Active learning is an instructional approach in which students take a hands-on, fully engaged role in their education, rather than sitting passively and absorbing information. Research shows that active learning is more effective than traditional lecturing, and it helps build critical 21st-century skills.
When students are actively engaged in their learning, they are thinking, creating, sharing, communicating, and constructing new knowledge. They are also taking ownership of their education. For these reasons, active learning is replacing the old-school “sit and get” approach to instruction in many classrooms nationwide.
Active learning can take many forms; here are some common examples.
Michael Gorman, who oversees digital learning and professional development programs for Southwest Allen County Schools near Fort Wayne, Indiana, has written a blog post to help educators promote student-led inquiry by giving students a driving or investigative question to answer.
For example: If you were a NASA scientist, and you had to write a proposal recommending which planet should be explored by the next space probe, which planet would you choose—and why?
High-quality questions should “engage the students and create wonderment through relevance to their world,” Gorman writes. These questions should require students to do research from multiple sources, think about their findings, and then synthesize the results into a clear and cohesive argument or plan. “If the question is Google-able,” he notes, “then it probably is not deep inquiry.”
Discussion and debate
Class discussions and debates “can be an excellent strategy for enhancing student motivation, fostering intellectual agility, and encouraging democratic habits,” says Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation. “They create opportunities for students to practice and sharpen a number of skills, including the ability to articulate and defend positions, consider different points of view, and enlist and evaluate evidence.”
While discussions and debates can be valuable active learning strategies, leading them in the classroom can be anxiety-producing. “Discussions are, by their nature, unpredictable, and (they) require us as instructors to surrender a certain degree of control over the flow of information,” the center says.
Careful planning can help ensure that discussions are “lively without being chaotic and exploratory without losing focus”—and the center’s website provides advice for how to plan and lead them effectively.
Creating and composing
Having students create original works that demonstrate or enhance their understanding of a topic—such as public service announcements, movie trailers, rap songs, picture books, blog posts, photo journals, advertisements, business plans, 3D models, or other artifacts—has its roots in constructivist theories of education, which say that learners construct their own understanding of the world by experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences (in other words, “learning by doing”).
Letting students get creative also allows them to become “protagonists of their own learning,” says Mindy Faber, co-director of the Convergence Academies program in the Chicago Public Schools. Students are more highly engaged and motivated when they are given creative license, and they learn how to become innovators and creative problem-solvers as well.
With support from a federal grant, the Convergence Academies program created digital “ateliers,” or workshops, in two Chicago schools. During the school day, students use these spaces to create or compose digital artifacts for class-related projects; after school, students are free to hang out and learn digital media skills under the guidance of digital media mentors.
Since the program began in 2013, both schools have seen achievement rise—and students are learning important technology skills that can put them on a successful career path.
Having students work together in small groups to solve problems and share information not only leads to deeper learning and understanding; it also builds the essential teamwork skills that employers covet.
The College Preparatory School, a private coeducational high school in Oakland, California, weaves collaborative learning into the fabric of its approach, reports Edutopia. Teachers encourage classroom collaboration by assigning students to groups to review their homework, do daily class assignments, participate in moderated discussions, and complete hands-on projects. Often, teachers give students group tests, which are designed to be harder than individual assignments.
“Students quickly realize that they are able to solve problems as a group that they would not be able to solve as individuals,” Edutopia notes.
Project-based learning combines student inquiry, creation, and collaboration by challenging students to solve a real-world problem or complete an authentic learning task.
For instance, in Loudoun County, Virginia, kindergarten students designed the puzzles that are being used to stimulate the minds of orangutans in a Texas zoo—while high school students researched the environmental damage caused by de-icing agents that are applied after snow and ice storms, then launched a public service campaign that changed behaviors statewide.
These efforts are part of Loudoun County’s “One to the World” initiative, writes education consultant Alan November—which is leading to deeper learning and greater student engagement by empowering students to make meaningful contributions to the world. The school division is working with the Buck Institute for Education to help educators develop authentic problems for their students to solve.
“What I hear time and time again from teachers is they’re amazed at how hard students are working to bring their A game,” says Superintendent Eric Williams. “The amount of time they spend on projects is far beyond what is necessary.”
For active learning to be successful, though, a number of important elements must be in place. For instance, teachers need to be taught proven strategies for leading active learning in their classrooms. They need support structures to help them implement these strategies effectively, while overcoming their fears of trying something new in front of their students. And they need the right kind of classroom environment to support and encourage active learning—which includes the design of the learning space and how the furniture is configured.
When we think of learning environments, we often think of how the desks and tables in a classroom are configured. That’s an important consideration, but it’s not the only factor affecting student success. How the design of these items makes users feel emotionally also is critical—and this can have a big impact on achievement.
How students respond emotionally to the sensory input they get from desks, chairs, and other elements in their environment is just as important as their physical comfort. Factors such as color and texture can affect a student’s mood significantly, and decades of research suggests this can influence a student’s ability to focus or succeed—for better or for worse.
Researchers Kristi S. Gaines and Zane D. Curry from Texas Tech University summarized a number of studies about the effects of color on students’ emotions and academic performance in a 2011 paper titled “The Effects of Color on Learning and Behavior
“Color is a powerful design element that produces profound psychological and physiological reactions,” they wrote. “Studies have shown a relationship between color preferences, emotions, and academic performance in students.”
However, because color affects different types of students in different ways, it’s hard to draw any definitive conclusions about which colors are best for which types of learning environments, Gaines and Curry wrote.
