Teaching Tips: Active Learning

Active Learning

Teaching Tips: Active Learning

Active Learning is defined in different ways by different groups. At it’s heart, Active Learning has ‘doing’ and not just ‘doing’ worksheets. It combines a range of techniques to have learners acting things out, investigating, role-playing or inquiring etc. Active Learning is a hard teaching style to implement at times – it has challenges that need to be overcome – but can lend itself to remarkable outcomes on difficult and complex topics.

Active Learning

Children learn by doing, thinking, exploring, through quality interaction, intervention and relationships, founded on children’s interests and abilities across a variety of contexts. All combining to building the four capacities for each child.

Environments that offer differential play and challenge, staff who are well informed and able to challenge learning, child-centred and building on previous experiences, fun absolutely essential, children planning and evaluating their learning.

Education Scotland.

Whilst this is aimed at younger learners, it is true of learners and teaching at all levels. Involved, interesting and possibly hilarious lessons are the ones that pupils remember.

Apart from just being interesting and engaging, they are also incredibly useful for awkward topics. Take an area of content that is ‘dry’ and ‘dull’ and complex. One that many adults struggle to truly understand. There are plenty of these that pupils have to learn and that have to be taught. They can drive teachers crazy and bore classes senseless. They don’t have to though. Through using active learning methods the learning can become accessible, understandable, fun and something that the class can relate to.


Two examples of how Active Learning can work: vote rigging, in the form of Gerrymandering, and the concept of hyperinflation. Quite possibly two of the most uninspiring topics as far as your average teenager goes.

Gerrymandering, for those who don’t know, was where electoral boundaries were moved to ensure that the outcome of elections was favourable to one group. It happened in Northern Ireland until not so long ago. Active learning here is quite simple but very effective. I relate the issue of voting to a school council. I ask simple questions along the lines of, ‘there are x classes, how many representatives should there be on the council?’ The pupils can relate to that. The answer is fairly obvious too. Then I relate it the class in front of me. ‘I want six groups forming. What is the easiest and fairest way of doing this?’ Now some physical movement is introduced. I ask some pupils to use a ball or string / wool to physically mark out the boundaries of those groups on the floor. Of course this gets a little messy at times as there is usually a table or two that gets a bit tangled up. We discuss why the lines were put there and then ask if there is any way of changing it to favour one part of the class? The pupils can then physically move the string around to create six groups that are not equal. We can use it to give, for example, more groups of girls than boys, anything that illustrates a bias: ideally in favour of the minority! You can move parts of the ‘minority’ group around the room to see what impact this has on the make up of groups too. Alongside actual data on the population of the areas affected by Gerrymandering, the physical act of manipulating a body of people, albeit just a class, makes the concept real and understandable. It shows how an electoral system can be manipulated for the benefit of a minority group. A full run through of this idea and the way it was originally conceived is published on thinkinghistory.co.uk.

The second example I gave was hyperinflation. Again, I am using my history background but it’s essentially a numbers issue that comes up across the curriculum in different forms.

Children struggle to grasp the true value of money. Even fairly grown up GCSE students find inflation hard to understand. They ‘get’ that a price may go up from time to time but don’t really have any experience of it being anything beyond reasonably small changes. To teach the concept of hyperinflation I get data from the relevant period – in my case usually German hyperinflation from the early twenties – then device a real time activity for the class. I explain what hyperinflation is. I tell the class that they are going to race against inflation. I have a list of items that they can collect from a suitable place in school. It includes things they will actually want and things that I say I have to have. They are told the current cost of these items. They are reminded about hyperinflation. They are told they can send a class representative to get as much as they want – so long as I get what I need – as soon as anybody completes a puzzle accurately. Assuming that they have a sweet tooth it usually motivates the class to crack on with a puzzle. I tend to use one that is actually decoding the rate at which money devalued. It’s clearly linked and quite hard – though a maths teacher would probably tell me otherwise! Anyway, they complete the task and off goes the pupil to collect the goodies. Only, the person they are going to has been given a minute by minute break down of what the actual devaluation would be. So if at the start of the lesson the class had enough for a lot of cake and chocolate, by the time they’ve heard the explanation, worked through the puzzle and walked to collect the goodies, they might only have enough to get what I actually said I needed. That poses issues for the pupil who has gone as the colleague will be primed to get them to barter. It opens up questions to ask in class. It opens up opportunities to use images from the period in which children are using piles of bank notes as building blocks or of wages being carted home in a barrow. It makes it reasonably real, simply by simulating real life. Note: never actually require what you say what you must have. Most classes doing this exercise overrule you when given a ‘pen or chocolate’ scenario by your colleague: and yes, healthy lifestyles and all that, I know, but you get my point. This exercise is outlined in more detail here.

There are many forms of active learning. They make use of space and involve physical activity. Often quite different to ‘normal’ ways of doing something. It could be a sequencing task where instead of sorting cut out pieces of paper, they sort out a line of ‘labelled’ pupils. The opportunities are almost endless. They engage, allow for effective differentiation and work well alongside other methods. However, they can be very hard work.

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