Monday, August 13, 2012

Active vs. Passive Learning

I read The Teaching Gap several years ago and was very intrigued by the differences between typical instruction in U. S. and Japan classrooms. I was especially interested in the different approaches taken to problem solving. In Japan "the teacher presents a problem to the students without first demonstrating how to solve the problem." Whereas in the U. S. "the teacher almost always demonstrates a procedure for solving problems before assigning them to students" (pg. 77).

I have tried from time to time to give my students a "challenge" and then, using the work produced by students working on their own or in small groups, teach the lesson. I have found some success with this approach, but I have also noticed some deep-seated resistance to this method among my students. That resistance has taken the form of giving up, wasting time, complaining and most worrisome believing that they will learn more effectively if I just explain to them how to do it.

When I was reading the book I frequently thought, I wonder what a classroom that follows these teaching methods looks like? How does it start? How long do students spend working on a problem? What do student explanations look like? How do the students work in small groups? How does it end? etc. I was really interested when I saw a blogpost recently about the TIMSS video study and included some short clips and some analysis. (I don't recall the author of the post, and would appreciate it if anyone can provide the link.) When I was searching for the post later I discovered that 53 of the TIMSS public use videos have been translated and are available on

I watched two different videos on the same topic and compared the different approaches taken by the teachers. My plan during the first week of school is to show some very short clips from both videos to my students and ask them to compare the two different teaching methods.

From the Japanese lesson on finding missing angle measurements I want to show:
00:00 - 00:15 Opening bell and bowing
4:45 - 5:30 Student explains the first method of three presented on how to solve review problem
10:15 - 12:00 Teacher explains the new task to students:  write a new problem with certain conditions
23:30 - 24:00 Students get into groups to compare problems and choose one for class to solve
32:00 - 33:00 Teacher takes one problem from each group to copy on the board for all students to solve.
51:00 - 51:25 Teacher ends class

From the U. S. lesson on finding missing angle measurements I want to show:
00:00 - 1:15 Opening and review
15:00-17:00 New set of problems is presented
21:10-22:00 Teacher works with individual student
27:30 - 30:00 Teacher ends independent work and discusses problems with class
30:30 - 31:30 Teacher reviews integer rules
44:45 Teacher ends class
48:00 Teacher dismisses class

After watching the videos and discussing the differences, I would like to do an experiment with my students. I will divide them into three groups. One group will turn around and face the back wall and only be able to hear. One group will be able to hear and see and the third group will hear, see and copy what is given. I will read (and show) 20 mathematical terms. After a short break (I will do something completely different here), I will ask students to write down how many words they can remember from the list that was given. We will compare the number of words that students can remember from the three different groups. It will be interesting to see if the percentage of words remembered is close to the percentages shown in the Learning Pyramid shown below. Note: I know there has been some doubt about the accuracy of the percentages in the pyramid and whether they are supported by actual research. This model was presented and used as the foundation of a education graduate course I took called Curriculum and Practice in School Environments. I am concerned about using inaccurate information, but I think research strongly supports the idea that active teaching methods are more effective than passive teaching methods and I think this graphic conveys that concept very well. I plan to have the students fill out a blank graphic of the pyramid of learning and retention for their interactive notebooks.




I am hoping that by showing these videos and talking about the differences between passive and active learning that my students will understand why I might ask them to struggle with a problem before I simply show them how to solve it. I want them to know that struggling with a challenging problem is not bad, in fact it is probably the most effective way to learn new material and develop problem solving skills. I am hoping that by explaining the value of this teaching method at the beginning of the year that my students will buy into the idea and that my attempts to use this method will be more successful.

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