Active learning


The HSE21 Best Practice Model is such a great tool because it reminds us of the fundamental classroom conditions that will help our students be ready for their future.  I was recently reading the book Learn Like a Pirate by Paul Solarz and he spent a lot of time talking about active learning.  In active learning, we see differentiation, authenticity, relevancy, choice, and collaboration – all important pieces of the best practice model.  Think back to your favorite moments when you were in school.  What stands out?  It’s probably an example of active learning.

When I was in elementary school, both of the 6th grade classes in our building collaborated to write, produce, and perform a musical.  I vividly remember working with classmates to write the script, to advertise the show, and to plan the costumes and props for the show.  The skills and strategies that I developed in activities like this were ones that I believe helped set me up for success in middle school, high school, and beyond.  While I remember moments of passive learning when I was in sixth grade (one of my teachers was the queen of having us copy notes from her beloved transparencies), I can’t recall any details that I may have learned in that format of lesson.

So, how can we integrate more active learning into our classrooms?  Here are just a few ideas based on Learn Like a Pirate book:

  • Simulations – What’s a better way to learn about the Boston Tea Party?  Read about it, or take your classroom back to 1773 and have your students simulate the circumstances that led the Sons of Liberty to throw cases of tea into the Boston Harbor?  Or you could integrate some science into your social studies by having your students set up a colony in outer space.  They can experience creating a government for their colony while also learning about the needs for their planet.
  • Debates – The collaboration that goes with a debate can be amazing. If you pick a topic that would have more than 2 sides, you can break your class up into several different groups with different topics, keeping the groups small enough that all play a role, while also large enough that you can put mixed ability students together.  Solarz does alternative energy debates with his students.  He plays the role of President, while his students are the advisors trying to convince him that their energy plan is the best.  While this topic may not resonate with you or your curriculum, there are many other debatable topics that could tie to your standards.
  • Science Fair – This is something that has gone out of style, but why? In a time where we are shifting to STEM classes, and at a period in time when so many of our kids don’t do hands on science projects like previous generations, this seems like a no brainer.  The issue I had with the science fair’s old style was that it was typically done as homework.  The last time I had my students do a science fair, we did everything at school.  Students were asked to bring in poster boards, but I tried to provide most of the other resources they needed (sometimes we had to get creative).  Kids assisted one another on their projects, and were truly excited to share their findings at the end.  I was able to provide feedback, help with data collection, and teach mini-lessons as necessary.  The best part – I knew it was all done by the student on a relevant topic of their own choosing.  A variation on this could be an invention fair, or a coding fair, or anything else you might imagine that lets students be actively involved in inquiry.
  • Project-Based Learning – A trend in education, and one that I was guilty of when I was still in my classroom, is that we teach a unit, and then at the end of the unit students complete a project to show their learning. What PBL asks is that we teach through the project.  Once you have your basic idea planned, students choose their more specific project and dig in.  Throughout the unit, mini-lessons can be taught on content, procedures, or skills that students need to go further in the process.  As a teacher, you are continuously checking in with students, seeing where they are and where they are going next, providing feedback, and deciding if there are topics that you need to build a mini-lesson around.  While we’re giving students choice and freedom, you are allowed to set some parameters up front.  PBL doesn’t mean setting the students free to do whatever they want, there have to be some class norms and expectations in place first.  Think of these expectations as the guardrails to keep your students in the right lane, and heading in the correct direction!  If you’re looking for good PBL resources, the Buck Institute for Education ( is a great resource!
  • Technology – Sometimes integrating some tech into a passive lesson is just what it takes to up the level into an active learning opportunity. Don’t just use technology for the sake of saying that you’re using technology.  Use technology when it is the best tool for the job.  Remember, HSE21 is not, and has never been, about technology, the iPad, OneDrive, or any of the many apps that are used around school.  However, when we find technology that truly improves or transforms what we’ve been doing, don’t hesitate to add it to your lessons.
  • Reader’s Theater – This is such a great way to work on oral reading fluency.  Students get to practice their part several times with their group.  During that time they can practice pronouncing difficult words, learn to project their voice, add inflection, and enunciate.  Depending on your goals, it could be a single day activity, although students don’t have as many opportunities to practice and they may not be able to create props to go with their performance.  On the other hand, you could do a multi-day activity where students are put into groups and roles one day, have time for rehearsals and planning for the performance (props, costumes, etc.) on a second day, dress rehearsals where you can give feedback on props and costumes that aren’t appropriate or necessary on a third day, and then performance day on the last day.  If you’re really brave, you could record the performances to put on a YouTube page so that parents can see what their kids are up to at school.

This is not intended to be an all-inclusive list of active learning activities, but is meant to give you some ideas of how to create more active learning opportunities for your students.  What am I missing?  Are there active learning examples that you use that I didn’t mention?  Have you tried (or are you thinking about trying) any of the ideas above?  Tell us about your experiences, your thoughts, or your plans in the comments below!


3 thoughts on “Active learning

  1. Many of our teachers are extending their instruction and active learning beyond the walls of the classroom and even the school. There is an abundance of active learning that can take place outside on our school grounds!!


  2. As a fifth grade teacher, we taught Colonial America through a simulation called, “Pilgrims.” Students had to cross the Atlantic, build houses, plant crops, create a form of government, make peace with the Indians and trade with the Indians. The students were so engaged and learned more by being a part of it instead of reading from the book. Students seem much more engaged when they are actively learning. I have taken students outside for different activities in math and science. They seem to enjoy being away from their desks and books, but still learning.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s