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Active Learning revisited


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#1 Ian Dawson

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Posted 22 September 2004 - 01:37 PM

Reading last summer's seminar on active learning, two things leaped out

1. many teachers find active learning deeply scary

2. those who overcome their fear find such methods highly successful - as Rachel said 'I was totally shocked by how much they had all picked up'.

My perception is that teachers are less afraid now - at Inset 10 years ago active learning ideas were received with deep suspicion. Nowadays I find that response much less common but there's still a need to help the new teacher and the old hand wavering on the brink. In such cases, hot-seating or some of the more adventurous role-plays such as 'je suis le roi' are too big a leap, so how can you get started gently on active learning?

One answer is to start with your older students at GCSE or A level - they need gentling into active learning too if they've been used to being passive learners for years. Here's one activity that combines group work, research and just a little physical activity, that shouldn't frighten anyone - I hope!

Context - starting to teach the Tudors at A level but this can be done for any period. Before plunging into detail you want students to have a broad context so

a] split them into groups of 3, each group havinga 40 year life span - 1480-1520, 1520-1560 and 1560-1603.
b] if you've got more than 9 students you can add more groups within groups i.e. have a noble group, a merchant group and a labourer's group within each date band.
c] set them their task - to investigate their lifetime and to tell the others their life story by mapping it out as a physical lifeline on the floor of the room or hall. One axis of the life line is obviously the date, the other runs from 'Highlights, optimism, good times' to 'Low points, pessimism, bad times'. If you draw the lifeline on the board they'll quickly pick up the idea.
d) research time in groups - give them a timeline with key events and some other useful information - I've found graphs showing annual harvest quality and graphs of real wages and prices are important sources. And give them a small pile of varied books so they can do some research to find out what Ket's rebellion or other evnts on the timeline were.
e) Give each group 5 minutes to tell their story, putting cards on the lifeline labelled with the key highpoints or lowpoints and explaining their choices. Your task as teacher is to encourage the asking of questions e.g. why did you choose that? They must do this standing up, walking round the lifeline, standing at high and lowpoints.
f) get the class as a whole to vote as to who had the cushiest lifetime - in this case 1480-1520 usually wins hands down.

So what have you and they got out of this?
a) they've talked to each other - constructively! Constructive talk is one of the big plus-es of active learning. Constructive talk is vital to learning but it needs nurturing and planning for.
B) they've got out of their chairs and moved around their lifeline, getting used to being visible and to movement.
c) they've used a variety of books and resources and have begun to learn independently
d) they've begun to develop an overview and context for individual events
e) confidence - a little physical movement and independence and now you're all ready for something more adventurous.


That's one way to gentle everyone into a little more activity but there's lots of others.
So - what are your ways of getting trainees to experiment with active learning?
- how do you persuade Y12 that this is serious learning, not kids' stuff?
- what else do you want to throw into this debate on active learning?

And if that's all been too cautious, keep those hairdryers blowing and those teddy bears ear-less.

Ian

PS - if those last references make no sense to you, all is revealed at www.thinkinghistory.co.uk

#2 Dan Moorhouse

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Posted 23 September 2004 - 03:22 PM

What I particularly like about active learning exercises is the way in which they can make allegedlly dull and / or complicated issues both interesting and accessible.

Earlier this year Ian gave me a copy of his activity on the dissolution of the monasteries. We'd been discussing how hard one of my classes found political issues and the fact that they found it extremely difficult to understand how any of these events actually mattered to ordinary people.

Using the classroom as a mock monastery and providing all of the students with a role gave them an immediate understanding of the fact that it wasn't just about rich people. I added photos taken at Kirkstall Abbey to the activity along with some artists reconstructions to try and visualise each part of the monastery and was very pleased with the level of understanding that the students had about the types of roles that people had at the time - and that goes beyond just life in the monastery. The movement around the room at various stages created an element of interaction that this particular group love - and usually have taken away from them.

After gradually building a picture of this happy little monastery it was good to see the level of emotion shown when rumours of dissolution were introduced. Empathy (sorry, are we still allowed to say that?) was evident in most of the comments students made. From the discussion and debriefing we had it was fairly obvious to me that most of the class had a good understanding of the social impact that the dissolution of the monasteries had. Most could also explain why the King had closed it and were quick to point out that their monastery wasn't corrupt like others.

