Week 2: Active Learning

Last term, one of the organizing principles of our class was using concept mapping as a metacognitive tool and a way of expanding our adaptive expertise.  Indeed, I found it to be a powerful way to process new information and gain insights into my own thinking.  Concept mapping allowed me to see and think about ideas and connections I might have otherwise missed.  I’ve returned to that practice as a way of exploring this week’s learning.

To start, my Padlet links to the Coonley blog post I was assigned and briefly summarizes my thinking that surfaced through the concept map.  To view the concept map more easily, click the map in the embedded Padlet to either download a copy or open it in a new window.   The rest of this blog post will interpret the map further as a means of exploring my thinking.  It will also show a bit of the experience I have with active learning.

Made with Padlet
The Evidence

To start, I would like to note two different types of evidence I considered to analyze the last three bullets of our Do activity:

  • What active learning traits are present
  • What are opportunities/suggestions for growth, and
  • Any additional information

The first type is the “Cougar Code” lesson summary which arguably contains the most direct information about the lesson.  The second is the included media of student work artifacts as well as images of students at work.  These constitute information about what students did and possibly trait evidence of active learning and web literacy.  Neither type of evidence presents a complete picture of what was taught and what was learned, but together provide insights.  What is lacking from each type of evidence also makes complete determinations about the above bullet points difficult to say with certainty.  Nevertheless, the evidence that is in the post gives us much to think about and discuss.

Interpreting the CONCEPT MAP

The summary of the Cougar Code assignment provides the most information that allows some answers regarding the extent to which active learning could occur during the lesson.   On the whole, the Cougar Code lesson exhibited many constructivist elements, particularly in its engagement, purposefulness, reflectiveness, and complexity.  The assignment is learner-centered from start to finish, beginning with students’ exploration of their own learning styles, the outcomes of which the teacher uses as the launching point for the rest of the lesson.  Students seemed to draw from their experiences as well as their values in defining examples of being responsible, being respectful and being safe.  I have gone back and forth on the extent to which the lesson elicits metacognition.  There are signs of reflection in the Educreations video.  But a focus on students’ final products and a lack of formative artifacts makes a definitive determination difficult.  For instance, from the attached media, it is difficult to tell the extent to which students actually engaged in active learning or if they were simply completing tasks.

When it comes to evidence of web literacy traits, evidence of student outcomes are limited to the 21st Century skills in all three segments of the lesson.  It could be argued that the students wrote and participated in that their work became the content of a blog post.  However, the blog post analyzed for this assignment was their teacher’s, not the students’.  So actually the teacher is demonstrating her web literacy by contributing to building the web and connecting with other educators online.    While we definitely want students to be creators and participants online, we want teachers to be as well.  Especially in light of research finding that when teachers do use technology, it is mostly for administrative purposes or electronic communication with peers and parents.  Even among constructivist teachers — as we clearly see in this lesson —  when they do use technology, they tend to do so at levels akin to substitution or augmentation on the SAMR model (Ertmer & Ottenbriet-Leftwich, “Teacher Technology Change:  How Knowledge, Confidence, Beliefs, and Culture Intersect”).  Thus, from the evidence presented in the blog, technology seems to be primarily the teacher’s tool when it comes to web literacy traits and possibly the students’ tool when it comes to active learning traits.  

Opportunities for Growth

While the Cougar Code lesson suggests quite a few opportunities for active learning in the blog summary, more and better evidence of student formative artifacts would allow for deeper insight and feedback as to the quality of students’ active learning traits demonstrating metacognition.  So too would artifacts of the students’ digital photos and their final PicCollage products.  More student artifacts would also allow assessment of whether the technology was instrumental in developing students’ understanding of the Cougar Code or whether it was merely a fun activity.

From EdTech on Pintrest via Learning Maker

I don’t want to dwell on the SAMR level of the work too much given the fact that this lesson was taught at the beginning of the school year.  However, going forward, the teacher can consider evaluating this lesson through a SAMR lens.  From the evidence presented in the blog post, it seems to ask students merely to substitute and augment traditional learning methods with the available technology.  For future lessons, the teacher can consider how similar uses of digital cameras, iPads, PicCollage, and Educreations could be used in such modifying and redefining ways that without the technology, students could not develop a particular level of understanding.  She can also consider creating opportunities for students to develop their readerly, writerly, and participatory netizen selves.

Active Learning in My Practice
Inspiring Active Learning by Merrill Harmin & Melanie Toth: A text I’ve used for great active learning ideas.

This notion, I must admit, of explicitly stating that students need to be active learners, strikes me as odd.  I was taught to be a constructivist teacher, to think in terms of what students do and not just what the teacher does, to focus on critical thinking, collaborative group work, and reflective activities. These traits are how I was “raised” to be a teacher.  Given the usual levels of participation, energy and focus I experienced from my students (most of the time!), I wonder why anyone would think a mostly teacher-centered, student-passive model is preferable.  That is, if actual student learning and not just teacher moves is the goal for which we are aiming. Additionally, active learning methods support what we now know about how the brain functions and how humans learn.   So yes, I believe teachers should create lessons that give students consistent and regular opportunities to be active learners.

