Sunday, September 12, 2010

Making choices about active learning

There is one model of passive learning--the lecture. Perhaps this is one reason why even on learning-focused campuses, lectures happen everywhere.  (If you don't believe this is true walk down the halls of any classroom building, stand outside the door, and listen for whose voice you hear.)  There are many of types of active learning--service-learning, collaborative learning, case method, socratic method, simulations, problem-based learning, project-based learning, portfolio learning, internships, team-based learning, POGIL, undergraduate research, learning communities, study abroad, etc. etc. etc.  But even though there are so many approaches to active learning, few are the campuses where active learning is the default approach to learning.

Why is this?  Because active learning doesn't map well onto the cultures of most campuses.  Instead, active learning emerges as a counter-culture, and thus one that has to fight for its existence.

Among the campuses that have made major steps towards active learning, there are two approaches to the culture problem.  In the first, the campus (or a big chunk of it) prefers a particular approach to learning--case method in the Harvard Business School of example, or service-learning at CSU-MB.  In the other approach, a campus assumes that many pedagogies are better than one, and so schools allow lots of active learning pedagogies to pop up with little effort at coordination. This view is supported by the emphasis on "engagement" which suggests that because many activities lead to engagement, any activity that does deserves at least some attention. The decision to use one model or another is based in the preferences of faculty members, with limited amounts of financial and staff support for each of the approaches.

I do not believe that one approach--specialization or variety--is by definition better.  I do believe, though, that campuses need tools to map active learning in a way that allows them to make particular decisions about which pedagogies deserve campus support.  One response might be to say that a campus' mission would drive the decision.  But I have never seen a mission statement specific enough to provide any guidance on the question of which active learning pedagogies to choose.

So let me propose that a first step in selecting pedagogies would be to map active learning options on a culture matrix.  One axis should describe the campus' model of change--top-down on one end and  bottom-up on the other.  The opposite axis should describe another component of campus culture--whether campus culture prefers faculty-initiated or student-initiated learning.  In other words, the matrix looks like this:

I am not sure that these axes are the best for mapping active learning.  But at the very least, decisions about active learning ought to map onto campus culture in one way or another (after all, this is what makes lecturing so durable--it matches the default academic culture--faculty-driven learning and diffused, bottom-up change. A culture matrix like this may not make it clear which active learning pedagogies are most likely to succeed.  But it would at least indicate which have the greatest likelihood of acceptance on campus.  If your campus favors faculty-directed learning, and top-down change, then the President's passion for case method might succeed.  But if students drive learning, and a staff member is passionate about portfolios, then an electronic portfolio initiative may be the way to go.

Perhaps more importantly, a matrix like this could be a tool for faculty, staff, and students to discuss how they see approaches to active learning fitting with campus culture.  Those discussions, which almost never happen, are essential if active learning efforts are to add up to anything more than scattered efforts at improvement.


Distance education said...

Many teachers nowadays want to move past passive learning to active learning, to find better ways of engaging students in the learning process.

training education said...

It's important that every school must impose active learning. I thinks it's an effective and innovative way of learning.