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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Hinton

Active Learning is the Key to an Effective 21st-Century Education

An effective teacher must master the professional skills necessary to deliver a high-quality 21st-century education to their students. In this blog post, I will discuss the importance of active learning for an effective 21st-century education.

MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky once said that “it’s not important what is covered in a class; it is what students discover.” This approach to education should not be relegated to only students at elite institutions of higher learning. All students, k-16, should have the opportunity to tap into their natural-born curiosity through learning that ignites passion and a sense of wonder. In other words, students must possess agency in their learning and be actively engaged in the learning process. This is not a new idea. Progressive education reformer John Dewey called for changes to the public education system over 100 years ago. The 19th-century philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer believed that education should be an experiential process. Students should have the opportunity to take an active role in their learning. According to Dewey, the purpose of education is not just to teach students vast amounts of predetermined knowledge but to allow them to realize their full potential by using their knowledge and skills for the common good through the participation in democratic classrooms. As Dewey once said, “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning results naturally.”

Dewey is considered the father of “learning by doing” approaches to education. His “hands-on” and “student-centered” methods have given rise to a wide variety of pedagogical techniques that foster active learning, personalization, and collaboration.

Linda Darling Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the President and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, is a leading expert in education policy and practice. In her more than 500 articles and 25 published books, Hammond repeatedly points out that meaningful learning is achieved when students actively participate in their educations. According to Hammond, students learn best when engaged in creating, drawing, diagnosing, assessing, and solving problems. She points out that inquiry learning styles, such as project-based, design-based, and problem-based approaches, are highly effective ways to engage students.

Unfortunately, many students, especially in the upper grades, are seldom allowed to participate in their learning actively. Education is something that is done to them, rather than something that they do for themselves. Passive learning has led to an “engagement cliff” where students fall off the mountain of interest as they transition from elementary school to middle and high school. To illustrate the problem, a 2016 Gallop Poll of more than 3,000 schools across the country documented the steep decline of upper school engagement when it reported that 74 percent of surveyed fifth-graders said they were engaged in school. Only 32 percent of 11th graders reported being involved. According to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, there are many reasons why students grow bored of school. But perhaps the most significant reason they transition from the lower grades to the upper grades is that students in the lower grades spend a great deal of time participating in tactile and creative learning. In comparison, students in the higher grades receive instruction that is cerebral and regimented. In other words, education goes from being “child-centered to subject-centered.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the national high-school dropout rate for all races has decreased from 9.7 percent in 2006 to 5.3 percent in 2018. And while this is cause for celebration, there should still be concern about the 1.2 million students who left school early without earning a degree. That’s approximately one student every 26 seconds or 7,000 dropouts every day. A study conducted by Indiana University of more than 81,000 students in 110 high schools across 26 states, mainly in the Midwest, examined the dropout problem. And while not a national survey, the data is consistent with national trends in American education. In trying to determine why high school students disengage from school and entertain thoughts of dropping out, 73 percent of students responded, "I didn't like the school."Sixty-one percent said, "I didn't like the teachers." Sixty percent said, "I didn't see the value in the work I was being asked to do." When asked what students want to see change at school, overwhelmingly students responded that they want more interactive classes with activities that include interaction between teachers and peers. In other words, students want to be actively engaged in their learning, not passive bystanders.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post, I sincerely appreciate it. If you think this information would be beneficial to another educator, please consider sharing this post. Don't forget to sign up for my email list so that you do not miss future posts and content.

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1 Comment

Mary Alber
Mary Alber
May 21, 2021

Excellent blog, Jeffrey!! This is truly the crux of the transformation we need to empower all learners to thrive - and hence the communities and workplaces of which the they are a part. Key takeaway: "inquiry learning styles, such as project-based, design-based, and problem-based approaches, are highly effective ways to engage students."

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