Below are links to two lessons I found in my archives from over ten years ago.  They are part of a set of lessons I developed to introduce Shakespeare units to my 9th graders.  They represent a departure from what had been my habitual way of introducing The Bard and were utterly transformative.  In fact, my students responded so well as seen through their attitudes about, interest in, and understanding of usually very difficult material, that these new lessons became

Font of Knowledge and Tempest Prediction & Iterative Terms lessons, based on ideas from Teaching Shakespeare into the Twenty-First Century, Ronald E. Salomone & James E. Davis, eds.

the way I introduced Shakespeare from then on.  I am showcasing it here because I believe it gives students active learning opportunities.  It predates the web as we know it today, so it was not originally written with web literacy in mind.  And sadly, I could not find any student artifacts of the completed work to share for evaluation.  Still, I have some ideas about how to revise it accordingly and I welcome any ideas from the class.

Font of Knowledge

Tempest Prediction and Iterative Words


7 thoughts on “Week 2: Active Learning

  1. Nicole April 16, 2017 / 7:03 pm

    You are correct when you say teachers should *know* that students learn best in active learning environments but I would have to imagine that in your consulting work you’ve seen some that need to be reminded of that! Thanks for including the text that you have gotten some ideas from. It’s one that I haven’t looked at yet so I may add it to the list. Excellent work on your Padlet, and thanks for including the mindmap. We have an upcoming assignment where that will come in handy!


    • Doug van Dyke April 17, 2017 / 2:15 pm

      I am part of a team at the University of Chicago that conducts Practice-Based Inquiry visits at participating CPS high schools. The PBI team consists of working teachers and administrators from around CPS. We spend a week at the school answering three guiding questions: How well do students at school x learn? How well do teachers at school x teach? How well does the administration at school x support teaching and learning? Throughout the week we collectively write a report of our findings for the school. With each visit — every single one, and we’ve done more than a dozen or so now — the team struggles the most with the first question. For the first 2-3 days they can’t see learning. They can only talk about it in terms of teaching. What teachers do. And yes, you are correct in saying I see this all the time in my consulting. So then I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that we need an explicit conversation about active learning traits. Perhaps the more teachers are expected (and trained) to put students at the center and to construct their own learning, teachers will develop wider abilities to identify student behaviors that indicate learning and not confuse those with their own instructional behaviors.


  2. Carol Gutekanst April 19, 2017 / 12:32 am

    Hi Doug, that concept map is scary good. When I hear this term I think of just throwing ideas up on a screen, and I’ve never really thought about the benefits, actually I didn’t understand the benefits. But looking at your’s and reading your blog I can see the value in this activity, so thank you. And I would have to say that in my 30-year career, focusing on what the students are doing, rather than what the teacher is doing, is fairly new (last 6-8 years? Am I crazy for thinking that’s new??) Brain research has definitely pushed the field in that direction. I’ve got to get that book! It looks like it’s filled with good ideas, thanks so much for sharing.
    Carol G.


      • Carol Gutekanst April 22, 2017 / 2:10 am

        Hi Doug, ok that Audioboom response was very cool. You are sooo light-years ahead of me in terms of what you can do with tech! It’s kinda embarrassing…Anyways I was nodding my head very vigorously as I was listening to your response. I agree with what you said about the visual aspect of concept mapping that could lead to a deeper understanding. I appreciate your plug for the class with Angela ElKordy and the book too, that definitely appeals. Thanks for all your thoughtful comments,
        Carol G.


  3. Courtney April 22, 2017 / 8:56 pm

    Hi Doug! I had left a comment last week, but it seems to not have posted. I am intrigued by the book you mention, Inspiring Active Learners, and hope to get a copy to look through. Your comments about how you were raised to teach in a certain way are excellent – teachers should know and understand the best ways for encouraging learning in their students. They should. Do you think teachers truly don’t know the best ways to reach students, or are they actively choosing different methodologies for teaching outside of what they know to be best? Does the emphasis on testing play a role in that teachers are so concerned about data, they are forgetting how to inspire and teach? I worry teachers are so overwhelmed with making sure their testing scores are in line, they aren’t able to focus on what truly makes those scores improve – students who are actively engaged in learning.


    • Doug van Dyke April 24, 2017 / 6:29 pm

      Warning: You’ve set up my soapbox! Do I think teachers really don’t know how to reach children? I think it’s a mixed answer. Sadly, yes, I know there are some who don’t. I work with some. And they’re more concerned with operating within their own comfort zones than doing what’s necessary to teach students well. Thankfully though, those are the outlier minority. If only we were better as a profession at weeding them out. I agree with your thinking. And I think our biggest challenge is being bold enough – courageous enough to stand up to the powers of the Testing Industrial Complex and high stakes accountability. Most of us do know that the kinds of teaching that result from these systems and conditions are not promulgating the kinds of 40-year skills, understanding and ways of thinking our kids and our society need to thrive. We have to turn the politics of testing and scapegoat accountability around.


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