Similarly, the fabrics and materials that a piece of furniture is made from also play an important role in whether students are comfortable both physically and emotionally—and therefore whether they are learning to their full potential.
“There are a lot of children coming to school who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders or special needs, and many of them can be heavily affected by the different textures that are in classrooms,” says elementary school teacher Erin Klein
, who studied interior design in college before entering the classroom.
Because children react to different colors or textures in different ways, it’s important for schools to offer furniture with a wide variety of colors and textures.
“Just like when we personalize instruction—the more ways we teach, the more students we reach—the more furniture options we have, the more accommodating we will be to our students,” Klein notes.
The way the furniture in a classroom is set up can have a significant effect on both how students learn and how much they learn, studies suggest.
How a classroom space is designed shapes the kinds of learning that happen there, writes Nancy Van Note Chism in Learning Spaces
. For example, “a room with rows of tablet arm chairs facing an instructor’s desk in front of chalkboards conveys the pedagogical approach: ‘I talk or demonstrate; you listen or observe,’” she writes. On the other hand, “a room of square tables with a chair on each side conveys the importance of teamwork and interaction to learning.”
or tables so that students are facing the teacher at the front of the room works well for direct instruction, because it focuses students’ attention on what the teacher has to say. Arranging desks or tables in a large circle or “U” shape makes whole group discussion easier, because every student can see every other student in the class. Arranging desks or tables in small groups, with three or four students facing each other, facilitates small group interaction and collaboration.
Because there will be times when teachers will want to use each of these strategies in their classrooms
, flexibility is critical when designing learning spaces, Van Note Chism observes.“
A group of learners should be able to move from listening to one speaker…to working in groups…to working independently,” she writes. “While specialized places for each kind of activity…can accommodate each kind of work, the flow of activities is often immediate. It makes better sense to construct spaces capable of quick reconfiguration to support different kinds of activities [using] moveable tables and chairs.”
A 2013 study
by the University of Salford in England confirmed that classroom design can have a 25% impact, either positive or negative, on a student’s progress over the course of an academic year—and flexibility (defined as how easily a classroom’s furniture could be rearranged for a variety of activities and teaching approaches) was one of six key environmental factors that showed the most effect.
A decade of research from the national nonprofit group Project Tomorrow
tells us that students want access to anytime, anywhere learning opportunities through the use of mobile digital devices. And K-12 leaders have responded in kind, with a growing number of schools creating mobile and digital learning environments. But this shift has important implications for how we design learning spaces to support more agile learning.
Three-fourths of students believe that every student should have access to a mobile device during the school day to support their learning, according to Project Tomorrow’s latest SpeakUp survey results
. Many already have such access: 50 percent of students say they frequently use a mobile device to look up information in class.
Meanwhile, teachers are using more digital content in their classrooms than ever before, the survey reveals
. Sixty-eight percent of teachers say they use videos in their instruction, 48 percent say they use digital games, 36 percent use online curriculum, and 27 percent use animations. All of those figures show increases over the prior year.
In short, learning is becoming more mobile, multimodal, and technology-rich. It’s also becoming more social, as teachers assign collaborative group projects to help their students develop important 21st-century skills—and K-12 leaders must redesign their learning spaces
to reflect these powerful shifts.
Students need more agile learning environments that support communication, collaboration, and multiple forms of learning, such as furniture on wheels that easily can be moved around and reconfigured to support various classroom activities. They also need readily accessible power sources to recharge their laptops, tablets, Chromebooks,and other digital devices.
Paragon’s classroom furniture is designed to be reconfigured easily to support many different teaching and learning styles, and many of these products are manufactured with power supplies seamlessly integrated into their design—allowing for the creation of highly agile learning environments.
The traditional classroom setup, with rows of desks facing forward, worked fine when
lecturing was the main form of instruction. But as more schools have shifted from a teacher-centric to a student-centric approach to learning, the design of K-12 learning spaces is evolving as well.
“New kinds of learning require different approaches to classroom design,” said Leslie Wilson, founder and chief executive officer of the nonprofit One-to-One Institute
, which advises schools on the use of technology to transform instruction.
Aided by mobile technologies, students are working together in groups to solve problems or challenges, Wilson said. They’re working independently with adaptive online software that tailors the lessons to meet their needs. They’re making movie trailers, designing photo books, or creating other artifacts to demonstrate their learning.
And the environments in which they perform these tasks must be flexible enough to support this more active, collaborative style of learning. For this reason, many schools have begun integrating furniture that students and teachers can move around easily and put together in various configurations to accommodate different groupings and activities.
Want to rethink the design of learning spaces in your own schools, but you’re not sure where to begin? Here are four suggestions.
1. Visit other schools.
Wilson recommends visiting other schools to get ideas for what
is possible.“Touch it, see, it, and visualize it,” she said. “You’ve got to see the space in your mind in order tocreate it.”
2. Ask students what they want.
“Kids like being able to have a choice in where and how they learn,” said elementary school educator Erin Klein, who studied interior design in college and now writes and speaks
about K-12 learning spaces. Klein has several conversations with her students about the type of learning environment they want, then sets about creating it in her
3. Focus on the learning goals.
“Build learning spaces based on what you want kids to be able to do,” Wilson said. For instance, if you want students to be able to create artifacts using technology, you’ll need aspace for creating—complete with the tools they’ll need to do this work.
4. Consider power supplies.
How are you going to power up students’ digital devices? “Make sure you have enough power outlets to support recharging,” Wilson said. For instance, Paragon builds power supplies directly into many of its student tables and seating.