Active Learning

I have been thinking a lot lately about how to engage high school students’ attention, and the connection between active learning and physical activity.  This is because, as Rick Hanson writes, “Attention shapes the brain;” because of my passion for students creating and curating knowledge; and simply because we sit too much in schools today. Our brains are designed to pay attention to movement and to anomaly.  We humans focus through physical activity and enacting thoughts, by engaging our bodies in what we are doing.  Research, such as John Medina Brain Rules, increasingly shows the importance of exercise for thinking (  Yet how can teachers of rhetoric or calculus yoke intellectual abstractions and physical activity, without truncating or trivialized content?  I once knew a Shakespearean actor who walked about in public declaiming The Duchess of Malfi, because he found that muscle memory helped him memorize his lines. We as teachers often walk around the classroom, stretching across the board to illustrate a point, or reaching over a desk, while our students sit still in rows of desks.  Perhaps Aristotle was peripatetic not because he could not own property in Athens but because he was onto something about how humans learn.

Susan Sontag has a lovely line about an idea offering one “a method of instant transportation away from direct experience, carrying a tiny suitcase” (letter, 7/25/74).  Sontag implies intellectual concepts are escapes from physical reality.   My goal for teaching is to facilitate students taking that suitcase with them into direct experience — to literally take ideas and run with them.  The criterion for designing lessons then is to present information in an actionable form, so that the student can make the knowledge 3-D (and not just bubble-shaped.) Teachers at SHC practice designing lessons that chunk, check, and chew information.  That pattern ties in well our 75-minute block periods, which allows for a variety of learning activities within one period, and taps into learning 2.0 strategies.  English teachers can get students up and out of the desks every twenty minutes with value corners; history teachers can ask students to reflect on their learning in a pair share; science teachers can ask students to extend an hypothesis by prototyping new experiments atop the lab tables; dance teachers can almost reverse-engineer an algebraic formula; language teachers can have students record themselves speaking the target language.  I look forward to implementing more insights from game theory in my teaching, with its feedback loops and heightened sense of play, and to seeing more ideas on the move.



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