I’ve been scratching my head about whether my blogging is active learning, using definitions that are in common parlance nowadays. On the pro side, I do produce some new or a fresh perspective on what others are talking about by making associations between disparate ideas that are out there. This part fits in with constructivist notions of learning. But the activity is almost pure introspection, especially in the pre-writing phase. Then the activity becomes a blend of introspection, research qua Web surfing via Google (and some other sources of search), dictation to myself and modest keyboarding of that dictation, one phrase at a time, as well as some immediate editing to see if it reads back as well as it sounded the first time through and to catch obvious typos, all part of the process in what I call the composition phase.
So on the con side, it is a solitary activity without social interaction. Once in a while I will write in response to a post elsewhere by a friend or colleague and then perhaps there will be a response back to that, but more often than not I’m initiating based on what I’d call “external stimuli,” for example a New York Times article or an interview on the Charlie Rose show; and clearly I don’t have a co-author with whom I negotiate the content of a post. The lack of social interaction might disqualify it as active learning in the minds of some. Indeed, when talking about learning these days we don’t seem to talk much about introspection, reflection especially as a means of metacognition about some other learning activity, yes, but introspection as a means to initiate an idea, no. For me, blogging is a lot of that. Is it active learning? I’ll let others be the judge.
A lot of what I do in my job working on relationships with others around campus and developing new initiatives I would term active learning. The principal tools are email for asynchronous communication and then face to face conversation, either in one of our offices or more likely at a coffee place. It has the feel of an ongoing conversation rather than a one shot thing and it may very well be that we have multiple distinct but interrelated threads that we deal with in any single meeting. There are some smaller workgroups that also function this way. Larger committees don’t. In large committees, if I were doing the “whip” function I would treat members as a group of individuals and then have one-on-one interactions with each individual, which is where the active learning would happen. It is very hard to do brainstorming in the larger group absent those one-on-one interactions and the discussion will go nowhere in a hurry unless it has some direction based on prior interactions with individual members.
People do have busy schedules so sometimes a conversation doesn’t conclude within a given session. But the conversation doesn’t stop because somebody has to be somewhere else. We’ll pick it up again face to face in the not too distant future and in between there will be email aimed at furthering the ideas. With people I know reasonably well, we schedule generously to not feel rushed when we do meet and because we like these conversations. So for me, active learning occurs at the coffee place, somebody’s office, while at my computer, and if the introspection part counts too then any place I do that, which is basically anywhere and everywhere when I’m by myself.
With that as background I want to consider active learning by students in the courses they take. I have never been comfortable with that notion because it is something unlike what I described above. Often, it refers to quick hitter interactions that are a break from lecture or that are used to jump start an ensemble discussion. Often the active learning ends when the bell goes off signaling the end of class. And in many of the cases of which I’m aware these active learning activities are done as a one off. In the next class the students are paired differently. I know that most of those in the profession advocate for active learning of this type, but I think there are some pernicious consequences to the approach, mainly that a student can readily come to believe that good ideas are there for the having in short order, which in turn creates a sense of impatience in the students that learning should happen quickly (and that they need not put in a lot of time to learn a lot). Indeed, once an instructor has developed that perception in the students further accommodation of the perception requires the instructor to steer away from hard problems. The pressure to meet the perception helps to make the perception self-fulfilling.
If we want our students to engage in deep learning, it seems inescapable to me that most of the active learning has to happen outside the regularly scheduled class time, in small groups that persist for a while and which interact in a manner similar to the way in which I interact in my work, and if we agree that introspection can be a part of the process then also when the students are by themselves but focusing on the issues at hand. We are now many years into supporting our approach to active learning, both on my campus and in the profession at large, but on this basic point we still haven’t reached agreement that active learning should happen this way, at least when considering active learning in the setting of regularly scheduled courses.
And it seems to me that the reasons why we have no such agreement is that the instructor can readily observe what happens during the scheduled class session but can at best only infer what happens outside of class and then make only very coarse inferences, which are based on the work that students produce and often that work itself is only measured by how students do on exams.
Much current criticism of the lecture is based on considering that in isolation, instead of viewing the lecture in conjunction with the work that students do in study groups, which is where the active learning is apt to occur. It certainly seems at least possible, and I believe my first year in graduate school functioned much this way, that the in-classroom lecture during the day serve as fodder for the introspection and the study group interaction that happens mostly in the evening. When I was in grad school the study groups formed as a grass roots thing because many of the students needed it as a survival mechanism in the classes and the rest of us who could have done ok with just the introspection wanted to hang around with our classmates for social reasons.
Let us all agree that lectures that don’t engender active learning outside of class (and while I’ve not looked at the recent results, the NSSE from a few years back indicated that at many public universities we have quite a few classes of this sort) are quite likely ineffective. But what of those that do? In other words, what if lecture is accompanied by rather serious work for the students to complete out of class, with the lecture at least in part an instrument to help the students complete the work? Does that mechanism provide for effective learning or not? If not, does the study group approach fail because group activities are structured by the students themselves rather than by the instructor and hence the students apply themselves in a manner that is not efficient to promote their own learning?
I’ve not actually seen anyone argue on this point. Rather it seems the gospel that lectures are bad pure and simple and that active learning should happen in the classroom and only in the classroom. So I find myself at odds with much of the profession, because as I said that doesn’t make sense to me.
I could readily believe an argument that said some active learning in the class is necessary because students need to learn to scaffold their arguments and discussions in a way the produces results, not gridlock. But surely we shouldn’t be under the impression that the in class work is sufficient in itself. Look at Chickering and Ehrmann’s Seven Principles. They do make sense to me. But I believe it is possible to implement them all while still having some substantial amount of lecture face to face.