By Rory D. Bahadur, Washburn University School of Law
“Active learning is generally defined as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process. In short, active learning requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing . . . .” Specifically, it “refers to activities that are introduced into the classroom.” It includes but is not limited to “small group discussion, debate, posing questions to the class, think-pair-share activities, short written exercises,” and generally involves in-class problem solving, student formulation of their own questions, and in-class brainstorming.”
If you aren’t doing things described above or like the things described above, then you aren’t doing active learning. Period. So, in this regard “interactive” classroom atmospheres are not substitutes for active learning classrooms. Interactive learning simply means that a student interacts with a professor. You ask a Socratic question and the student answers and boom you are engaged in interactive learning. You have a lively humorous bent to your presentation and again this satisfies the definition of interactive.
Interactive classroom techniques still tend to be professor driven and are simply thinly disguised versions of the typical classroom hierarchy which is the opposite of active learning. If you find yourself describing effective teaching around observations of your class room that include, “I was funny,” “they liked my slides,” “I was so energetic they had to pay attention,” or even “I gave them context for what they were learning,” you may be engaged in some other pedagogical process but not active learning.
As long as you continue to believe that effective learning depends on your mouth moving or you being the source of the knowledge or even the source of the understanding of the material then you cannot be engaging in active learning. The hardest part about transitioning to active learning is realizing that given the right guidance or exercise structure, the students in your classrooms are all capable of gaining the knowledge you are seeking to bestow upon them with less direct involvement from you than you currently believe is necessary.
This is a humbling experience for most of us. It may be high time to really think if ego and our need to be necessary prevents us from letting go and whole heartedly engaging in active learning. The doctors can’t be wrong after all as there is a massive trend in medical schools to make active learning the primary pedagogical technique. Of course, they are meeting resistance as well because their equivalent of Langdell is reaching out from the grave with a heavy inertial hand. It is worth remembering that Langdell prescribed Socratic teaching for law students about ten years after the Emancipation Proclamation. I hope that we do not feel unnecessarily bound to pedagogies and norms from that era.