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Enhance Learning with Active Instruction

Posted on August 13, 2018

Enhance Learning with Active Instruction

Just because students are actively doing something, doesn't mean they are engaged with the content. It's possible they look engaged, when in reality, they are simply going through the motions. The opposite is also true. Students can be seated at their desks, and yet engrossed, enthused, and engaged with the content.

In her book Activate, Katherine Mills Hernandez describes student engagement as more than merely doing something. She raises the bar and expects students are doing something that facilitates learning. Consequently, instructional activities must be chosen based on how their engagement level will impact student learning.

Physical Movement
After hours in a car, waiting room, or airport--many people just want to go to bed. Sitting all day is exhausting! Recognize this--then do something about it.

Compare these activities to when people do some of their best thinking--when walking the dog, exercising, taking a shower, etc. Research shows that the human brain can better absorb complex information when the body is (or has been recently) active.

Consequently, after students have been sitting, listening, and taking in what is being taught, generate a question or statement on the board. Invite students to stand up and individually ponder their personal responses. Then, pair them up to Walk & Talk. As they make a couple of laps around the classroom, they discuss their thoughts. This two or three-minute activity gets students up and moving, waking up their brains, and digesting the content.

Spend a little time early in the year outlining the Walk & Talk procedures to ensure this activity is both productive and safe. This includes defining the walking path and an appropriate pace. Once the expectations are in place, plan a Walk & Talk activity to break up long chunks of instruction.

Student Talk
Learning sticks when students have the opportunity to digest the information. This requires frequent opportunities for them to talk with peers about their learning.

After every 15 minutes of teacher-led instruction, stop and have students share their thinking with a partner. Many teachers accomplish this with a short Turn & Talk opportunity.

When looking for a higher level of engagement and a deeper level of thinking, add a twist to the traditional Turn & Talk strategy. Identify the discussion topic/question and announce that students will participate in a Timed Mingle. This starts as a typical Turn & Talk. Then stop the partner discussions and ask them to mingle to find a new partner. Then, they Turn & Talk to discuss the same topic/question with someone different. Repeat this process a third time.

With each short conversation, students are hearing new perspectives, comparing their thinking to their peers, and deepening their own understanding. While students are engaged in the Timed Mingle, the teacher's role is to eavesdrop on conversations. Use these observations to clarify points or deepen understanding when reconvening the whole class.

Flexible Space
"Flexible seating" is a popular educational buzz word. But take this concept one step further and apply the notion of flexibility to the arrangement of the entire classroom space.

There are times when students could better engage within the content if they were positioned within the physical classroom differently. This requires moving the furniture. For example:

  • When shifting from teacher-led instruction to a whole-class conversation, adjust the desks to fit a Horseshoe configuration. This formation encourages students to talk to one another, rather than directing their remarks to the teacher. This is ideal for topics or questions that have many possible answers.
  • Before having students work in small groups, plan for a partnered conversation first. Utilize the Pair & Square setup when the content lends itself to different perspectives or interpretations. Assign half the pairs to think like Perspective A and the other half to think like Perspective B. Then, when combining two pairs to make a square (i.e., a four-person small group), they come to the conversation with different viewpoints. This deepens the students' discussions.
  • After small groups have discussed a topic, move one chair per group to the front of the room and execute A Time to Represent. One student per group reports out the ideas generated within their individual discussions. This activity works well when groups were brainstorming many possible details/examples around a single topic (e.g., describe characteristics of the moon). Each group lists as many known facts as they can in the provided time. Representatives each take a turn offering one detail at a time without repeating what was said by another group. This is a great technique to push students to think beyond their surface knowledge.
  • Independent reading is often followed by a peer conversation. However, if it's a whole-class discussion, then typically only a handful of kids participate. If it's several small-group conversations, then everyone isn't privy to all the groups' ideas. When wanting the intimacy of a small-group conversation, but the participation of the entire class, configure the room for a Fishbowl discussion. A small-group of students (i.e., the fish) are encircled by the rest of the class (i.e., the bowl). Although only the "fish" can talk about the topic/question, the observing students contribute by writing their thoughts, comments, evidence, and contradictions on scraps of paper. These are continually passed to the students in the inner circle under the guise of "feeding a fish." (Download a Powerpoint to introduce the procedures to students.)

Each of these shifts in the physical space corresponds with an instructional purpose. It's not for student entertainment--it's for engagement. This reiterates Katherine Mills Hernandez's definition that student engagement is doing something that facilitates learning.

For additional strategies that activate and engage student learning, check out this teacher resource.