Sunday, April 15, 2018

Shifting from Passive to Active Learning

Nothing could be more absurd than an experiment in which computers are placed in a classroom where nothing else is changed.” - Seymour Papert

When it comes to improving outcomes in the digital age, efficacy matters more than ever.  Billions of dollars are spent across the world on technology with the hopes that it will lead to better results.  Tom Murray and I shared this thought in Learning Transformed:
Educational technology is not a silver bullet. Yet year after year, districts purchase large quantities of devices, deploy them on a large scale, and are left hoping the technology will have an impact. Quite often, they’re left wondering why there was no change in student engagement or achievement after large financial investments in devices. Today’s devices are powerful tools. At the cost of only a few hundred dollars, it’s almost possible to get more technological capacity than was required to put people on the moon. Nevertheless, the devices in tomorrow’s schools will be even more robust. With that in mind, it’s important to understand that the technology our students are currently using in their classrooms is the worst technology they will ever use moving forward. As the technology continues to evolve, the conversation must remain focused on learning and pedagogy—not on devices.
Unfortunately, technology is not a magic wand that will automatically empower learners to think critically, solve complex problems, or close achievement gaps.  These outcomes rely on taking a critical lens to pedagogical techniques to ensure that they evolve so that technology can begin to support and ultimately enhance instruction.  If the former (pedagogy) isn’t solid, then all the technology in the world won’t make a difference.  As William Horton states, “Unless you get the instructional design right, technology can only increase the speed and certainty of failure.”

As I have said for years, pedagogy trumps technology. This simple concept can be readily applied to how devices are being used in classrooms.  In Learning Transformed my co-author Tom Murray and I discussed in detail how technology can be an accelerant for learning.  There was a specific reason that this was a focus near the end of our book and not in the beginning.  Going back to the sage advice of William Horton we stressed the need to improve pedagogy first and foremost.  Improvement lies in our ability as schools and educators to move away from broad claims and opinions to showing actual evidence aligned to good research.  This is why efficacy through a Return on Instruction (ROI) is equally as important. 

As technology continues to change so must instructional techniques, especially assessment. A robust pedagogical foundation compels us to ensure there is a shift from passive to active learning when it comes to devices in the classroom.  Passive learning with devices involves the consumption of information and low-level and engagement instructional techniques such as taking notes, reading, and digital worksheets.  On the other hand, active learning empowers students through meaningful activities where they actively apply what has been learned in authentic ways.  Are learners in your school(s) using devices passively or actively?

There is a vast amount of research to support why learners should actively use devices.  Below is a summary curated by Jay Lynch:
Robust research has found that learning is more durable and lasting when students are cognitively engaged in the learning process. Long-term retention, understanding, and transfer are the result of mental work on the part of learners who are engaged in active sense-making and knowledge construction. Accordingly, learning environments are most effective when they elicit effortful cognitive processing from learners and guide them in constructing meaningful relationships between ideas rather than encouraging passive recording of information (deWinstanley et al., 2003; Clark & Mayer, 2008; Mayer, 2011).
Researchers have consistently found that higher student achievement and engagement are associated with instructional methods involving active learning techniques (Freeman et al., 2004 and McDermott et al., 2014). 
The primary takeaway from research on active learning is that student learning success depends much less on what instructors do than what they ask their students to do (Halpern & Hakel, 2003).
The natural shift when it comes to device use by students is more active than passive learning.  Here is a great guiding question - How are students empowered to learn with technology in ways that they couldn’t without it? It is really about how students use devices to create artifacts of learning that demonstrate conceptual mastery through relevant application and evaluation.  What might this look like you ask? Give kids challenging problems to solve that have more than one right answer and let them use technology to show that they understand. When doing so let them select the right tool for the task at hand.  This is the epitome of active learning in my opinion.

Passive learning, as well as digital drill and kill, will not improve outcomes. Additionally, our learners need opportunities to develop digital competencies to thrive in a rapidly changing world. Investing in devices only matters if they are used in powerful ways that represent an improvement on what has been done in the past. Knowing is important, but being able to show understanding is what we need to empower our learners to do, especially when it comes to technology.

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