Let the four modes lead our way forward

26th November 2010 at 00:00

"Active learning" is increasingly under attack - and about time. But it will take deeper rethinking to sort out the new curriculum's key teaching policy.

Walter Humes (TESS, October 22) took a well-aimed swipe at the lack of respect for natural differences in learning strengths evident in many active learning initiatives. Mark Priestley has complained in the Scottish Educational Review (July 2010) that policy writings fail to spell out exact meanings and teaching implications, and that emphasising physical activity sidelines well-judged exercises and worksheets. Sociologists have also cautioned that increasing learner control and decision-making can lead to blaming learners, rather than inadequate teaching or other factors, for failure to learn. These are timely critiques but we need to rethink further.

We should acknowledge that one legitimate sense of active learning signals the mental and personal engagement of learners we seek in all deliberate teaching and learning contexts. This sense doesn't describe a particular form of teaching but a desirable feature of all planned teaching and learning. Developing engagement will always be a challenge. Active learning slogans and hands-on experiences won't secure it. Perceptions of relevance need to be addressed and learners helped to recognise that worthwhile learning is hard, requires discipline and doesn't produce instant benefits.

We also need to recognise learning through direct experience as one vital approach, but not the only one. We might label this "learning through action and experience" - to distinguish it from mental and personal engagement. The key is to help learners plan, sustain action and reflect intelligently. Surprisingly, in most recent definitions of "active learning", the key feature is not direct experience but learner control and decision-making. This is because what has taken over as the theoretical base for "active learning" policies is the metaphor of constructivism - the idea that, rather than being presented with ready-made knowledge, learners need to construct their own knowledge as they make sense of learning experiences.

In practice, constructivism ignores much normal learning, disparages direct teaching and fails to match schooling realities. Teachers don't need harangues about constructivist teaching, but a clear view of the variety of teaching and learning, and support in developing the teaching roles and skills such variety entails without the over-emphasis on learner choice and decision-making. Examples of active learning cover everything from play and practical activities through individual work, group work, dialogue, discussion, and now even worksheets and "focused learning and teaching". It has come to mean everything and nothing, hence the confusion.

Teaching and learning are complex and varied, and no scheme for classifying different approaches is wholly satisfactory. But the concept of four distinct modes (direct teaching, discussion and dialogue, enquiry learning, and learning through action and experience) remains the most promising. They are simple, powerful, open and commonsensical, with a good educational pedigree.

The key to transforming learning in Scotland is not in handing over control and decision-making to learners, but in helping teachers and learners to develop the distinctive skills and roles required for each of the four modes.

Don Skinner formerly of Edinburgh University, is an educational writer and consultant and author of 'Effective Teaching and Learning in Practice' (2010).

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