands. Specifically, I am as nervous as the next person and I am aware that I hold my chin and cover my mouth and odd things like that. Training that I have been on suggests that standing upright with your arms by your side and your legs slightly apart is generally the default position you should adopt if you are to inspire confidence and demonstrate your openness. That’s quite difficult and takes practice. My previous post on this noted there are differences in gender preference when it comes to taking an open stance or not. Apparently, women prefer to face the person with whom they are talking, while men prefer to be less confrontational and prefer situations in which they stand in a less direct way.  I don’t know about that and I hate to generalise, but the point here is that the host or facilitator may do well to consider their posture and body language and their effect on others.

Get up, stand up!

Beyond the conversational methods, then, there are those teaching strategies in which activity involves students getting out of their chairs and involved in something more physical and perhaps less cerebral. There are so many methods here, but consider writing at whiteboards and role-play as two examples. It is at this point where energy in the classroom shows itself as students demonstrate their excitement or reticence and begin to tackle the activity they have been given.

My co-teacher from earlier this week made an important point. She said one sign of an excellent teacher is their ability to remove themselves for a while to let the activity begin. We noted how difficult this can be in reality when, in teaching mode, we feel like there is always something else worthwhile to be said. I’ve always got something to add – but sometimes you’ve just got to shut up and stand back. Removing oneself from the action and becoming the observer and supporter in the room is usually what is needed.

In this mode of student activity, the teacher and the students are on their feet and it always surprises me how tiring this can be. The physical and psychological effort together can be taxing. I think this is compounded by the levels of concentration needed in an environment when it gets quite noisy. However, it’s always interesting to look at your step counter after you have facilitated such an active session! You can walk miles wearing out the carpet. On the one hand, it really helps with your fitness, but on the other, you don’t get the fresh air that would also help your well-being!

More on energy

There are many related dimensions to thinking about energy in the active classroom. I think a post on student energy would be valuable, for example. And perhaps a post on inclusivity and the implicit, or explicit, expectations present in an active learning paradigm – who might we be excluding? Then, I think I need to look at pacing strategies.

My intention now is to have a look around and see if I can find any useful resources on managing energy as an active learning teacher. Please do let me know if you are aware of anything or if you have your own thoughts on this.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
This entry was posted in Active Learning, Co-operative pedagogy, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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