A few simple tools, a small cash investment, and the support of my fellow educators made it possible for me to transform a borrowed classroom and incorporate active learning on a budget.
Building Active Learning in the Classroom
When I started teaching, I specialized in early childhood education and my students ranged in age from three to ten. Classes were open, chaotic, and extremely active. Teaching in small groups, lively discussions, hands-on activities, and non-traditional practices were the norm.
When I moved on to teaching in larger classrooms with older students, I noticed that many teachers were still using a passive curriculum. Classes relied heavily on lecture, note-taking, and homework to solidify learning concepts.
This isn't a method that works well for me.
To keep my students engaged, and myself enthused, I must move. I need to interact with them. I also feel they do better when they have free access to me and the ability get their hands dirty, so to speak.
Because I am often in the classroom as a guest or substitute teacher, I needed a way to get my lesson across effectively, with the least disruption to the classroom teacher's environment but in a way, that respected my own hands-on teaching style.
Big Ideas, Tiny Purses
Many of the schools I visit are small and without large budgets. The idea of asking them to buy new equipment for my classes would not only be unreasonable, it might cost me the appointment. Since I'm a firm believer in being self-sufficient and teaching my students to think outside the box, I sat down and asked myself a few questions:
- What do I want to accomplish?
- What teaching/instructive methods work well for me?
- What tools were available to engage the students?
- How could I make my classroom tools portable?
- What tools could I afford to supply myself?
To answer these questions, I researched information on active learning environments. I wanted to see what the experts recommended. What I found were beautifully designed mobile learning suites that allowed students to change the way they collaborated depending upon the lessons. They were wonderful, but not practical for my needs.
My research did give me a few ideas for classroom layout though. I learned how to make my classes more interactive, what supplies I could reasonably carry around with me, and simple techniques to involve my students on a higher level.
Portable Classroom on a Budget
I began by investing in a multi-level carry-all, much like those used to transport sewing machines. The large case was ideal for holding the thirty dry-erase boards I had purchased at our local discount store. Smaller cases held board cleaner, markers, and other small items I felt were necessary. A portfolio carried the activity sheets I had printed and laminated. The school was kind enough to allow me to print extra materials on their printers, saving me a little money.
Next, I reviewed my lessons. I added active-discussion questions, activities to allow the students to explore the topics freely, and a list of resources accessible from school-supplied technology. All the equipment was simple, cheap, mobile, and easy to repurpose into other classes as needed. I also made use of a wealth of free resources from sites like Teachers Pay Teachers, National Geographic, Khan Academy, and more.
For my first class, I delivered the usual lecture, lesson, and notes to my students. When I finished, I separated the desks into random groups. Students sat facing each other and collaborated on the assignment I gave them. I asked each group to take a section of the lesson we had just finished, and teach it to the class. The assignment was to develop a dynamic presentation using the tools I had given them (lecture, notes, online videos, etc.) to show what they had learned.
I circulated around the room to answer questions, intervening if needed to maintain classroom decorum, and provided moral support when my young charges required it. I had expected chaos, and there were certainly some students who were more energetic with their opinions, but overall, I was impressed with the hard work they put into their presentations.
When they shared their work, they demonstrated an impressive grasp of the material, as well as an excitement for the subject matter that hadn't been there before — and we did it on a tiny budget with only a few hours of planning on my part.
What I learned from the experiment, and from my students, was multi-levelled and incredibly important:
- Active learning requires flexibility
- Students don't need expensive tech to think
- Temporary changes work when permanent adjustments aren't possible
- Children are capable of more self-control than we give them credit for
While my experience hasn't mirrored the lofty training videos where everyone cooperated well, lessons were friction-free, and students learned in a sublime educational utopia devoid of conflict. I found it to be more useful than the staid classrooms methods I had used in the past.
Through teaching each other, my students gained many important benefits:
- They had a greater understanding of the material.
- They had better recall of the facts of the lesson.
- They displayed a greater enjoyment of the experience than they had before.
- They were more willing to police one another's behavior since it meant doing something interesting, rather than listening to me drone on.
While I cannot yet make permanent classroom changes to encourage active learning, simple, inexpensive changes, a little patience, and the support of fellow educators make it possible for even traveling teachers like myself to incorporate this beneficial learning practice.
I believe the benefits would be even greater for teachers capable of making permanent changes to their environment. Building learning centers that allowed students to explore concepts independently, providing access to more in-depth materials, creating smaller work groups, and building the lesson plan around active participation would give students and teacher the opportunity to really get involved in the lesson at hand. It's something I look forward to implementing very soon myself.