Saturday, June 11, 2016

Active Learning: It's Authentic, Relevant, and Personal All Year Long

It's beginning to look a lot like the end of the school year.  The state assessments have been taken, the final benchmarks are being completed, and almost every classroom has students busily "doing project-based learning" as a reward for all the hard work they have done all year long, ending the year on a fun note.
You might be wondering why I put "doing project-based learning" in quotes.  It's because that's what I'm hearing from both my colleagues who have been directed by their site administrators to "do project-based learning" as their final activity for the end of the school year.  The justification or reason, according to the principal, is "because these kids deserve it after all the work they did to prepare for the state tests and all the benchmarks they took".  In other words, reward them those last 20-30 days for all that teaching and test prep they were presented and provided over the past 150-160.
I even heard from my own daughters that they are "doing project-based learning" in their classroom.  My middle school daughter is "doing project-based learning" in all her classes.  For example, in social studies, she's completing a PowerPoint timeline on significant events and people during the 1920s.   In math, she's using geography to design a city.  My 4th grade daughter just did a PowerPoint project on a tiger.  When I asked them why they are doing these projects, their response was the same: "The teachers said they wanted to end the year with something fun."
A few of my teacher friends have approached me over the last couple of weeks asking, "What kind of fun project-based learning can I do between now and the last day of school?"  When I ask why do they want to "do project-based learning", they share with me the reward directive, the fun excuse, or even the explanation that, "My kids are just burnt out and done after all the teaching, the testing, and everything else."
Then I'd clarify, "So you want to 'do project-based learning'  just to keep them busy between now and the end of the year?"
Some of my teacher friends will admit without any hesitation that's why they want to "do project-based learning".  They are looking for something that will keep the kids preoccupied between now and the last day of school.  Others will justify their reasoning by saying that the kids deserve to "do project-based learning" after all the arduous work they had to do prepping for the state test.
When they say the kids deserve to "do project-based learning", I tell them I agree.  However, I would then reiterate that they deserve to experience not only project-based learning but also problem-based, inquiry-based, expeditionary, and service learning all year long!
These active learning experiences should not be a reward students receive at the end of the year.  They should be provided throughout the school year either quarterly or even on a unit-by-unit basis.  Every unit or quarter should culminate with an active learning experience such as project-based, inquiry-based, problem-based, expeditionary, or service learning that engages and encourages students to transfer and use what they have learned in different academic and real world contexts.
Unfortunately, the real problem with active learning is how these strategies have been perceived and portrayed - fun,  rewarding, busy.   The more appropriate descriptors for active learning strategies such as project-based learning should be ersonal, and relevant.   That's it's true purpose - to be an authentic experience that reflects and represents how students will personally address and respond to ideas, information, texts and topics that are relevant.  They should challenge and engage students not only know and understand but also develop deeper appreciation and awareness  of the importance, value, and worth of the concepts, content, and procedures they are learning.
They are also described as something that is to be done -- such as we are doing project-based learning or doing problem-based learning.   The activities involved in these practices are not something to be done.  They are meant to be experiences that in which students learn how to transfer and use the knowledge and thinking they have acquired and developed not only accurately but also acceptably, appropriately, and authentically.   For example, students will develop deeper appreciation and awareness of the importance of learning the Pythagorean Theorem if they were presented with a role-playing scenario in which they had to use the theorem to determine where to position the fire truck ladder to save people in a burning building.  They can also develop a deeper appreciation and awareness of an author's craft or the ideas and themes expressed in a text if they were engaged to produce their own original text that emulates the author's style or addresses the central idea or themes addressed in a text.  For example, we can engage students to develop deeper appreciation and awareness of the theme of friendship by having students read Charlotte's Web by E.B. White and also write and produce their own original narrative that addresses and explores the friendship of individuals who are very different from each other.
Most importantly, active learning experiences truly engage and encourage students to remember what they are learning.  Remembering in education is not about recalling the facts, information, methods, and process being taught.  Students remember the experience in which they learned the concepts, content, and procedures.  Think about it.  What classroom experiences do you remember from your own education?  Do you remember the day you did that worksheet that taught you how to compare fractions?  Do you remember that particular spelling test in which you learned how to spell chrysanthemum?  Do you remember that homework assignment with the questions you had to answer at the end of the book?  Or, do you remember that classroom experience in which you truly developed deeper appreciation and awareness of a text or topic because your teacher had you demonstrate and communicate your learning through creative design (project-based learning), research and investigate the subject (inquiry-based learning), use what you have learned to address a problem (problem-based learning) in the world at large (expeditionary learning) or within your community (service learning)?
Active learning, however, can be daunting and overwhelming for both our students and us teachers.   That's why I suggest keep active learning simple initially.  Assign one active learning experience per semester to familiarize yourself and your students with the experience.   You could also follow these steps:
1. Start with inquiry-based learning experiences that prompt students to think deeply and express and share the depth and extent of their knowledge.  Through this experience, students will learn how to address and respond to questions not only accurately but also acceptably, appropriately, and authentically using some form of oral, written, creative, or technical expression.  Use the Cognitive Rigor Questions Framework I feature in my book Now THAT'S a Good Question!  (ASCD, 2016) to help you rephrase the performance objectives of academic standards into good questions that will set the instructional focus and serve as assessments for units and their individual lessons.
2. Provide a project-based learning experience that encourages students to address a driving essential question that asks what can you design / develop / do, how could / would you, or what do you believe / feel / think.  Don't have the students all do the same project.  Provide them the opportunity to choose how they will demonstrate and communicate the depth and extent of their learning.  You can use the Multiple Intelligence Activity Grid I created to engage and encourage students to show and tell the depth and extent of their learning using their innate talents.
3. Present a problem-based learning experience that has students use what they have learned to determine whether a problem can be solved or can it only be addressed, handled, settled, resolved - or even avoided.  Use this Problem-Based Learning Table I developed based on Jonassen's Typology of Problems (2008) to help you present different kinds of problems that resemble the ones students will experience in their professional and personal lives.
4. Expand students' awareness and appreciation of what they are learning by involving them in an expeditionary learning experience that engages them to use the academic concepts and procedures they are learning in a real world setting.  Extend the experience by having students use what they are learning to address and respond to an issue, problem, situation, or topic in their community - globally, nationally, statewide, locally, or even within the school - through a service learning  experience. 
This is what should be occurring in our classroom ALL YEAR LONG - not just as the end.   This is the educational experience our students should be receiving.  This is the learning environment in which your students should be developing and demonstrating not only their knowledge and thinking but also their skills and talent.  Don't reward our students for all their hard work all year by providing them with a fun task that will keep them busy until the last day of school.  Make active learning the engaging educational experience that will not only help our students develop deeper knowledge and thinking but also deeper appreciation and awareness of what they are learning.
Also, watch and witness how deeply your students will learn and how well they will perform on the state standardized assessments and school benchmarks if you provide students with active learning experiences that are authentic, personal, and relevant all year long.

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