Engage Students in Active Learning
The educational reform agenda and educational researchers tell us that active engagement in learning is an important goal for our students. Can it really occur? How do teachers engage students in active learning?
And, just as importantly, how do teachelresa rn to help students become actively involved in learning?
The National Center for Research on Teacher Learning (NCRTL)* focuses its research on teacher learning in order to understand how teachelresa rn to teach subject matter in ways that actively engage students in learning. For centuries educators assumed that student learning consisted of rote memorization of new knowledge--students listened to lectures and read books, their progress measured by their ability to recite what they had heard and read. But research in the past 20 years demonstrates that another form of learning is also important--the learning that occurs when instruction is inquiry-oriented, encouraging learners to actively think about and try out new ideas in light of their prior knowledge, to personally transform the knowledge for their own use, and to apply it in other situations. This shift in understanding a new form of learning has triggered an important new direction tfeoarc her learning.
*The National Center for Research on Teacher Learning (NCRTL) was founded at Michigan State University's College of Education in 1985 with a grant from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), United States Department of Education. Originally named the National Center for Research on Teacher Education (NCRTE), in its first five years the Center examined various approaches to teacher education, including preservice, inservice, alternative route, and induction programs, with the goal of furthering knowledge and understanding of the purpose of teacher education, the character and quality of teacher education, and the role of teacher education in teacher learning. This longitudinal research, known as the Teacher Education and Learning to Teach (TELT) Study, forms the foundation for current NCRTL projects.
The Center was renamed in 1991 with new funding from OERI, reflecting the shift in emphasis to teacher learning and the desire to provide leadership in defining this new area of research. The work of the NCRTL is guided by both internal and national advisory boards.
Why is teaching for active engagement in learning important?
In response to criticisms of K-12 education and the education of teachers, educational reformers advocate a kind of classroom discourse that promotes the active engagement with ideas that can lead students to make knowledge their own. Mere regurgitation of facts and figures, without a deep rooting in the reasoning behind such information, is not sufficient for in-depth understanding. Educational reformers want students to learn how to pose questions, construct their own interpretations and ideas, and clarify and elaborate upon the ideas of others. Such skills empower students to acquire a level of understanding that provides them with the flexibility to respond to new situations and serves as the foundation for a lifetime of further learning. Calls for reform in education have come from many directions, notably from business, where there is a growing demand for employees who can be more intellectually engaged in their work while working more effectively with others, setting group goals and planning how best to reach them; allocating and accepting responsibilities; identifying and solving problems--including interpersonal difficulties--as they arise; acquiring skills and information as they need them; and critically reflecting on their own individual and collaborative performance. Educational reformers believe that teaching for active engagement in learning provides students with many of these skills and dispositions that prepare them to competently meet the challenges and changes occurring in the work place.
What are the goals of teaching for active engagement in learning?
One goal of this kind of teaching is to focus classroom activities on reasoning and the evaluation of evidence, thus allowing students the opportunity to develop the ability to formulate and solve problems. Another is to empower students, when confronted with a difficulty, to offer conjectures about just what the problem is and how it might best be approached. A final goal is to enable students to clarify and expand on ideas; to demand, as well as to provide, supporting evidence or reasons for comments and opinions; and to determine whether or not an argument is reasonable and a conclusion well-founded. Each of these goals requires that students talk with one another, as well as in response to the teacher, and that they learn to talk about and reflect upon their own thinking, questioning, negotiating, and problem-solving strategies.
The following two illustrations, taken from research studies conducted by the NCRTL, provide examples of students' active engagement in learning.
Third grade public schools students are debating how fractions should be written and deciding how to show what a particular fraction represents:
Betsy: working with Jeannie) "How can we have this?" (points to 4/2, written on the board)
Jeannie: "I don't know."
Betsy: "Four twoths?
Jeannie: "We take something and divide it into two parts...and take four of those parts?"
Betsy: "I'm confused."
Jeannie: "Me too."
Sheena: (walks up) "Four halves, isn't it?"
Betsy: "Yeah, four halves! Halves are two parts. So..."
Jeannie: "So we need two cookies and cut them each in half, then we have four halves.
"One, two, three, four. Twoths, I mean halves."
University undergraduate historiography students embark on an extended exchange about differing