Active vs. passive learning

One of the changes I am trying to incorporate in my narrative-feedback-instead-of grades classes (NFIG) this year is allowing the students to seek knowledge instead of having me serve it up via lecture/slides/notes the way I have in the past. Frankly, I believe that I try to be a good lecturer, using that method as little as possible and keeping it varied, interesting and informative.

Nevertheless, I’m still being the sage on the stage, no matter how entertaining. And, frankly, it’s often exhausting. Even if I’m entertaining, the kids are still on the passive end of the learning. And after reading ROLE Reversal, I saw that that needed to change.

Flipping the learning

Taking an idea from Mark Barnes’s book, I used a lesson for my Intro to Journalism students, one in which we learn about news elements, and I flipped it. I explained briefly what news elements were – elements that make news, news. Not all stories qualify as news. We read newspapers and talked about the stories and what drew us to them. Throwing those words on the board headed us in the right direction. But the set of “news elements” is what we needed to round up and define. I told the classes that depending on which text you read or what slide presentation or PDF document you find online from a journalism class or teacher, this set of news elements will vary. Some say there are seven, some say eight, some say 10. Their task, then, instead of watching my slide presentation and taking notes or taking notes from my very good textbook, Inside Reporting, by Tim Harrower, was to find the news elements themselves. I grouped them into threes and fours and had them use whatever means they wished: phones, computers, those cool textbooks. As a group, they were to discover what the common list of news elements was, and define the terms they had decided upon. I gave each group a sheet of blank 11X17 and access to colored pencils and markers so that they could posterize their list and definitions.

Near the end of the hour, I started with one group, putting their terms on the board and having others from the group define it for the class. I moved to the next group and did the same. In some cases, they had a common term. In some cases, they had a different word, but we decided it was the same as one on the board. For example, first group said “immediacy” and second group said “timeliness”. Same thing. Sometimes another group would come up with a term that the first groups hadn’t. An occasional term was a similar topic but not an element of news, so we discussed how that didn’t fit like the others did, though it was relevant in a different way.

After all the terms were on the board, including the duplicates by another name, we decided as a class which ones would make up our list.

Creating artifacts for portfolios

Unfortunately, we ran out of time and will have to continue this next week. I plan to have students create their finalized list of terms in some form to help them remember. They can create their own slide presentation in Google slides or PowerPoint; they can create a digital poster in Smore or another app, digital flashcards or some other creation. The creation will help in retaining the information, as well as be a resource for later. They can save the artifact in their Google portfolio folder for referencing later on, and it serves for meeting both a vocabulary standard and a technology standard. When they begin reflecting on standards to assess their learning for the quarter, they can reference this to back up what they learned and the request for the grade they believe is reflective of their learning.

Reflecting on what needs improvement

Now, a few things did not go as well as I’d wished. While about half or more of the groups were so anxious to get to the searching that they had a hard time listening for all the instructions (that darn sage on the stage wouldn’t stop talking), and they did just what I had hoped, a couple groups did struggle. I noticed one group not talking to each other. They seemed to be researching independently, as if they were going to compare notes after a brief time, so I let them be for a bit. Another group was crowded around one of the journalism lab’s iMacs, and appeared to be quite focused – and they were, just not on the right thing. When I checked in on them, one said, “we found our story.” Indeed, they’d found an interesting news story, one I’d have filed under “oddity” if I were filing under news elements. But that wasn’t the assignment. The main spokesman hadn’t understood the assignment, but hadn’t sought to clarify. The others didn’t think he was looking for the right thing, but were largely hesitant to bring up that point. I think one girl had said as much, but no one paid attention, so they continued reading the odd story. I restated the assignment, and I discussed how, as a group, each has a responsibility to make sure the work is on track and that each is being held accountable.

Heading back to the independent studies group, I saw that they were still studying independently. One had a laptop and was jotting down the elements she was discovering. But the others were not sure what they were supposed to be doing so were using their phones for a variety of things, some related to the assignment, some not. They were, however, not collaborating at all. So I talked about collaboration, how they needed to talk to each other, compare what they were finding, make decisions together and share tasks. They really struggled with this and the awkwardness was palpable.

I need to figure out how to teach collaboration. I need to differentiate a bit between my two sections because one works well with collaboration, and one does not. I shouldn’t let them off the hook of talking to people; I just need to figure out how to help them ease into it in a way that doesn’t make them too uncomfortable.

Have you considered flipping your teaching so that students are responsible for gathering their info? How would that look in your classroom? And if you have students who are hesitant to work with others, how do you handle it? Comment, and let’s get a conversation started.


About teachjournalism
I am a high school teacher of journalism, technology and reading. I advise the school's newspaper and yearbook, both student-led publications. Documenting and sharing my experiences is a way of reflecting to improve my own work and and inviting commentary so that we might all benefit. I believe, as I tell my students each year, that we all learn from each other.

4 Responses to Active vs. passive learning

  1. Joy Kirr says:

    As for collaboration, I have (for the past two years) let students work with who they want to work with. This has gone well for some, and poorly for others, and you can guess the reasons why. I read Paul Solarz’s Learn Like a Pirate this summer, and decided I’d choose the groups for them, so they “learn how to work with different people.” Well, then I talked this over with Michael Matera at USM Spark this summer, and he said that in “normal” life, we have a set group of people we work with. We learn how to work with these people for a long period of time, and often only one or two people in this group are changed at a time. Even this, he suggested, is done about once a YEAR or so… So I struggle still. Do we assign groups and then keep them that way for a month or so before we change them? Do we let them struggle, but then realize, through time, the skills each person has so they can use those to their advantage? Tough stuff. I always imagine HS students to be better at this kind of work, but I guess they’re a lot like middle schoolers! Thanks for keeping your readers in the loop!! We’re learning from you! 😉

    • Thanks for your feedback, Joy – always helpful. I know there is no one correct answer. I may have them choose new seats tomorrow, since I’ve pretty much gotten to know who everyone is. I generally group kids by whom they are sitting beside. Sometimes we draw things from a hat (Mickey & Minnie, Donald & Daisey, peas & carrots – fun). I’ll keep mixing it up, letting them sometimes choose to work alone or in pairs, as I’ll probably do with the news elements artifacts. But I will definitely ask them to reflect on the collaboration standard, how they think they are doing, where they could improve. Again, thanks so much for sharing your experience.

  2. jlrowse says:

    Great idea! I feel like I’m constantly trying things like this, and constantly failing…

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