Written by Pauline Gradden, Deputy Head of Secondary.
Active learning has been a key topic throughout school and is relevant to teaching of all ages. This article looks at how it is being embedded in our Secondary school.
What is active learning?
In recent years, active learning has been widely advocated in secondary schools, though there is no clear consensus as to what the term ‘active learning’ means nor any hard evidence that the educational claims made for it are justified. However, there is persuasive evidence to suggest that when active learning is viewed as a mental experience, rather than just physically active whilst learning, the impact on students’ level of skill acquisition is overwhelmingly positive.
At BSKL therefore, we define active learning as a strategy that allows students to become more independent by engaging them in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasises higher-order thinking skills and often involves collaboration between students.
Why is it a focus at BSKL?
Following our recent ISI inspection, we were delighted with the feedback on our students and their learning. The report described how in the secondary school:
"The quality of the pupils’ achievements and of their learning, attitudes, and skills is excellent. The pupils demonstrate sophisticated logical and analytical thought, and as a result attainment is high and well above the UK average. The pupils are extremely conscientious and they show considerable independence and enterprise when given the opportunity to do so."
"The contribution of teaching is excellent. The relationship between the teachers and the children is exceptional, and the high quality of teaching ensures excellent learning so that the children are extremely well prepared for the next stage of their education. Teachers have an excellent understanding of pupils’ needs and challenge the pupils to maximise their academic progress, through the creative use of teaching strategies."
"The report went on to suggest that we should continue to include more opportunities for active learning in lessons and continue to build on the pupils’ ability to be independent and take responsibility for their own learning and development. So, what does this mean in practice? Essentially it means that students have a job to do in their lessons and it is not enough to merely sit quietly and listen to the teacher. Learning will improve by asking and answering questions, discussing in groups, self and peer assessing, challenging and taking risks etc."
"In addition, new research points to an awareness of the growing necessity to prepare students for lifelong learning, which includes theories of "metacognition" and evidence that increasing students' awareness of their own mental processes can facilitate learning. A lot of findings suggest that certain forms of cooperative, small-group learning promotes students' achievement."
How have we begun to embed active learning in the secondary school?
Collaborative staff development sessions, including those delivered by external training providers, have focused on the theory behind achieving student independence through active learning, and practical strategies to be applied in the classroom;
Our Creating Confident Speakers programme has been adapted to teach students how to speak and respond confidently in a classroom context to ensure they are able to fully participate in learning;
Students have been introduced to the idea of what it is to be independent and active in the classroom through assemblies and focused PHSE sessions which examine the skills needed to be a successful life-long learner;
Through the research and study skills programme, alongside the academic mentoring programme, students are being shown how to take responsibility for their own time management and organisation and how to deal with potentially stressful situations;
Student led consultations in year 7, and next term in year 9, allow for students to track, analyse and evaluate their own successes and progress.
What do the students think?
“It is our responsibility to take charge of our own learning. The teacher can’t learn for us, they can only show us HOW to learn.”
“I was proud of being able to present my work to my parents and to be able to explain what I have done well and what I need to to do to improve.”
“At first, I was worried because I thought the teachers would just leave us to figure everything out for ourselves, but now I understand that we are learning skills.”
Links to further research
- Active Learning Leads to Higher Grades and Fewer Failing Students
- Using Active Learning Instructional Strategies to Create Excitement and Enhance Learning
- Active Learning for Students and Teachers
- Active Learning Strategies in Physics Teaching
- Active Learning: Self-directed Learning and Independent Work
- What is Coaching?