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An Exercise in Active Learning (Grades 2-4)

Marilyn E. Ruggles
Unified School District 497
Lawrence, KS
Orley R. Taylor
Department of Entomology
University of Kansas
Lawrence, KS


It is our intent to make the story that follows an active rather than a passive learning experience. In a passive learning environment, the student is the "receiver" of knowledge and the teacher is the "giver". They listen, we "teach". The environment is generally textbook/lecture driven. Facts are given via lectures and texts to be assimilated and repeated by students on examinations. This is how most of us were educated and it is natural for us to perpetuate these teaching methods. If we were lucky, we had a course or two in high school or college in which the instructors used a different approach and really challenged us to integrate, create and think. These courses were often threatening but also more interesting, exciting and rewarding than the typical curriculum. What methods were these instructors using to get our attention and to get us to think? In most cases, they were asking us to apply our knowledge to solve hypothetical or real problems. If the instructors were really good, we became engaged in the process, interested participants rather than passive assimilators. The method used by these instructors has been called active learning. There is nothing new here, the basic idea was first promoted by Socrates.

Most of us practice some form of active learning in the classroom but how often are we challenging our students to not just remember, but to think? Many educators and critics of the US educational system profess that we don't challenge our students to think often enough.

The perception that we need to improve our ability to reach students is summarized in the new National Science Education Standards. A general thesis of the Standards is that knowing an infinite number of facts is far less important than knowing how to use one's knowledge to solve problems. The Standards emphasize the need for stronger inquiry based learning in which the students gain first hand knowledge by working in groups to solve problems. This is active learning at its best but many of us don't have the opportunity or training to engage students in this manner. Nevertheless, we can still bring active learning to the classroom.

How can we create an active learning environment? The first step is to develop a knowledge base from which to draw. Without some basic knowledge, none of us can understand what we don't know, apply what we don't understand, or do higher level thinking. In other words, we need to do a little passive learning before we move to the active learning phase. To move on to active learning, we need to develop a series of questions which are derived from, but not specifically answered in the lesson. To obtain answers to these "surprise" questions we should use the collective knowledge and imaginations of the group. Together with our students, we can form a think tank and we can learn together. Our role as instructors is to provide structure and direction by asking probing questions and rephrasing questions and answers for clarification when necessary. The goal is to help the students "discover" they can derive reasonable answers to questions which at first glance seem impossible to answer.

Many of us aren't comfortable with active learning. We have been conditioned to believe that we must know the answers before asking the questions. After all, how can we maintain our authority (or illusion of it) if we don't know the answers. Yes, we should have some of the answers but we don't have to know all the answers to act as a facilitator and co-learner with students. To students we become more human when we acknowledge our limitations by saying, "I don't know. Let's find out together."

One of the main goals of education should be to encourage students to question everything, thus encouraging a life long habit of inquiry. Early in their school experience many students become reluctant to ask or answer questions. As educators, we often inadvertently kill their desire to participate in classroom discussions. With active learning, we can create a non-threatening atmosphere in which students can feel free to not only answer but to also ask questions. In active learning, the focus should be on the responses of the group rather than those of certain individuals. Your ability to respond positively to questions and answers and to be able to deal effectively and positively with what appear to be dumb or naive questions is key to keeping the discussion open and non-threatening to the participants. Dumb questions are often not as dumb or naive as they seem; you can often use them to clarify a problem or issue and prevent mistaken conclusions later on.

Once you and the class have acquired a basic understanding of the fundamentals of the biology of Monarchs, you can begin by asking a variety of questions. What do we know? What are the facts? Are they really facts? Do we have evidence to support the facts? The fun begins when you discover what you don't know and begin figuring out how to answer novel questions. This is the essence of active learning.

So how does active learning work and how might you proceed?

1. Have students read or you read the story to them.

2. When you're finished with the story, ask students if they have any questions about the story. If the questions are good, then active learning begins.

3. If you get no response, read a paragraph to them again in which we've highlighted the text. Each highlighted section serves as the basis for a question. Choose a question/paragraph you are comfortable with.

4. Begin asking questions. Then begin to work with the students' answers to facilitate a clear understanding of the question being discussed.

Example: How does a female Monarch find a plant upon which to lay eggs?

a. list the facts you know pertaining to this

b. clarify what you know to make sure everyone understands

c. define or talk about what you don't know

d. engage the group in a brainstorming session about how to get answers to what you don't know.

(As you will see, this question can be used to get the students to "discover" the senses used by the butterflies to find their host plants).

We have identified 15 questions, which are not answered directly in the text, that can be used to promote reasoning and problem solving by your students. To give you an idea of how to proceed, we will coach you through two example questions. You can then pick and choose from among the other questions - or develop your own questions - to further the active learning experience.

Please provide us, and your fellow teachers, with some feedback concerning your successes and failures with this active learning exercise. You can send your responses to

A few suggestions:

Perhaps the most important quality we need to develop to achieve an active learning environment is patience. The importance of patience cannot be stressed enough. It is natural for most of us to attempt to "keep things moving", and in so doing we too often answer our own questions. This will defeat active learning. Studies show that teachers answer about one-third of the questions they ask and rarely allow sufficient "wait time" when questioning. How long should we wait for a student to respond after asking a question - 4,5,6 seconds? Twenty to thirty seconds may seem like a very long time but waiting this long may be necessary if we want the whole group to think before responding. Such delays are also important for students who need more time to process information. If there is no response, or an answer is given which misdirects the line of inquiry, then we need to rephrase the question. By rewording to clarify the question, by giving additional information (often by asking another question), we usually can redirect the thinking of the group.

As you work through the questions, or perhaps later after some reflection, you should take notes on what worked and what didn't. Perhaps it would be helpful to tape record a session or two. This way you can remain an active participant in the process and not be distracted trying to record responses. Once you've listened to the tape you will be able to figure out what did and did not work

No two classes will respond the same way. Because of this, the material will be a new adventure each time you use it and notes on previous successes and flops could be very helpful. Remember, be patient! As you become more familiar with the process, we are confident that classes will become more enjoyable for both you and your students.

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