This section addresses many of the most common concerns about active learning. However, as I doubtless say many times in different places, there are very few hard and fast rules in teaching. So often, the answer to a new teacher’s question is ‘it depends’ and so, when thinking about whether to use an activity you need to think about what success depends on i.e. the particular circumstances of the class (see Using the Activities - Key Points) and discuss those circumstances with your mentor or tutor.
If you think I’ve missed out any key issues that would be of assistance to future trainees please contact me and let me know.
Class management risks
Trainees and new teachers (and some experienced teachers) often feel uneasy with the idea of role-play and active learning, assuming it to be a free-form invitation to anarchy. However, in these activities, the teacher's role can often be likened to that of a director of ceremonies. The only movement around the room is under your direction. There is no simulated fighting or arguing. If you have previously established an effective relationship with the class this activity should not lead to a breakdown of discipline. However, never make assumptions – just because an activity works with one group doesn’t mean it will work with another.
Experience also suggests that the apparently risky movement can actually be of benefit with "the fidgeters", students who quickly become bored, lack confidence, feel trapped behind desks and so seek refuge in talking and other more disruptive ways. These activities licence controlled movement and talking and this meets the need of some pupils to escape from their desk-bound prison in a constructive way.
PGCE trainees have used these activities successfully but should first think carefully about the following:
- What teaching styles are the class used to?
- Do you know enough names to stay in control?
- What is their previous lesson and how will it affect their behaviour?
- What is the room like and the time of day?
- And even – what will the weather be like? (Beware windy days!)
Use another room
Another room creates a sense of occasion - this lesson is going to be far more special than anything in Science or other inferior subject! It also helps the suspension of disbelief that is particularly useful for, say, hot-seating. A hall or gym is also larger and usually without the clutter of desks getting in the way. Music also helps prepare students for something different and creates a sense of period.
When debriefing, you may want to return to the normal classroom. Debriefing moves students on from being 'in the past' to reflecting 'on the past', albeit reflections enhanced by their experience of thinking from the inside of the historical events. This is easier if the debrief takes place back in the normal classroom, rather than the room in which the activity had taken place.
Be careful if you are tempted to take a class outside to make use of more space. Your voice and those of students won’t carry as far outside and even a gentle breeze plays havoc with tabards.
Why use cuddly toys?
Are unusual props (cuddly toys, hairdryers, sugar mice, apple juice masquerading as urine etc etc) too silly to be useful? No – provided you explain what they’re for and double check understanding of the word ‘anachronism’ e.g. why a mobile phone was an anachronism during an activity on the Armada.
Remember that students go from one class to another to another and are yearning for something to lift a class out of the ordinary. They will notice and respond to the unusual (and even the plain daft) and want to know why you’re using a hairdryer to teach the Norman Conquest! And they’ll remember, not just the hairdryer but why you used it. Unusual props make asking ‘do you remember when …?’ much more likely to be successful – and that’s a key component in making any long course (e.g. Key Stage 3 History) more coherent and enabling students to make links and comparisons across time.
And all this applies at university level as much as in primary schools. Why shouldn’t students aged 16 benefit from these effective ways of making key points memorable? And get some fun out of History?
Are there age limits?
A good teaching method is a good teaching method, no matter what the age of the students.
My own PGCE trainees heard me say that a lot, probably too often, but that principle informs these activities, which are as effective at A level and university level as they are in primary and secondary schools. Just because students have volunteered for further study doesn’t mean that they don’t need to be motivated, enthused and to take part in activities that match their preferred learning styles. There are plenty of kinaesthetic learners in A level and university classes who will not learn as effectively through note-taking and lectures as they will through active learning. Everyone benefits from better group dynamics and constructive talk. Another major benefit of active learning with older students is that it helps them to read more confidently because it has introduced them to names, events and issues and so they can make sense of what otherwise was completely new material.
The major danger with older students is that they feel these activities are beneath them. It is vital, therefore, to explain the objectives and reasons for using this style of learning, even talking about the variety of learning styles. Demonstrating the maturity of your approach to teaching will help them take the risk of joining in the activity. Once they have undertaken an activity they will realise that the demands on thinking and concentration are far greater than during a one-hour lecture. These activities are not easy options!
Of course, with older students, you need to vary the quantity of information that students handle according to their abilities, and you can expect more sophisticated responses as students gain experience of these methods, but the principles behind the activities remain the same, no matter what the age or ability of the students.
A good teaching method is a good teaching method, no matter what the age of the students. There, I’ve said it again.
A piece of string question! Some activities designed for A level or university are lengthy and will probably take at least an hour although they can be broken into sections. Others last 20-30 minutes. Some are shorter still. Ian Luff has shown, in several articles in Teaching History, how effective very short activities can be. Everything depends on the students and the demands you want to make on them. The length of the activity is less important than the clarity with which the activity targets the problems students have in learning about the topic.
Is there time for all this?
Yes, a thousand times, yes! They improve the quality of learning (in terms of both knowledge and understanding) and the motivation of many, many students. This applies at all levels and I’m a passionate advocate of the crucial importance of this style of activity at A level. Why? Because over 20 years experience of using these activities suggests that they accelerate and deepen learning and motivation in the early stages of a unit of work. This makes these activities essentials, not luxuries.
Active learning provides a most effective first layer of learning when beginning a topic. Students take vital steps in building their framework of knowledge and in developing conceptual understanding. They enable students of all abilities (although most obviously the weaker students) to overcome initial obstacles they might otherwise bounce off. Having 'walked through' events and 'thought from the inside' they are much more able get to grips with detail and complexities and, crucially at A level and beyond, they can read about them more effectively. The page is no longer an obstacle course full of completely unfamiliar material.
What are tabards?
Tabards are mentioned in many activities and used to identify individuals, factors or other things represented by students:
- Take a piece of sugar paper and fold it in half
- Then cut a hole large enough to put your head through along the folded side
- Open it out and it resembles a short poncho!
- Now write the name, factor or whatever on it
Time period tabard