For this particular group using active learning transformed the way that they approached the subject. They moved from being a 'hard' group to teach with little interest in written work to a group that were increasingly thoughtful and much more willing to look at different causes and consequences of events. The quality of written work produced in follow up lessons (they wrote letters to the king explaining why the monastery ought to be kept open - then wrote the kings reply) was far superior to things they'd done weeks earlier. Why? I think it was because they had been far more engaged in learning than they would have been through a more traditional approach. Thats certainly what the kids said anyway!

Problems with it? The difficulty with this kind of exercise is the planning. In this case I was very lucky to have been able to beg borrow and steal from Ian. saved a heck of a lot of time!

#3 georginadunn

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Posted 24 September 2004 - 08:02 AM

I also did the dissolution of the monasteries with my year 8s! I had originally done this with Ian and Chris at a training day, and thought I'd put it into practice myself.

Did it twice yesterday. Once with a low ability set who struggled to read the information cards, couldn't listen to each other, and were generally awful, :( and again with a higher ability set. They worked really well together, laughed at each other's characters and got into role in a lovely way. When they heard that Thomas Cromwell had posted a notice to say the monasteries were closing, there was uproar and shouts to 'kill the king'! We then discussed the outcomes and how the closure of the monasteries/nunneries would affect the wider community and not just the monks. Pupils motivated and enthusiastic - that's why we do it! :D
Work like you don't need the money, love like you've never been hurt, and dance like nobody's watching.

#4 John Simkin

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Posted 24 September 2004 - 12:37 PM

I also did the dissolution of the monasteries with my year 8s!  I had originally done this with Ian and Chris at a training day, and thought I'd put it into practice myself.

Did it twice yesterday.  Once with a low ability set who struggled to read the information cards, couldn't listen to each other, and were generally awful,  :( and again with a higher ability set.  They worked really well together, laughed at each other's characters and got into role in a lovely way.  When they heard that Thomas Cromwell had posted a notice to say the monasteries were closing, there was uproar and shouts to 'kill the king'!  We then discussed the outcomes and how the closure of the monasteries/nunneries would affect the wider community and not just the monks.  Pupils motivated and enthusiastic - that's why we do it! :D

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


A few years ago we had an Ofsted inspection. Y7 were taking part in the Yalding Medieval Village simulation. One member of the department (a woman who had been teaching in the same school for nearly 30 years), who had a very traditional view of teaching talked about the possibility of abandoning the course while the inspectors were in the school. However, she was talked into carrying on (the inspectors were aware that the course was being taught in other Y7 classes).

Unfortunately, the inspectors decide to inspect her Y7 class that took place last thing on Thursday afternoon. The lesson involved the students discussing what precautions that should take to stop the pestilence entering the village. The students have to remain in character and discussions about what the village should do about victims of the disease were very passionate. At the end of the lesson the teacher left the classroom in tears claiming that she had completely lost control of the situation. She was lucky to have a sympathetic inspector (it does happen sometimes) who told her that the lesson was a great success and that she should be congratulating for using a teaching method that so clearly stimulated the children. Ironically, it was the woman’s Y12 history lesson that was criticised by the inspector (she was probably the most boring teacher in the school).

Every year the Ofsted report for history complains about the high percentage of lessons that are based around textbooks. I think most will be pleased to see other teaching methods being used.

#5 Ian Dawson

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Posted 27 September 2004 - 07:07 PM

What's golf got to do with history teaching? (A prize for the strangest answer?) In my continued desperate effort to hit the ball straight i was reading a book by golf teacher Vivien Sanders (yes, a woman) whose basic theory is that adults learn best is by pretending to be children. Children learn to swing a golf club by watching and imitating and by having fun. Adults get all cerebral, turn learning into 45 careful thoughts and the ball ends in the lake - again.

I suppose the reason for saying this is that children and adults are different and learn differently, yet our styles of teaching and learning for 11 years old are too often watered down versions of adult learning styles. Children do learn by imitation - yet how often do we show them how to write by doing it with them and writing an essay or paragraph ourselves - something to imitate?

Much active learning comes into the same category - it's fun and that brings commitment and children care about the people or issue (that stands out from the replies by John and Georgina). We can show how to analyse change and continuity or to sequence (quick plug for new activities on www.thinkinghistory.co.uk in October) by doing this physically with their help - next time they've got more chance of repeating it because they remember the physical action and pattern.

So, imitation, fun, enjoyment - and more takers at GCSE?

Ian




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